Closing in on a decade of Ward's 10 Best Engines competitions, 2003 represents the ninth installment of the auto industry's first awards program to annually recognize outstanding engine performance.

Since its inception in 1995, Ward's 10 Best Engines has evolved into an influential gauge of powertrain engineering and development prowess. Auto makers — and the suppliers who furnish often substantial engineering and production resources to major engine programs — each year seem to more vigorously pursue 10 Best Engines' honors. This, we believe, contributes to a continually heightened level of engineering competitiveness that benefits all.

A glance at the 10 Best list reveals another matter that's no coincidence: None of the winning engines is fitted in a vehicle that's selling poorly or is otherwise ill-regarded. In fact, most of this year's 10 Best Engines power some of the market's best-performing vehicles — on the road and on the sales charts. Chalk up one for the camp that says great vehicles don't happen without great engines.

This year's winners form an intriguing 10 Best list where 4-cyl. engines outnumber V-8s, three engines are of the resurgent I-6 layout and three employ forced induction.

Ward's editors nominated 29 engines for Best Engines consideration; you'll find a brief synopsis of the other engines tested on p.47. All must be available in regular production '03 vehicles, and all are judged against one another — there are no categories or other means of artificial competition.

Eligible engines also must be fitted in vehicles with a base price of less than $52,500, a modest 5% increase from the original $50,000 price cap that has been in place since 1995.


Engine type: 3.2 DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 3,246
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 87 × 91
Horsepower (SAE net): 333 @ 7,900 rpm
Torque: 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm @ 4,900 rpm
Specific output: 104 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11.5:1
Application tested: M3

When you slobber over an engine that makes 225 hp and 214 lb.-ft. (290 Nm) of torque, what do you do for an upgraded version of the same engine that adds an incredible 108 hp?

You see our superlative-deficit dilemma, then, with BMW AG's mighty M3 engine. Like its lesser-powered 3L brother, it enjoys all the straight-6 attributes that have over the years turned our judges into veritable BMW engine groupies, yet increases horsepower to such an intoxicating level that we can't even pretend impartiality.

Because of the BMW's Motorsports Div.-tuned 3.2L DOHC I-6, the 10 Best Engines process has mutated into this: Nominate 30 or so engines. Test for six weeks. Then select nine of the best, because a win for the M-modified 3.2L is as automatic as blinking your eye.

There's more power than most V-8s that have 50% more displacement. The 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm) of torque — much of it available throughout the rev range thanks to the double-VANOS variable valve timing — balances the high-strung ponies with the authentic shove for which power-producing revs just can't substitute.

After all that, there's the deep satisfaction of BMW's hallmark inline 6-cyl. refinement, the factor that makes this engine so desirable in everyday driving. Don't fancy a thousand runs to the redline? Troll around with the 3.2L M-engine whirring up front like the piston-driven Rolex that it is.

Like toddler love, this engine can demand attention: The straight-6, when backed by the 6-spd. manual, doesn't tolerate a lazy, cell phone-distracted step off the clutch — it will stall.

And if equipped with BMW's intriguing Sequential Manual Gearbox — which eliminates the clutch and substitutes a sequential-shift actuator for the standard gearlever — the powertrain borders on being termed “high-maintenance,” which is exactly opposite of the desired effect.

But we're talking engines — not gearboxes. And whenever you're talking engines, if you're not talking about BMW's stunning 3.2L straight-6, you're really not talking engines.


Engine type: 3L DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 2,979
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 84 × 89.6
Horsepower (SAE net): 225 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 214 lb.-ft. (290 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Specific output: 75 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10.2:1
Application tested: 330 Ci

The company with “Motoren” as its middle name continues the second longest-running streak of Ward's 10 Best Engines awards with its always awesome 3L inline 6-cyl.

In some form or another, a BMW straight-6 has been a 10 Best winner each year since the competition began in 1995.

If the bombastic Motorsports division-tuned 3.2L variant — another longtime squatter on the 10 Best Engines list — is a stun grenade wearing an Armani suit (see above), this “everyday” iteration of BMW AG's hallmark engine is a bit less volatile, slightly more approachable.

See, beneath that anywhere-on-the-tach refinement, BMW's 3L inline 6-cyl. always is ready to spin its heart out, slashing for the (too low) redline and taunting you to grab the next gear. At lower speeds, throttle tip-in is superb and direct, while the gearing, regardless of whether it's automatic or manual, simply seems a natural extension of this engine's intensely broad and satisfying powerband.

At higher speeds, one begins to appreciate the unassailable balance of the inline-6 design: this engine feels as if it could hum along at 5,000 rpm for decades, so vibration-free that one is convinced BMW engineers finally have perfected the magnetically levitated crankshaft.

Fully open the electronically actuated throttle, and the reward is the delicious inline-6 snarl that no other engine format can replicate.

Some V-6s can sound healthy, and there's usually no shame in the noises uttered by a good V-8, but the sonorous rip of BMW's I-6s is a delight to anyone who professes any affinity for fine machinery.

Several Best Engines testers say if there's one engine they had to choose to live with for the next 10 years, this would be it.

The 225 hp is stout enough to handle any 6-cyl. challengers, and the '01 model year's bump in displacement from 2.8L to today's 3L — along with inclusion of the excellent double-VANOS infinitely variable valve timing — plumped the low- and mid-range torque to make it markedly more flexible for U.S. driving conditions.

Step in at 80 mph (129 km/h) and that tidy row of six cylinders churns out twist that shames many V-8s.

As always, we'd like to see another 1,000 usable rpm, particularly when we know the 3.2L M variant, also a winner this year, handles in excess of 8,000 rpm, and this engine cheerfully hammers its rev limiter at every opportunity.

And although Best Engines judges are universally satisfied with the blend of performance and driveability, the V-6 competition again is beginning to post horsepower numbers that exceed this engine's 225-hp output by a healthy margin.

Before, BMW engineers knew this engine had to cross well into 200-hp territory to compete.

But a 3-Series with the 3L DOHC I-6 has evolved into such a remarkable all-around implement, maybe this time BMW will stick with outstanding performance and let the V-6s chase the inline-6 refinement benchmark.

Then again, we wouldn't argue with another 20 hp.


Engine type: 5.7L OHV 90-degree V-8
Displacement (cc): 5,654
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 99.5 × 90.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 345 @ 5,400 rpm
Torque: 375 lb.-ft. (509 Nm) @ 4,200 rpm
Specific output: 61 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Dodge Ram HD

Take one part remembrance of good ol'-fashioned 1960s muscle.

Second ingredient: one of the hands-down best engine “brands” ever.

Add an equal portion of no-nonsense engineering and development.

Blend it all with the tuned-in marketing for which DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group has a penchant.

Then serve it up in a brilliant engine-centric advertising campaign that you've just gotta love.

That's the recipe for launching the '03 Hemi Magnum 5.7L V-8, the new-generation reincarnation of the fabled Hemi V-8 of the muscle-car past.

Look past the wonderful ad that has the two impressionable yokels asking, “Hey, that thing got a Hemi?” and you see that there's more to the new-age Hemi than marketing “spin” and one of the truly great engine names of all time.

The 5.7L Hemi Magnum design borrows heavily from the past, and updates it to generate class-leading horsepower and torque. At 345 hp from 5.7L — that rounds off to 61 hp/L — the Hemi whips its two closest rivals, General Motors Corp.'s 6L Vortec H.O. 6000 (58 hp/L) and Ford Motor Co.'s upcoming 5.4L 3-valve Triton overhead cammer (56 hp/L). Hemi's 375 lb.-ft. (508 Nm) of torque falls only 5 lb.-ft. (7 Nm) short of GM's larger Vortec and slightly betters its smaller Ford rival, which develops 365 lb.-ft. (495 Nm).

Chrysler engineers studied the advantages of the past Hemi design, says Robert Lee, director, Rear Wheel Drive Engine Engineering-Powertrain Product Team. In the late 1930s, Chrysler experimented with hemispherically shaped combustion chambers for a V-16 aircraft engine. That work led to the first production automotive Hemi, a V-8 in 1951 that actually went by the name FirePower.

Engineers discovered the hemispherically shaped combustion chamber optimized volumetric efficiency and enabled an opposed valve layout, a departure for the then-norm of inline valves for V-8s. The layout of two opposed valves provided for larger valve area and increased crossflow — all of which yielded more power.

The theories behind the original Hemi — it was summarily banned from stock-car racing after its first dominating year — are fully applicable for a contemporary V-8, asserts Lee, waving off critics who question spending valuable engineering cash to develop an all-new V-8 that employs just two valves per cylinder, activated by pushrods, instead of the overhead cam/3- and 4-valve arrangements favored by Ford and all import brands.

Lee insists one of the new Hemi's most endearing qualities is its simplicity when compared with overhead-cam/multivalve layouts. When developing the new Hemi, Lee says his team studied a variety of valvetrain designs. “I was looking for airflow,” he says. “Get airflow and you can make power.”

The '03 Hemi Magnum 5.7L V-8 does just that, not to mention delivering a positively terrific burble at idle that turns to a serious V-8 bawl when one demands full opening from the electronic throttle.

The new-age Hemi isn't all simplicity: There are nods to modern niceties such as the dual-sparkplug ignition and the gorgeous Siemens Automotive-made integrated air/fuel module that combines 26 individual components into one, as well as Chrysler's first use of electronic throttle control for a rear-drive vehicle.

Yes, we've been privy to carping that the marketing arm's desire to resurrect the Hemi name overlooked the fact that the new Hemi Magnum's combustion chambers perhaps don't exactly represent a truly hemispherical, 180-degree dome. But we'll allow a little license: The new Hemi is 41% more powerful, churns out 12% more torque and is about 10% more fuel efficient than the 5.9L OHV V-8 it replaces. That's a lot of improvement.

Besides, who could deny the genius of reviving such a glorious engine name?

FORD MOTOR CO. Power Stroke 6L OHV V-8 turbodiesel

Engine type: 6L OHV 90-degree turbodiesel V-8
Displacement (cc): 5,954
Block/head material: cast iron/cast iron
Bore × stroke (mm): 95 × 104.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 325 @ 3,300 rpm
Torque: 560 lb.-ft. (759 Nm) @ 2,000 rpm
Specific output: 54 hp/L
Compression ratio: 17:1
Application tested: F-Series Heavy Duty

If you've looked through the 10 Best package, you've found plenty of discussion about diesels. But don't think it's just Ward's atop the soapbox — pro-diesel industry rhetoric has rapidly accelerated over the past year.

Chrysler Group President and CEO Dieter Zetsche announced in December that his company would sell a diesel-powered Jeep Liberty in the U.S. beginning in 2004. This, following a public indication from the powerful California Air Resources Board that it's preparing to re-evaluate its longstanding conviction that diesels are not good for air quality.

Ford Motor Co.'s all-new Power Stroke 6L turbodiesel V-8 wins a 2003 Ward's 10 Best Engines award not because it's a diesel accessible to everyone, but because it's the best current example of how good a diesel can be when the best of current diesel technologies converge.

Engineered, developed and built with Ford's longtime partner International Truck and Engine Corp., the Power Stroke is state-of-the-art. The excellent International-developed hydraulic-assist direct fuel injection generates as much as 26,000 psi (1,800 bar) pressure at the injector.

Ultra-high injection pressures are the key to enabling new-age turbodiesels such as the Power Stroke to achieve drastic emissions reductions (20% less oxides of nitrogen [NOx] compared with Power Stroke's 7.3L predecessor), as well as unique injection strategies that generate once-unimagined power and torque.

The new-technology fueling systems allow multiple short-duration injection events for each combustion cycle, which drastically cuts the hallmark diesel “clatter.” Still, judges said there's lots of room for improvement in this area during cold starts.

Ford and International also specified the latest in turbocharger design, an electronically controlled unit that employs engine hydraulics to vary the impeller vane angles. At low speed, the vanes closely align to spin the impeller as quickly as possible, minimizing lag. The engine management system coordinates the vane positions relative to the multitude of other powertrain inputs.

The cooled exhaust gas recirculation system, says Charles Freese, Ford chief engineer for diesel engines, was vital to achieving the cooler peak cylinder temperatures that enable nationwide emissions compliance and the hefty NOx cut in relation to the outgoing Power Stroke.

Meanwhile, the 4-valve-per-cylinder layout delivers increased airflow, which is crucial to the new Power Stroke's class-leading 325 hp and 560 lb.-ft. (759 Nm) of torque.

Those numbers are manna to buyers of medium-duty pickups, but sources agree the sophisticated components and electronic controls heaped on today's modern diesels make it laughably easy to dial in that extra 10-15 horses or lb.-ft. necessary to win the sales-brochure race.

What impressed Best Engines judges was the startling ease with which the Power Stroke accelerates a 3-ton pickup. In many driving situations, its awesome torque makes Ford's F-350 feel like a Mustang.

Thundering along effortlessly with fast-moving traffic isn't the only payoff: The 6L delivers 8% to 10% better fuel economy than the larger 7.3L predecessor.

Ford and International prove with the new Power Stroke that “diesel” and “performance” no longer are mutually exclusive terms. U.S. drivers are ready to receive that message.


Engine type: 4.2L DOHC I-6
Displacement (cc): 4,160
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 93 × 102
Horsepower (SAE net): 275 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 270 lb.-ft. (373 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Specific output: 65 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: GMC Envoy

Rule No.7 from the Best Engines judging manual states: “Any inline 6-cyl. engine shall enjoy unfair dispensation because it is an inherently wonderful layout.”

For 2003, Ward's editors concoct a corollary: “Any inline 6-cyl. fitted in a truck, SUV or any beast prone to ill-refinement shall enjoy extra-special dispensation.”

Until now, the straight-6 engine was all but forgotten for trucks and/or SUVs (yes, letter-writers, we remember Jeep soldiers on with its 4L I-6). But last year, General Motors Corp. enjoyed wide acclaim when it pointed its all-new Vortec 4200 4.2L I-6 north/south in its new midsize SUVs. The Vortec proved a snappy, thrusty powerplant, with an excellent balance of power and refinement. GM engineers took advantage of the straight-6 attributes, and the result was a lock for a 10 Best Engines award.

Chief Engineer Ron Kociba and his crew aren't sitting around pasting the press clippings into their memory albums, though. For '03, the Vortec 4200 comes with a slight bump in horsepower, from last year's 270 hp to the new 275-hp rating, peaking at the same rpm. Along with the new power are several detail refinements, including polymer-coated pistons that improve durability and reduce noise, an upgraded cylinder-head gasket and a recalibrated engine management system.

GM also says the variable valve timing for exhaust valves has expanded authority, now retarding exhaust-cam timing a maximum of 24 degrees, instead of the previous 20-degree max.

All of this is unseen, changing nothing about the Vortec's outstanding drivability and throttle response. And its all-aluminum construction makes for a truck that's noticeably nicer to steer than one toting an iron-block V-8. Kociba asserts one of the design priorities was to achieve V-8 power in a lighter, more-refined package.

“What a treat to get in an SUV and experience such immediate throttle response,” says one Best Engines judge. The Vortec 4200 savors each run for the redline, revving with a feel of an engine unfettered by friction. For those bored with the powertrain state-of-the-art for most mainstream SUVs, the Vortec 4200 isn't a breath of fresh air, it's a damn F5 tornado.

So let's see this gem in a car, GM. We'll take that with a manual transmission, too.


Engine type: 3L 60-degree SOHC V-6
Displacement (cc): 2,997
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 86 × 86
Horsepower (SAE net): 240 @ 6,250 rpm
Torque: 212 lb.-ft. (287 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
Specific output: 80 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: Accord EX

It's not that we haven't liked Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s previous V-6s. It's just that Honda earned its stripes for marvelously engineered, lovingly built 4-cyl. engines.

It was only eight years ago that we saw the first V-6 ever in a Honda-badged vehicle; its unassuming power density and general deportment left little doubt that Honda engineers believed it almost blasphemous anyone would need anything more than a snappy, highly tuned 4-cyl. The V-6 seemed almost to counter the Honda philosophy.

Honda's become more marketing-cognizant in the last several years, and any notion of covering the U.S. market without a full deployment of V-6s has been dispatched. The Honda V-8, however, remains elusive. Among Japan's big three auto makers, Honda remains the only one without a V-8.

With the launch of '03's revised 3L SOHC V-6, we now consider Honda fully engaged in the battle for V-6 supremacy. In one thrust, Honda delivers a 20% power boost over its previous 3L engine, almost 10% more torque and 80 hp/L power density that rockets it to the top of the class. In comparable sedan applications, the once-sleepy Honda V-6 now pounds out the same power developed by Nissan's superlative VQ V-6 — yet the Honda unit is a half-liter shy of the Nissan on displacement.

How'd that happen? Honda engineers optimized the intake manifold, added a larger, electronically controlled throttle body, carved in the performance-oriented, 3-rocker configuration of its acclaimed VTEC variable valve timing system and cranked up the compression ratio from 9.4:1 to 10:1.

A 32-bit engine management strategy not only governs the new stuff to deliver the utmost power — its more-precise ministrations mean regular-grade gasoline goes down fine with this high-output mill, and, remarkably, fuel economy is raised 1 mpg (0.04 L/100 km) in the city cycle and 2 mpg (0.08 L/100 km) on the highway.

Honda hasn't forgotten to deliver some soul, either. For Accord coupes fitted with the 3L V-6 and the new 6-speed manual transmission, engineers specified a unique intake design with a single-chamber resonator. Honda calls it “Sport Sound,” and it pretty much works. Pulling into the upper third of the tach, one is treated to a deep-toned snarl that's both burly and refined.

Suddenly, there isn't a similarly sized 6-cyl. engine that matches Honda's new 3L V-6. Any way you measure it — power, torque, specific output, refinement — Honda's latest V-6 is a testimony to Honda's core engineering values. It's an engine company's engine.


Engine type: 2L DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,998
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 86 × 86
Horsepower (SAE net): 200 @ 7,400 rpm
Torque: 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) @ 6,000 rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11:1
Application tested: RSX Type-S

In 1994, Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s largest car, the Accord, offered a 2.2L 4-cyl. as its top-line engine. It produced 145 hp. In 1998, just five years ago, the Accord had graduated its high-trim buyers to a 3L V-6 with 200 hp.

Today, Honda's upscale Acura division presents a 2L DOHC I-4 that's about 10% smaller than the '94 Accord's 4-cyl., yet it makes almost 40% more horsepower. And that same current Acura 4-cyl. equals the power output of Honda's 3L V-6, circa 1998.

There's no better example of how fastidious engine developers like Honda have leveraged the past decade's technical advances. Today, we enjoy 6-cyl. engines with the power of V-8s and 4-cyl. engines that think they're sixes. It's a sort of reverse Darwinism: the V-8s at the top of the powertrain food chain are beginning to look like the vulnerable endangered species. At this rate, in a decade, nobody'll need 'em.

Honda's spectacular Acura 2L DOHC I-4, returning for its second consecutive 10 Best Engines award in as many years of availability, is the poster child for those advocates of the internal combustion engine who often are quoted in the fuel cell-story-of-the-week as saying something like, “Why are we killing ourselves to rush fuel cells when there's still plenty of improvement to be done to the internal combustion engine?”

We agree with that pragmatism. It's going to take awhile — not to mention ungodly investment — to make a fuel cell-powered vehicle equal this wonderful powerplant's performance in a vehicle such as the RSX Type-S: 100 hp/L, about 30 mpg (7.8L/100 km) on the highway and a 0-60 mph (97 km/h) dash of around 6.5 seconds.

This engine represents the nearly ideal synthesis of the dual-pronged approach to 4-cyl. development that recently has occupied Honda's engineers.

First, with a power peak at 7,900 rpm, the Acura 2L has the high-performance orientation of Honda's screamiest fours, such as the hair-on-fire 2L 4-cyl. from the S2000 roadster.

But there's also a nod to the fatter doses of midrange torque, as promoted by the new 2.4L found in Accord and CR-V: The Acura engine adopts the same i-VTEC variable valve timing system that adds 50 degrees of camshaft phasing for both intake and exhaust cams.

The end product is a gloriously refined 4-cyl. that revs high and hard, like a sports-coupe engine should, but also offers decent low- and midrange torque, respecting your need to often slug it out with the sloths too lazy to ever exercise their right ankle.

Acura's 2L I-4 is the definitive triathlete among contemporary 4-cyl. engines, particularly when considering the low buy-in price of the RSX Type-S. Surely this thing fits in other stuff you make, Honda.

MINI 1.6L supercharged SOHC I-4

MINI 1.6L I-4
Engine type: 1.6L supercharged SOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,598
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 77 × 85.9
Horsepower (SAE net): 163 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm
Specific output: 102 hp/L
Compression ratio: 8.3:1
Application tested: Mini Cooper S

After the way some of the European press disparaged the all-new Mini Cooper's naturally aspirated “Pentagon” 1.6L SOHC I-4 — the spawn of the now-controversial joint venture between DaimlerChrysler AG and BMW AG (Mini's owner) — we didn't expect much from the supercharged variant.

After all, there are all sorts of 4-cyl. engines making 160 hp without the help of a supercharger.

Yow, were we wrong. Whatever the supposed deficiencies of the naturally aspirated Pentagon (we suspect most critics believe they don't need to look any deeper than the scrawny 115 hp listed in the press kit), the Eaton Corp. supercharger apparently camouflages, because almost every Best Engines judge proclaimed this engine a genuine hoot to drive.

The supercharger delivers a modest 11.6 psi (0.8 bar), and from a standstill, not much happens for the first 50 ft. (15 m). But once past that anxious moment it takes to hit about 2,500, the engine finds the cam, the supercharger begins earnest compression and the Cooper S launches to 60 mph (97 km/h) in a coltish 7 seconds.

Once on the move, the supercharged Pentagon uses the plump 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) of torque to good effect, and the standard 6-speed manual is a willing accomplice. The Cooper S is quite lively in cut-and-thrust driving. Our complaints are minor: There is “lag,” despite superchargers' supposed eradication of that foible more closely associated with turbochargers. And the by-wire throttle is not what we'd call micrometer-precise; it's much more an on/off switch than a rheostat.

As expected for a small-displacement engine using forced induction, most of the critical internals have been suitably bulked-up to handle the extra pressure. The pistons, crankshaft, valves and cooling system all are upgraded, yet one source claims this supercharged 1.6L 4-cyl. is “the least-expensive boosted engine ever made.”

Fine with us — it helps BMW price the Mini Cooper S at a manageable $19,975, and fun-to-drive-per-dollar certainly is a chief calling card with this engine.

Chrysler engineers were responsible for designing and developing the 1.6L Pentagon I-4, and it's built at the DC/BMW Tritec joint-venture plant in Campo Largo, Brazil. Almost from the first test-drives of the normally aspirated Pentagon (the only version of the Pentagon available when the Mini launched), it's been a point of contention, with critics saying the normally aspirated variant is low on power and even lower on refinement.

The supercharged Pentagon suppresses those catcalls by being responsive, pleasing to the ear (the blower's subdued whine is a pleasant confirmation that you've got something extra) and genuinely entertaining to drive. The “pop” of a supercharger definitely makes all the difference here — we love this mouse's 102 hp/L roar.


Engine type: 3.5L 60-degree DOHC V-6
Displacement (cc): 3,498
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 95.5 × 81.4
Horsepower (SAE net): 280 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) @ 4,800 rpm
Specific output: 80 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10.3:1
Application tested: Infiniti G35 Coupe

The Steelers of the 1970s. The Forty-Niners of the 1980s. The Yankees of any decade. Michael Schumacher. The Red Wings.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s “VQ” V-6 is beginning to approach the point where we're comfortable mentioning it in the same company. A dynasty.

Except for the VQ, no single engine, regardless of changes from one generation to the next, has amassed a string of nine consecutive Ward's 10 Best Engines awards. Although almost all mainstream automotive engines are designed for a long production run, precious few ever enjoy benchmark status, even when they're the newest engine in the market. Nissan's VQ continues as a benchmark nine years after its launch.

It's a remarkable feat, readers, one that bears re-emphasis: the very first VQ available in the U.S., a 3L DOHC V-6, was a winner in Ward's first 10 Best Engines competition in 1995. In the eight subsequent years that include this 2003 win, a VQ V-6 has won a Best Engines spot every time.

We like to believe it was divine insight nine years ago when we identified the original 3L VQ as something special — but in truth, it was hard NOT to know that engine was special. Nissan engineers got it right — incredibly, resolutely right — from the very beginning, the day they signed off on the final design for what was to become the best V-6 engine the auto industry's ever seen.

Today, although Nissan has dropped the original 3L in favor of the brawnier 3.5L VQ, the engine family's unique qualities remain: an acute attention to detail, starting with microfinished internals and a goal to seriously reduce reciprocating mass. At its launch, the 3L VQ weighed an astounding 108 lbs. (49 kg) less than the iron-block 3L V-6 it replaced — some 20 lbs. (9 kg) was shaved from the upper engine alone — and the design reduced friction losses by 20%.

The VQ has been improved several times since that groundbreaking original, to the point that Nissan's 3.5L VQ still is the V-6 the competition wishes it had created. Although we're convinced a noticeable portion of the original 3L engine's supernatural smoothness and NVH has been sacrificed in the '02-model boring and stroking to 3.5L, the VQ remains a convincing combination of power, broad torque delivery and refinement.

We're still flabbergasted at how easy it was for pragmatic Nissan engineers — convinced that the sweet 3L VQ wasn't enough for the power-hungry U.S. market — to abandon their much-acclaimed baby and punch it out to 3.5L.

The “new” 3.5L VQ is incredibly versatile, currently being used in seven different horsepower ratings and four torque specifications. The company uses it in no less than nine distinct vehicles — everything from the all-new Murano SUV (see p.51) to the muscular 350Z, with three upscale Infiniti-badged models to boot.


Engine type: 1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,781
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke (mm): 81 × 86.4
Horsepower (SAE net): 180 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 175 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) @ 1,950-5,000rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Golf GTi 1.8t

Talk about staying power: The Volkswagen AG/Audi AG 1.8L turbocharged I-4 has been a frequent visitor to Ward's 10 Best Engines list since its launch in 1998, and that's a tough thing for any 4-cyl. engine to accomplish.

It's just that no matter which six of our ever-changing group of editor/judges gets its hands on this unique 5-valve-per-cylinder gem, each returns virtually wide-eyed from the previous day's test drive. Volkswagen engineers have crafted a 4-cyl. engine with that kind of appeal.

This powerhouse returns for yet another 10 Best Engines win by serving up a tasty 100 hp/L combined with a grin-inducing torque shove of 175 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) delivered in a juicy, wide band from 1,950 rpm to 5,000 rpm courtesy of the light-pressure turbocharger.

Of course there's a bit of turbo lag, but you really have to be looking for it. Learn how to work with this engine, and it simply shines. That's partly to do with the long-stroke design, which really helps the VW 1.8L — a microscopically sized engine in this market — pull like a much larger powerplant. In fact, until VW/Audi upgraded its now-3L DOHC V-6, many Ward's editors preferred the 1.8L turbo to the more-powerful-on-paper V-6.

Volkswagen has markedly improved this engine since its '98 launch at 150 hp and 155 lb.-ft. (210 Nm) of torque, to the point where it's making a totally satisfying 180 hp even in mainstream models such as the Golf.

Bravo for that kind of thinking, VW. While domestic auto makers seem to craft ever-larger, lowbrow engines for ever-larger trucks, you've continually improved a power-dense 4-cyl. that enhances the driving experience through its sheer exuberance. This is a technically sophisticated, premium-engineered en-gine that's available to those in the lower market segments — and that's our idea of powertrain democracy.

2003 10 Best Engines Nominees


Cummins High Output 5.9L OHV I-6 turbodiesel

305 hp, 555 lb.-ft. (Dodge Ram HD)
• Gorgeous engineering, not allowed in CA.

2.4L DOHC I-4

215 hp, 245 lb.-ft. (PT Turbo)
• Proof engines can be blown and suck.

Mercedes-Benz 5L SOHC V-8

288 hp, 325 lb.-ft. (Mercedes ML500)
• Great V-8 lost in a sea of great V-8s



170 hp, 145 lb.-ft. (SVT Focus)
• Willing but not well-endowed.

4.9L supercharged DOHC V-8

390 hp, 390 lb.-ft. (SVT Cobra)
• Sounds like it's gonna suck in your legs.

5.4L supercharged DOHC V-8

380 hp, 450 lb.-ft. (SVT Lightning)
• Somehow not as exciting as it used to be.


2.2L DOHC I-4

140 hp, 150 lb.-ft. (Chevy Cavalier)
• Solid design, underachieving execution.

5.7L OHV V-8

405 hp, 400 lb.-ft. (Corvette Z06)
• We're still trying to figure out why this mighty mill wasn't a winner.

6.6L OHV V-8 Duramax turbodiesel

300 hp, 520 lb.-ft. (Silverado HD)
• Diesel improvement waits for no man.


1.3L SOHC I-4 Hybrid

93 hp, 116 lb.-ft. (Civic Hybrid)
• Best left to the L.A. traffic crawl.


240 hp, 153 lb.-ft. (S2000)
• Power and lots of it. Noise and lots of it.

2.4L DOHC I-4

160 hp, 161 lb.-ft. (Accord)
• Absolutely perfect. Until you try the V-6.

Acura 3.5L SOHC V-6

260 hp, 250 lb.-ft. (MDX)
• Laudable grunt, but not engaging.


4.2L DOHC V-8

294 hp, 310 lb.-ft. (S-Type 4.2)
• We need a new Jag inline-6.


2.5L DOHC I-4

175 hp, 180 lb.-ft. (Altima)
• Heroic output tempered by weasily sounds.


2.7L DOHC H-6

225 hp, 192 lb.-ft. (Boxster)
• Scrumptious sounds, hurts the wallet.


Toyota 1.8L DOHC I-4

130 hp, 125 lb.-ft. (Corolla)
• For those who can't talk themselves into a hybrid.

Lexus 4.3L DOHC V-8

300 hp, 325 lb.-ft. (GS430)
• The too-strong, silent type.


Audi 3L DOHC V-6

220 hp, 221 lb.-ft. (A4)
• Proof the V-6 bar is incredibly high.


270 hp, 273 lb.-ft. (Passat W8)
• Fascinating, but where's the power?