3.2L SOHC V-6 We'll admit that Daimler- Chrysler's Mercedes-Benz 3.2L SOHC V-6 surprised the Ward's 10 Best Engines panel. When the numbers were tallied, it stood firmly in the top 10.

Not puzzled about the outcome - the Mercedes 3.2L V-6 continues to be a singularly impressive engine design - but shocked that this relatively unassuming engine beat some formidable entrants in what our judges believe was the toughest Best Engines competition yet.

Mercedes' V-6 quietly is amassing the qualifications to place it with the company's more legendary engines. We once suggested - as have some competing automakers' engineers - that Mercedes may have compromised some of its hallowed engineering-above-all-else creed when it adopted the modular construction design that sees its new SOHC V-6s sharing the 90-degree vee angle of the V-8 engines built from the same basic hardware. And Mercedes had never done a V-6 before the launch of this engine in 1997.

Not to worry. Mercedes engineers had studied before the final exam: To make up for the 90-degree architecture ideal for a V-8 but not for a V-6, they fitted a balance shaft rotating counter to the crankshaft at twice its speed.

And the clever "regression" to three valves per cylinder - when the rest of the world was backing four holes (or five) in each combustion chamber - freed real estate for a twin-sparkplug arrangement that does wonders for optimizing combustion and making maximum use of the intake charge.

It has proved the 3.2L SOHC V-6 to be an elegant and effective first effort. "Already a standard-bearer," says one Best Engines judge. "There may be flashier V-6s out there, but this engine just plain gets down to business," asserts another.

We're particularly persuaded by the ease with which this engine handles a wide range of duty: It's fitted, with slightly differing power/torque ratings, in the silken E-Class, the lithe CLK coupe and convertible and even the M-Class sport/utility vehicle (SUV). Sources say we'll see it next year as an upgrade for the SLK roadster, too. And its 2.8L variant is in the entry level C-Class and abounds in European applications.

Versatility, low emissions, proper fuel economy and outstanding driveability are qualities that stand the Mercedes 3.2L V-6 apart from the wealth of V-6 engines in today's market. Our only beef continues to be with the engine/transmission interface; response to throttle inputs often is laggardly and deliberate, despite electronic throttle control that Mercedes engineers swear speeds response times.

There are "flashier" V-6s available. Some can be found among this year's 10 Best Engines winners. Yet there's a comfortable, durable, confident feel to the Mercedes 3.2L V-6 that's difficult to define. The efficacy of this layout simply cannot be ignored: not a standout in any one area, its impressive combination of technologies is unsurpassed as a whole.

We'll tell you up front that Honda Motor Co. Ltd's Insight hybrid-electric vehicle (HEV) was only narrowly nudged out of a 10 Best Engines award.

It's the classic ahead-of-its-time situation. We heatedly discussed if the Insight really should be compared with standard internal-combustion engines - after all, an electric motor directly augments the power at the crankshaft, and no other engine enjoys that advantage.

Then there is the performance itself. Using the utmost of both the 1L 3-cyl. IC engine and its Integrated Motor Assist, Insight brings a measly 73 hp to the party. The motor is a more effective torque-enhancer, though: it pours another 25 lb.-ft. (34 Nm) onto the engine's 66 lb.-ft. (89 Nm). In addition to auguring in with a pleasurable and instantaneous mid-range torque surge, the IMA also does a great job of absorbing and balancing the unruly torque pulses of the 3-cyl. engine.

So power is only adequate and won't change your life. The Insight did rate a perfect score from every 10 Best Engines judge for technical relevance, though.

We all acknowledge that Honda's accomplished something with the Insight: a production HEV so well-developed that its secrets would be transparent to the uninitiated. And it's on sale at an attainable price of $18,880.

But for now, the Insight seems like it's not right for anything. There's not enough performance to justify the limited-use 2-seat package and sell as a "sporty green" car. And the package's limitations curb any potential of selling as a high-efficiency alternative to a standard family sedan.

The technology development for the Insight is superb, but the market appeal is marginal.