Special Report

Ward’s 10 Best Engines

Judges’ Remarks

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 have 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 10 Best Engines 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, according to Ward’s data.

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. It’s also the base engine for the new Venza “crossover sedan.”

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.


Ward’s 10 Best Engines is a copyright of Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward’s Automotive Group.