Naturally Aspirated 4-Cyl. Engines have made the Ward's 10 Best Engines list about as often as a 2-cycle Briggs and Stratton.

In 14 years, we've honored 60 engines, and only two have been naturally aspirated inline-4s not arrayed as hybrids. Heck, 4-cyl. engines, in general, have been grossly under-represented, as only 12 have made the list over the previous 14 years.

Ward's judges shunning I-4s for so long is disappointing, given 53.7% of North American vehicles produced for the U.S. derive their motivation from four big pistons pumping furiously. That's up from 48.5% in 2006.

This year, judges moderated their Best Engines selections after America's summer flirtation with $4-a-gallon gasoline. The 2009 10 Best list represents the lowest average displacement and highest combined fuel economy in the 15 years Ward's has charted powertrain excellence.

But still, only three I-4s make the cut this year. Three I-4s also earned trophies in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

This year's I-4 honorees represent the finest attributes small-displacement internal combustion can offer: a fuel-stingy hybrid, a fun clean-burning diesel and a take-no-prisoners turbo-4.

Beyond the winners, Ward's tested some stellar 4-cyl. engines. They were good enough to convince me the term “4-banger” should be banished from the automotive lexicon.

In the 1980s, “4-banger” was a derogatory term for an I-4 that might get decent mileage but was crude and lacked power.

Today's I-4s deserve more respect. They are whisper quiet at idle, smooth while cruising and eager when pushed at any speed.

One standout is the 170-hp 2.5L I-4 in the new Mazda6. Capable of 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km), the sedan can be had with an enjoyable 6-speed manual, all for under $20k. Equally impressive is the 187-hp 2.7L capable of 22 mpg (10.6 L/100 km) in the 5-passenger Toyota Highlander.

Regardless of fuel prices, OEMs must pursue the most efficient powertrains if the U.S. is serious about reducing oil consumption.

That means new I-4s to test in future Ward's 10 Best Engines competitions. Bring 'em on.