As readers, we know you love to watch us bullheaded Best Engines judges verbally joust about the winners we select.
Every year it’s the same: We have “consensus engines” everyone agrees on, and then we have some that need further discussion. We hunker down in the conference room, argue the merits of the nominated engines and argue according to our individual score sheets. No one leaves completely satisfied.
So imagine if the editors tried to compile a list of the Best of the Best – our 10 favorite engines during the first decade of our Best Engines competition. It can’t be done with any degree of statistical accuracy because some judges from the early days of our Best Engines competition have moved on.
So there are precious few editors who can say, for instance, if the 1.6L supercharged I-4 in the Mini Cooper S (winner 2003) is more deserving than the 2.5L High Output V-6 in theContour SVT (winner 1998, 1999).
We can, however, identify 10 engines that have been perennial favorites among Ward's Best Engines judges and leave it at that. One look at the Best Engines history chart, and it should be apparent how we arrive at this subjective Best of the Best list.
Topping the list is the only engine that appears on the Ward's 10 Best Engines list in each of the first 10 years:Motor Co. Ltd.’s VQ 3L DOHC V-6, which gained an extra 0.5L in displacement in 2001.
In the past few years, some editors have suggested this engine’s NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) characteristics have suffered after the upsizing. But no one can argue with the near muscle-car output that even beats stellar (and more expensive) performers fromAG.
Associate Editor Brian Corbett says it best: “Thisengine is smoother than Kenny G, yet it has the muscle of Metallica.”
If the powertrain wizards at Nissan have been able to push our buttons for an entire decade, let’s hope they can pull a bit more refinement out of their hats for the 3.5L in the near future.
’s 3.2L DOHC I-6 in the M3 has made our list in nine out of 10 years. Each year, this engine gets better, and the latest iteration gives us 333 hp, for a specific output of 104 hp per liter, besting a number of beefier V-8s.
“Props are due to BMW,” comments Corbett, “which has won the most awards ever, even though it is dwarfed in size by GM,and others on the list.”
Ford Motor Co.’s 5.4L SOHC Triton V-8 muscled its way onto our list for six straight years, from 1997 to 2002, contributing in no small way to the F-150’s success as the best-selling fullsize pickup truck on the planet.
When the supercharged variant arrived in Ford’s SVT Lightning in 2000, Best Engines judges howled with delight – much like the Lightning when pressed – and gave both versions of the Triton a shared award for the next three years.
Between 1997 and 2003,AG’s 1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4 earned five Best Engines awards, and each time this stout, versatile powerplant dazzled us in a different bodyshell – namely, the Jetta, Passat and Golf TDI, as well as Audi AG’s A4.
Best Engines Judge Barb McClellan, who is editor of Wardsauto.com and in a prior life did some short-track racing, gushes about the 1.8L turbo in the A4, which we gratefully got to test for a year as a long-term loaner.
“This is a match made in heaven, melding car, engine and driver into the perfect machine,” McClellan says of the A4 package. “It’s an absolute delight. It leaves me wanting nothing more. Ah, but there is more. And I delight in that, too.”
Three entries each won four Best Engines awards: the highly capable 3.2L SOHC V-6 that powers the Mercedes M-Class (and incidentally was the first V-6 Mercedes ever produced),Motor Co. Ltd.’s peppy 2L DOHC I-4 in the Acura RSX Type S and Motor Corp.’s 2.3L Miller-cycle DOHC V-6, found in the grossly under-appreciated Millenia S.
Best Engines Chief Justice Bill Visnic says it was in 1994 that’s Miller-cycle V-6, as well as Nissan’s excellent VQ engine, prompted the creation of Ward's 10 Best Engines program.
“I remember going on the launch of those two vehicles and being so impressed with the engines that it seemed it was time to recognize truly outstanding powertrain development,” Visnic says.
Rounding out our Best of the Best are four engines that each earned awards in three consecutive years:Motor Corp.’s 4L DOHC V-8 in the GS400, BMW’s 3L DOHC I-6, GM’s 4.2L DOHC I-6 Vortec 4200 and GM’s old workhorse – the 3.8L supercharged OHV V-6, which predates the Carter Administration.
“From a technology standpoint, the 3800, even in 1995, wasn’t very up-to-date,” recalls Ward's Editorial Director David E. Zoia, who has served on several Best Engines judging panels. “Yet everyone thought it did a great job – that engine had a following. It’s an amazing example of engineering. It’s truly under-rated.”
Zoia also recalls from that first year the Saab 9000 CS, equipped with a 2.3L LPT I-4. Until its arrival, most turbocharged vehicles suffered from severe “turbo lag” at acceleration, followed by a sudden burst of unbridled power.
In the 9000 CS, Saab opted for a light-pressure turbo, which made a huge difference. “That engine seemed to blend it better than anything we’d seen before,” Zoia recalls. “It was the first use of a refined turbo.”
It’s worth noting that our competition has resulted in at least a few retail sales of vehicles with Best Engines under the hood. This isn’t idle speculation. Ward's staffers past and present have become so attached to Best Engines entries during the competition that several bought vehicles sporting their favorite engines.
Sitting in our driveways are the Mercedes M-Class (2), Nissan Maxima (2), Mazda Millenia S (2), Jeep Grand Cherokee (2), Chevy TrailBlazer (1), Ford Contour SVT (1) and Ford Contour (1).
Each judge can identify certain Best Engines that stick in their heads like the Hallelujah chorus.
“I still wake up in the middle of the night,” confides Corbett, “and swear I can hear that Porsche engine (2.7L H-6 in Boxster) humming in my head. What a sound.”
McClellan’s passion is pickup trucks – the bigger the better. “No engine is more satisfying in performance and meaningful growl than the Dodge Ram’s Cummins 5.9L I-6 turbodiesel. How a powertrain can appear so rough-and-tumble and yet be so refined, I don’t know. But the Cummins has it all: perfect startup, acceleration at any speed, seamless shifting and a throaty exhaust note that’s music to the ears.”
She loved the Ford 5.4L V-8 Triton, especially the supercharged SVT Lightning variant. McClellan also describes GM’s Vortec 4200 as “a perfect engine” for GMC Envoy and Chevy TrailBlazer. “It hauled our 27-ft. sailboat from a downriver boatyard without breaking a sweat.”
On the car side, McClellan was impressed with the Chevy Malibu’s new 3.5L V-6, although it didn’t win, and she raved about the Mazda RX-8’s new 1.3L Renesis Rotary engine. “It always will have a soft place to land in my garage,” McClellan says.
As for me, I still visit the confessional regularly seeking penance for allowing Audi AG’s 2.7L twin-turbo V-6 to slip off our list after 2000 and 2001. A smallish V-6 that kicks like a Rockette? How I miss it so.