It isn't until one starts comparing engines that similarities emerge. Similarity -- following what the other guy does -- is both the foundation and the folly of the automobile business.

There's an internal combustion engine in every wheeled passenger vehicle sold by the world's volume automakers. Some automakers produce expensive vehicles, so one expects the parts that make them run to be equally extravagant. For automakers who produce everyday vehicles, the trick to the trade is offering something more than the customer expects, something beyond what the purely crass business equation says must be provided.

Better, then, to follow someone else's lead. Let them establish the ground rules and take the initial chances, then you play the game. Do it like that and you'll probably survive, but you're not likely to do anything special.

It's that way with engines. The most expensive collection of components in every vehicle, the engine likewise is the part with which the customer most "interacts." Get it right and the ever-demanding customer is satisfied; make it special and he's hooked for life.

That is what Ward's Best Engines awards are all about. Singling out automakers who craft engines (remember, the part the buyer most interacts with) that are special. Engines that deliver more than they perhaps really must. Engines that are symbolic of the automaker's devotion to fine engineering and quality manufacture.

For 1996, six Ward's editors nominated 29 different engines for the 1996 Best Engines Award. After judging them all against one another, the following are our Ten Best Engines of 1996.

3800 Series II V-6

There must be something special about an engine whose basic design has been employed since 1962 -- the year in which what has become General Motors Corp.'s 3800 Series II V-6 first saw the light of day.

Don Miles, chief engineer for the Series II and supercharged Series II says it's safe to assume the 3800 Series II will be around into the next century. That's a tribute to the inherent quality of the design, Mr. Miles believes, because most engines have a useful life of about 10 years "before there's nothing more that can be done."

As we noted when the 3800 Series II earned a place on last year's inaugural Best Engines list, much work has been done to reduce the 3800's reciprocating mass and frictional losses. The resulting engineering -- especially the reduction of combustion chamber and port variation -- imparted the dual benefit of reducing emissions and increasing fuel economy.

For 1996, the normally aspirated Series II is fitted to the Camaro/Firebird F cars, its first longitudinally mounted application. Besides the Buick LeSabre in which Ward's tested it, the 3800 Series II is offered in a variety of Buick and Oldsmobile Div. models. "We've got a versatile engine with a good balance of values, which makes it an excellent performer as both a luxury-car and sports-car engine," boasts Mr. Miles, who believes the 3800's versatility is one of its key features.

For this year's supercharged 3800 Series II, engineers added an extension to the Eaton-made unit that increases its displacement from 60 cu. ins. (1L) to 90 cu. ins. (1.5L). The increased size allows the supercharger to operate at somewhat lower speeds -- less rpm means cooler running -- which improves reliability. To add to the fun, the supercharged 3800 has been blessed with an additional 600 rpm of usable engine speed.

Mr. Miles says the most important part of the performance envelope, for normal drivers, is the 50- to 80-mph (30- to 50-km/h) passing ability. He claims the 1996 supercharged Series II can accelerate a vehicle from 50 mph to 80 mph in 8.7 seconds; the same run required 14.5 seconds in 1985. Fuel economy, meanwhile, also is dramatically improved over that of a decade ago.

It is the 3800 Series II's easy-going performance and effortless power delivery that once again won our test panel's votes. The much-maligned overhead-valve design provides inspired low- and midrange torque and deliciously instantaneous throttle response. Mr. Miles claims there's more power to be found in the 3800's iron lungs -- always welcome, but the 3800 Series II already is the best pushrod engine around.

Following a hard charge with the supercharged Series II, one Ward's tester penned the opinion of us all: "After driving the supercharged 3800 Series II, who really needs a V-8?"

Northstar 4.6L V-8

The Northstar 4.6L DOHC V-8, making its second consecutive appearance on the Ward's Best Engines list, has become symbolic of the engineering muscle GM brings to bear when it's of a mind to do so. The Northstar remains a state-of-the-art engine design and the most powerful engine available in a domestic luxury car.

Major service intervals of 100,000 miles (161,000 km) are augmented for 1996 with the addition of GM's new Dex-Cool coolant, which the automaker says is also good for 100,000 miles. In fact, the Northstar sometimes doesn't need Dex-Cool at all: one of the engine's most intriguing design features is its "limp home" mode that converts some of the cylinders to air pumps, keeping the all-aluminum Northstar cool enough to drive if all coolant is lost.

Sam Winegarden, Northstar chief engineer, says not much has been needed to keep the Northstar updated. "We went from a speed-density engine control system to a mass-airflow system (for 1996). This gives us refinement in the emissions-control and fuel-economy system," he says. The engine exhaust note also has been slightly retuned for 1996, and the Northstar's availability has been extended to the standard DeVille -- meaning every front-drive Cadillac now enjoys a Northstar powertrain.

The only driveability aspect that puts a slight hitch in the Northstar's otherwise outstanding performance is a slightly cranky idle quality and what some editors believe is an annoying amount of torque steer when the tractive force of 300 hp tries to fight its way through the front wheels. Wheelspin itself is never a problem, of course, thanks to the Northstar's slick and quick integrated traction control.

Members of the 1996 Best Engines panel were once again seduced by the Northstar's stunning power and generously broad torque curve. "Highway passing power is phenomenal," notes one staffer. "The STS hammers past slowpokes as if they're moving backwards. And nothing can stay with it if you want to keep your foot down."

Mr. Winegarden says the Northstar will continue as GM's "flagship" engine. "We're going to refine it, make the small, subtle changes that'll improve the already exceptional NVH, reliability and fuel economy." We also can look forward to a V-6 version of the Northstar to debut in 1997.

BMW 3L I-6, 4L V-8

BMW AG embellishes its reputation as a maker of some of the world's finest engines by returning two winners to the 1996 Best Engines competition.

At 282 hp, BMW's muscular 4L DOHC V-8 produces more than 70 hp/L, causing it to hold the highest specific output of any V-8 among this year's Ten Best. Last year, BMW engineers claimed the DOHC V-8 had the potential for considerable ongoing development, and they are true to their word. Later this year, BMW will release a larger, 4.5L engine for an all-new 5-Series that supplants the current 4L V-8.

BMW won't say how much more power the U.S.-specification version of the 4.5L engine will produce. A company insider, however, says that horsepower will not be dramatically increased, but peak torque will be much improved and develop over a wide rpm range. That would seem to answer our only true criticism of the otherwise potent 4L engine: a somewhat heavy flywheel effect that causes the engine to lag at low rpm.

"Quite a package," an editor noted of our BMW 540i Sport test vehicle, which mated a quick-acting 6-speed manual transmission to the 4L engine. BMW's smallish V-8 pulls impressively when the tachometer numbers get large, emitting a pleasing snarl-growl that is the hallmark of a BMW engine when the throttles open wide. No need to worry about putting all that seamless power through the rear wheels, either: the full-speed traction control system is a no-nonsense watchdog over how much power to deliver under any traction conditions.

Also back for its second Best Engines award is BMW's outstanding 3L inline 6-cyl. A glance at the steep power curve for this 240-hp speed-generator shows classic multivalve, DOHC tuning -- power increases in direct, almost linear progression with engine revolutions. Note the extremely flat torque curve, somewhat atypical of a multivalve engine. The expansive dose of usable torque comes from BMW's Variocam variable valve-timing system.

Although this inline engine definitely likes the revs, the Variocam arrangement keeps the overall power delivery from being race car-engine "peaky." And just like BMW's 4L V-8, the inline engine doles out lovely noises at any rpm. Add 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) acceleration of under 6 seconds and one understands why this engine -- the heart of the M3 package -- delights enthusiasts the world over.

"The smoothest-transitioning variable valve timing system of any VVT engine," says one editor, echoing how much every tester was impressed with this engine's brilliant mix of performance, fuel economy and gem-quality NVH levels. "The only drawback," the M3's logbook asserts, "is this car's rising price."

Those enthralled with the M3 may get more for their money this spring when the Bavarians launch a yet more powerful, 3.2L version of the M3's inline 6-cyl. for the 1997 M3. The U.S., says a BMW insider, won't get the 315 hp the Euro-spec 3.2L delivers, but the power output reportedly will take a healthy jump over the 3L's already stout 240 hp. We're checking on the condition of our driver's licenses already.

Nissan 3L V-6

"An important benchmark," quotes the logbook for Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s silken "VQ" 3L DOHC V-6. "The fact that this engine achieves what it does without variable valve timing, turbos or other `tricks' is crucial -- and makes the VQ very special."

The VQ's straightforward design -- reflecting a philosophy at Nissan to simplify componentry -- sees a 10% parts reduction over the iron-block 3L V-6 the VQ range replaces, with weight savings of more than 100 lbs. (45 kg). Similar weight reductions in the reciprocating masses and valvetrain also impart the 3L VQ with its whispering NVH levels. The same reductions are the primary contributors to this engine's almost eerie rev-happiness. Want to scream along in third gear at 80 mph (128 km/h) and 6,000 rpm? No problem -- the driver's hard-pressed to notice the difference between that 6,000 rpm and cruising in fifth gear at 2,000 rpm.

Nissan's intensely automated Iwaki assembly plant takes molten aluminum at one end and pops three versions of the VQ out the other. In between, the blocks are deburred by robots, the crankshafts are microfinished by robots and groups of two dozen engines ride a gleaming merry-go-round bench tester, simultaneously tested by robots. A full 70% of the entire VQ engine-making process is automated.

Such is the intense thought Nissan places in the VQ build process. Similar effort went into the VQ range's design and engineering -- and that's what makes the 3L VQ the best normally aspirated V-6 on the planet.

Mazda Miller-cycle 2.3L V-6

Mazda Motor Corp.'s 2.3L Miller-cycle V-6 enjoys its second consecutive year as one of Ward's Best Engines -- and appears well-placed to claim a long-standing spot.

Our testers once again marveled at the diminutive Miller-cycle engine's stunning synthesis of power and economy. The "Miller" pegged the needle on several staffers' scoring sheets, particularly in the areas of technical relevance, overall power and how well the engine works in the total vehicle "package."

"Everything -- and I mean everything -- considered, this engine is tops in my book," enthuses one Best Engines panel member, who endowed the Miller-cycle engine with perfect scores for power and torque, based on its small displacement and titanic 91 hp/L. It's agreed that if the Miller-cycle only produces 210 hp, then Japanese dynamometers must be tuned for pessimism.

Whatever the case, the 2.3L Miller-cycle makes seamless the rather complicated process of delaying intake-valve closing on each cylinder's compression stroke, reducing frictional and pumping losses associated with compression (and effectively abbreviating the compression stroke), while likewise permitting the retention of a full expansion stroke. Add the power-enhancing efforts of an efficient Lysholm screw-type supercharger and the Miller-cycle engine powers Mazda's Millenia with one of the highest specific output production engines available in the U.S.

Mazda may have troubles, but those problems don't extend to powertrain development. The Miller-cycle engine is technically exquisite and elegantly engineered, a tribute to technology whose relevance may take the automotive industry years to fully acknowledge.

Ford 4.6L V-8

Last year, Ford Motor Co. barely missed making our Best Engines list with its 4.6L DOHC V-8. A natural competitor to GM's Northstar and BMW's 4L V-8, not all the Ward's testers were sufficiently impressed by the Mark VIII -- at the time the only package offering the DOHC version of the modular V-8 -- and some believed this high-tech engine should deliver more than the "mild" 260 hp in the standard Mark.

Ford's changed that this year with a high-specification, 305-hp 4.6L for the 1996 Mustang Cobra. Reworked intake plumbing with long and short runners that provide for maximum torque and volumetric efficiency and a low-restriction exhaust are the primary power-enhancing tricks over SOHC versions of the 4.6L.

But that doesn't include all the exquisite details, like oval-shaped valve springs that save a minuscule amount of weight over round springs, or the elaborate engineering at the engine's bottom end -- the sort of stuff that would make an Indycar engine builder squeal with rapture.

The fun part of the exercise is that the Ford guys have managed to make this overhead cam engine throw the power down in the tradition of pushrod-packing musclecars of the past. It doesn't hurt that the Cobra comes agunnin' with a 5-speed manual transmission -- the first such coupling for the modular V-8 -- but engineers even changed the manifold's air intake to make this engine sound more like a ponycar should. "Titanic in all speed ranges," said the 4.6L's logbook, "this ultra-sophisticated engine in a ponycar is pure magic."

Non-hotrodders needn't despair, as Ford's also seen fit to apply some of the Cobra engine mods to make a 280-hp Mark VIII this year, de-mothballing the LSC designation for the new, higher-powered Mark. But it's the righteous 305-hp Cobra engine that swings Ford's all-aluminum modular V-8 onto 1996's Best Engines list.

Honda 2.2L VTEC 1-4

One leaves the Honda Prelude VTEC with one concrete impression: that of driving the closest thing to a full-go race car that's allowed on the street.

Yes, the 2.2L VTEC 4-cyl. has Honda's wonderfully crafted variable valve-timing arrangement that alters intake and exhaust valve timing to provide optimum efficiency over a wide rpm band. But the secondary benefit, when the VTEC system switches into the high-rpm mode, is the feral wail of highly tuned mechanicals laboring with just one devilish goal -- brutal acceleration. It's a symphony worthy of Wagner himself.

Along with the joyous aural gifts, VTEC provides this amazing engine with a vigorous specific output: 86 hp per liter. Although Honda employs the VTEC arrangement for a variety of purposes, including increased fuel economy, it is the sportscar-tuning of the 2.2L VTEC that makes the most lasting impression.

The Prelude, like most sports cars/coupes, isn't selling well these days. If the `Lude has to go away someday, Honda, please find a home for this most invigorating -- and suprisingly economical -- engine.

Saab LPT 2.3L 1-4

Spending considerable time with Saab Automobile AB's Light-Pressure Turbo (LPT) 2.3L inline 4-cyl. leaves the Best Engines judges with immense respect for the engineering conviction Saab lavishes on its powertrains. Who would have thought dialing-back the boost pressure in a turbocharged engine would have such fulfilling results?

The engine wizards at Saab obviously knew what they were doing with the LPT: one hardly misses the turbo blast of Saab's full-pressure engines when they come on boost. Instead, the LPT serves up a linear dollop of energy enhancement meant to mimic the power delivery of a larger, normally aspirated engine. It works.

"So smooth, so creamy," writes a Best Engines editor. "This (the 9000 CS model) is a large car -- it accelerates in a way that makes it difficult to believe there's only a 4-cyl. engine out there."

The smaller turbocharger fitted to the LPT also reduces the sometimes-annoying "lag" from which larger turbos suffer. Add in Saab's hallowed Trionic 32-bit engine-management system and true direct ignition, with a coil piggybacked atop each spark plug, and the DOHC LPT is a technology-packed powerplant worthy of any upmarket vehicle.

Toyota 3L V-6

A freshman to the Ward's Best Engines list, Toyota Motor Co. Ltd.'s 3L DOHC V-6 is a mainstay of the Toyota line. Standard equipment in the Avalon and Lexus ES300, the 1MZ-FE is optional in the Camry.

Some testers reckon Toyota's DOHC V-6 is the "gold standard" of the affordable sedan market. It's not too flashy in its specification or technology; no, the 3L V-6 is simply a finely honed example of current mainstream multivalve-engine development. Like so much of what Toyota does, there's a quiet, competent subtlety to this engine, a powerplant that delivers everything required yet often remains in the background.

Not flashy, maybe, but Toyota didn't hold back on the 3L V-6's basic engineering. There's a fancy direct-ignition system, a hot-wire mass airflow meter, reduced-friction reciprocating components and a structure-stiffening aluminum oil pan to augment the rigid aluminum cylinder block.

Toyota engineers pay special attention to the combustion chamber and pistons, reducing the "squish" area between the top of the piston and the upper piston ring, a region where unburned hydrocarbons (HC) are known to roam. Combined with good-swirling intake air routed through upright intake runners, the design conspires to produce a very low emissions profile.

Admirable as that is, it was the 1MZ-FE's snappy throttle response and snarly midrange acceleration that won our testers' votes. This engine is so downright competent in just about every subjective measure that finding fault with it is an exercise in frustration. Factor in Toyota's earned reputation for Gibraltar-like reliability and this volume-produced V-6 can stand with any 6-cyl. engine in the world.