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Ten Best Engines logoWard’s 10 Best Engines

Judges’ Remarks

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Hear that? It’s the sound of driving instructors everywhere banging their heads against a wall.

Since the invention of the clutch pedal, we have been taught, lectured and harangued about driving sensibly; that smoothness is next to godliness and jackrabbit starts are the stock-in-trade of fools/idiots/jerks. (Pick one or add your own.)

However, such lessons usually go in one ear and tumble out of a resonator mated to something like BMW AG’s elegant 3.0L I-6 or Mazda Motor Corp.’s thrusty 2.3L I-4 turbo – both among Ward’s 10 Best Engines for 2007.

Why is it so hard to lift that right foot? Because the pull from these and other noteworthy mills such as Audi’s brawny 4.2L V-8 and even Honda Motor Co. Ltd.’s frisky 1.5L I-4, can be intoxicating.

But in today’s politically charged climate of volatile gasoline prices and heightened environmental awareness, no guilty pleasure goes unpunished. Increasingly, the guilt trips come courtesy of auto makers themselves.

A growing array of lights, messages and elaborate graphic displays give instantaneous feedback about the effects of throttle inputs – information that can alternately inspire or humble.

My experience with the Toyota Camry Hybrid, a near-miss in the minds of some Best Engines judges, mostly provided the latter.

The car’s 2.4L I-4 with Toyota Motor Corp.’s trademark Hybrid Synergy Drive should generate combined city/highway performance of about 39 mpg (6.0 L/100 km). Despite the detailed data afforded by animations on Camry Hybrid’s display screen, I fell short with 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km).

But by modulating my inputs during expressway driving, I almost succeeded in draining the battery’s charge as I trundled along for a considerable distance on electric power alone; and at speeds over 50 mph (80 km/h)!

Less precise was the Saturn Vue Green Line’s “eco light.” A simple yellow light on this hybrid’s instrument cluster, it illuminates when the powertrain reaches peak efficiency.

But finicky throttle calibration made sustained illumination impossible. Right foot goes down, light goes off.

The upshot here is these features connect motor and motorist like never before and encourage the behavior espoused by those beleaguered driving instructors. And that’s a good thing.

Consider Chrysler Group’s 5.7L Hemi V-8 and its cylinder-deactivating Multi-Displacement System.

At highway speeds, the engine transitions smoothly from 8-cyls. to 4-cyls., at which time the words “Fuel Saver Mode” appear on the instrument cluster. But like the Saturn Vue Green Line, maintaining peak efficiency is a chore – unless you settle in behind a large tractor-trailer.

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Do you hear something?

emayne@wardsauto.com