FARMINGTON HILLS, MI — It started innocently enough in Japan at a Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. advanced-powertrain discussion in 1990. Engineers believed the company needed to replace its iron-block V-6 engines with a new-generation V-6 design that would be lighter and markedly more emissions-friendly.

Five years of painstaking development later, Nissan launched the first of its all-new “VQ” modular V-6 engine family. The VQ's development was initiated to satisfy pragmatic engineering dictates, and it seems nobody at Nissan predicted the VQ's far-reaching impact on the softer side of the business.

It turned out the 3L DOHC VQ was one fabulous V-6 to drive. So special, in fact, that in 1994 when I first experienced the all-new 3L VQ fitted in the redesigned '95 Maxima, I was, to borrow a phrase from Dennis Hopper, “blown away.”

The VQ — along with another spectacular V-6 launched that year, Mazda Motor Corp.'s 2.3L Miller-cycle engine — convinced me that the industry was poised for a renaissance in powertrain development, one driven by huge advances in design, manufacturing and electronics. Nissan's launch of the VQ precipitated the idea that evolved as the Ward's 10 Best Engines awards.

In an unhurried Japanese restaurant here last November, I'm a little troubled because it's now clear that Nissan is all but discontinuing the 3L VQ — the engine that inspired Ward's 10 Best Engines.

Motohiro Matsumura, having lunch with me that day, isn't nearly as misty eyed. He views things in hard terms — as you might expect from a man who started five years ago as the VQ family's manager of engineering, working specifically on the direct-injection versions of the engine sold only in Japan. Only months ago, he was reassigned here to be manager of technology planning, engine testing and emission certification, at Nissan's North American technical center.

“The market always needs more, more, more,” he comforts me, saying that the 3.5L VQ V-6 taking the original 3L engine's place simply is the natural evolution of providing what buyers want.

He reminds me about the subtle “generations” through which the original 3L evolved: first, the original concept that called for an all-alloy construction, weight-optimized reciprocating masses and microfinished internal components, all teaming for the free-revving VQ “signature.”

Then in '98, the 3L VQ got a variable intake manifold and variable-backpressure muffler, good for a 32 hp to 37 hp increase.

Now, the 3L displacement is discontinued, says Matsumura, in most world markets. The more powerful, even torquier 3.5L VQ35DE-K2 takes its place.

He says that although the original VQ achieved considerable acclaim, the development program never considered external critical review as a factor.

I leave lunch surprised that Matsumura-san isn't more nostalgic about discontinuing the original VQ. As with the many engineers connected with the VQ I've encountered over the years, he is humble to a fault, proud only of the fact that the original design brief was acute enough that eight years later, the VQ continues as a world-class effort.

For me, though, I'll always remember that first Arizona drive with the original VQ. Maybe I'll ask to borrow senior editor Tom Murphy's '96 Maxima tonight — just for old time's sake.