The most innovative vehicles frequently are born from desperation.
When companies’ backs are to the wall, they throw the rulebook out the window and summon their best efforts to create game-changing cars and trucks.
But as car buffs gush over the impact of vehicles inspired by do-or-die situations – from the sleek ’49that saved the auto maker from ruin after World War II to ’s front-drive minivans of the 1980s and even the recent edgy designs that rescued Cadillac – the role of engines often is ignored.
Henry’s 1909 Model T would have gone nowhere if its 20-hp 2.9L 4-cyl. was not easy for shade-tree mechanics to repair and engineered to be manufactured at low cost.
’ Cadillac Div. may never have lasted past the 1940s if it were not for its innovative V-8s that started defining the brand in 1915.
And, without its small-block V-8s, GM might never have dominated the second-half of the 20th century.
, which always has made engines central to its brand character, likely would be just another Mercedes wannabe if it were not for its superlative inline-6s.
“The people’s car” would have been nobody’s car without Ferdinand Porsche’s brilliant air-cooled, horizontally opposed 4-cyl. that made theBeetle the most enduring car ever.
Almost overnight,transformed itself in 1975 from a motorcycle maker trying to break into the car business to a global auto maker to be reckoned with when it introduced its Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) 4-cyl. engine that did not need a catalytic converter to meet the U.S.’ stringent new emissions standards.
More recently, the modern-day Hemi V-8 arguably reinvigorated– and its bottom line – more than its now-famous 300 sedan.
Then there is’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, a powertrain that has transformed the auto maker’s image far beyond the automotive and consumer world and permanently changed the discussion about energy and transportation issues.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show, GM Chairman Rick Wagoner announced another big step in vehicle- and company-defining powertrains: a commitment to build a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle.
Whether PHEVs take off or end up in the same historical scrap heap as steam cars and GM’s pure-electric EV-1 remain to be seen.
No matter. GM has to move forward. As vehicles, and the companies that produce them, increasingly are defined by their powertrains, auto makers must continue to invest in innovative engines as if their survival depends on it, because it does.
And, with the Ward's 10 Best Engines competition, now in its 13th year, we promise to continue to recognize those efforts. Believe it or not, we are not doing this just for fun.