The first time Vortec 4200 chief engineer Ron Kociba showed his creation to the press almost three years ago, his face had an expression, if you can conjure the image, combining cat-that-ate-the-canary satisfaction with the cautious optimism of a poker player betting a good, but not totally airtight, hand.

Kociba knew his team had developed a pivotal engine. Of that he was certain. Problem was, the new engine had only six cylinders and was earmarked to launch in a midsize SUV segment whose customers seemed increasingly hell-bent on having eight.

Now, with a third-consecutive 10 Best Engines trophy under the Vortec 4.2L I-6’s belt, General Motors Corp.’s decision to green-light the Powertrain division’s straight-6 truck engine proves the General often is capable of excellent feats of engineering. The Vortec 4200 remains a favorite of Best Engines judges because of its crisp responses and no-nonsense power delivery. If the late running back Walter Payton were an engine, he’d be the Vortec 4200: lithe, composed and always capable of the instant burst of power.

GM SUVs enjoy straight-six smoothness with 4.2L Vortec.

“If BMW (AG) decided to make a truck engine, it wouldn’t be ashamed if this was it,” says one Best Engines judge, paying perhaps the ultimate compliment in comparing GM’s inline 6-cyl. with BMW’s fabled straight-6 efforts.

And the Vortec 4200 passes the real acid test, the one that may have given Kociba sleepless nights: When V-8 power became available in GM’s midsize SUVs and their offshoots – so far, the only applications for the Vortec 4200 – much of the press and much of the buying public preferred the inline 6-cyl. instead of the V-8. Mission accomplished.

We see the Vortec 4200 as a win-win for everybody. We get a fabulously responsive, criminally refined, V-8-rivaling 6-cyl. in an SUV.

GM gets an engine that’s easier and less-expensive to produce (one cylinder head instead of two makes for meaningful savings, alone), an all-aluminum, high-volume engine that doesn’t put a hurting on the company’s tenuous corporate average fuel economy position.

All the things that are so right and proper about the Vortec 4200 have kept it comfortably placed on the Best Engines list. It’s surprisingly thrusty, with 90% of its peak torque available by 1,600 rpm. And the glorious inline-6 “rip” is there when snapping wide the deliciously precise, electronically controlled throttle. And heck, it’s only 15 hp short of the 5.3L V-8 it “competes” against.

The Vortec 4200 is one of the most versatile and satisfying engines available at any price. It’s skillfully engineered, brilliantly executed and immensely gratifying to use.

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