The warning signs started the minute the Audi S4 appeared on our doorstep.

Judges would show up after a long lunch with illegal smiles, giggling like kindergartners.

You know what I’m talking about: cubic-inch madness: Hundreds of lbs.-ft. of torque available at about 5 rpm. It’s addictive, and I watched helplessly as a majority of our judging panel was seduced.

I kicked the habit in the early 1980s, when gas prices were the equivalent of about $3 per gallon. During a visit to a secret location, a friend at General Motors Corp. pulled the top off a crate and showed me a mothballed 454 cu. in. engine with twin turbos that was designed in the muscle-car era.

Judge Drew Winter

We had a good cry because it never got built. Then I wiped my eyes and got over it.

There still is no substitute for cubic inches. Putting a big V-8 in a small car always will be a good strategy for creating stellar performance, whether you’re based in Europe, Japan, or Detroit. But let’s not confuse a proven formula with benchmark innovation.

The Audi S4 is the best car I’ve driven all year, but I’m not sure its powerplant deserves 10-Best status, especially because of it’s appalling fuel economy: 14/20 mpg (16.8L/11.8 100 km.) There are V-8 powered SUVs with the same or better numbers.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co.’s 23E (2.3L Environmental) in the Ford Focus did not make our final cut. The 23E is an economical and environmentally friendly engine that is very satisfying to drive. It’s rated a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) in five states and nearly that everywhere else.

In states where fuel is clean enough, it achieves Tier II, Bin 2 emissions (compared with Bin 8 for the standard 2L offered in Ford Focus) and has a 15-year/150,000-mile (240,000-km) warranty on emissions-related equipment.

It’s technical significance was criticized by some because much of the pollution reduction is related to fuel system evaporative emissions – solved largely by replacing a plastic fuel tank with a steel one. However, the 23E also is 40 lbs. (18 kg) lighter than the Focus’ standard 2L I-4 and features many other small innovations in its pistons and valvetrain.

In a humble way, Ford’s 23E breaks more ground than the slick Audi V-8. While the journalism community is wetting its pants over expensive hybrid technology, here is a clean little engine that’s economical to build as well as to drive, and gets a very respectable 25/33 mpg (9.4l/7.1L/100 km) city/highway.

The 23E is the future; the Audi V-8 – seductive as it may be – is just a well-executed formula from our past.

dwinter@primediabusiness.com