It wasn’t all that long ago any engineering effort made to wring 100 hp/L out of a mass-market automobile engine might have been considered tilting at windmills.

Now it’s practically the price of admission.

An analysis of the power outputs of the 38 engines and vehicles that made the list of nominees for this year’s round of Ward’s 10 Best Engines testing indicates horsepower and torque are on the rise, and to improve the chances of your engine making the final cut, you’d better tattoo the specifications list with something close to 100 hp/L.

Then underline it and circle it in red.

The Ward’s nominees list averages 251.1 hp overall, good for an impressive 86.6 hp/L. But the 10 winners pack an even bigger punch at 263.4 hp overall and a whopping 94.1 hp/L. (Note: Average horsepower figures include the all-electric Nissan Leaf, while hp/L figures do not.)

Of the nine winners on the Best 10 list that carry an internal-combustion engine onboard, five boast 100 hp/L ratings or better, including the champ Mini Coopers at 113 hp/L.

Related document: 10 Best Power Ratings

Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

This year’s winners boast a big step up in power from the 2010 Best Engines list, which averaged 88.1 hp/L, only slightly ahead of the 87.5 rating in 2006. Ten years ago, the winners averaged just 74.5 hp/L.

Turbochargers, superchargers and direct injection are the primary drivers to specific outputs past the 100 hp/L bogey, but the Chevrolet Volt’s 106/hp/L rating shows electricity may have a key role to play in the future, as well.

Overall torque ratings also have risen sharply. Our 38 nominees averaged 255.8 lb.-ft. (346.8 Nm), only slightly behind the 259.8 lb.-ft. (352.2 Nm) of last year’s 10 Best. But this year’s winners pump out an average 286.9 lb.-ft. (389.0 Nm), leaving the 2001 awardees – averaging 237.3 lb.-ft. (321.7 Nm) – in the dust.

In addition to pure power, Ward’s judges still favor more cylinders than fewer. Both our 38 nominees and our final 10 winners averaged 5.2 cylinders each. But if you knock the Leaf out of the equation, the remaining IC engines on the 10 Best list average 5.8 cylinders. That’s well above 5.0 last year and close to the 5.8 average for the 2001 winners’ list in an era of carefree gasoline prices.

Best Engines Power Outputs
Year HP HP/L Torque
2001 217.4 74.5 237.3
2006 277.8 87.5 271.4
2010 243.6 88.1 259.8
2011 263.4 94.1 286.9
2011N 250.0 89.0 256.0
Note: Figures are averages for the 10 Best Engines for each year.
2011N shows averages for 37 nominee engines.

Here are a couple of other interesting factoids resulting from our numbers crunching:

  • Twelve of the nominees – a full 32% of the list – are direct-injected gasoline engines, and four ended up among the winners, up from three year-ago.
  • Six of the 38 tested have some sort of electrification component and 15 include forced induction.
  • The engine with the top specific output among the 38 tested is the 137 hp/L Hyundai Sonata 2.0L turbo, but there were four other engines rated above 110 hp/L and 14 topping 98 hp/L.

And before you attack us for our power-before-fuel-economy stance, consider this: Bolstered by the Leaf and Volt, the 10 Best average 36.7/42.2 mpg (6.4-5.6 L/100 km) city/highway. That’s well ahead of last year’s 25.9/32.6 mpg (9.1-7.2 L/100 km) rating and an historic high.

Ward's 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward's Automotive Group.