Endangered Species: What’s Behind Vanishing V-8s, Diesels, Some V-6s

This time, downsized, turbocharged engines and electrified powertrains muscled out the kind of powertrains that once dominated the Wards 10 Best Engines list. Here’s why.

David Zoia Editor, Executive Director-Content

December 21, 2016

3 Min Read
WardsAuto editors Tom Murphy Bob Gritzinger Dave Zoia and Jim Irwin prepare to test drive new 16L 4cyl Chevy Cruze diesel
WardsAuto editors Tom Murphy, Bob Gritzinger, Dave Zoia and Jim Irwin prepare to test drive new 1.6L 4-cyl. Chevy Cruze diesel.

Where have all the diesels gone? Not to mention V-8 engines and naturally aspirated V-6s?

Mostly all are absent from the 2017 Wards 10 Best Engines list, muscled out by turbocharged engines – many of them downsized – and electrified powertrains that appear to be cornering the market on fuel efficiency.

It’s not that there weren’t worthy contenders among the missing.

On the diesel front, we still like the smooth-running, torque-oozing 3.0L diesel V-6 in the Ram pickup. But that engine had its day in the sun, making our list the last three years in a row, and holding onto its ranking for a fourth year was a tall order given the strength of our 40-candidate field.

General Motors’ new 1.6L diesel in the Cruze small car and earmarked for the Equinox CUV also managed a pretty strong effort for its middle-market price category. But, given current fuel prices, we’re struggling to see the real bottom-line value when for less upfront money you can get the same car with a 1.4L turbocharged gasoline engine that delivers still-impressive mileage, runs more smoothly and far less noticeably and requires less muss and fuss to fuel.

We also reluctantly bid a fond farewell to last year’s winning Ford 5.2L Voodoo V-8. It wasn’t easy, given this Ferrari-fighter’s technical credentials and its status as the very soul of the all-around-outstanding Shelby GT350 Mustang, but as with the Ram diesel it, too, fell victim to our panel’s what-have-you-done-for-us-lately mindset.

There was only one other V-8 among the 40 nominees, Nissan’s 5.6L Titan engine, which on its own says something about the direction this engine group is heading. While it matches its competitive set stroke for stroke, the Titan engine wasn’t bar-raising enough to prevent us from turning out our first 10 Best Engines list in its 23-year history without a V-8.

There also were some notable naturally aspirated V-6s, including Nissan’s VQ siblings (one old, one new), the Kia Cadenza’s 3.3L, Honda Ridgeline 3.5L and Cadillac ATS 3.6L, that congregated around the bubble but couldn’t make the cut. The only naturally aspirated V-6 to manage a spot on the latest top 10 is the Fiat-Chrysler 3.6L, but it’s part of a hybrid powertrain in the Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

So what gives?

You might say we like the direction the drive for fuel efficiency is taking powertrain development – namely downsized displacements and fewer cylinders backed by fast-spooling turbochargers on the performance end of the scale and electrification where maximum miles per gallon is the primary target.

We still love smooth-running V-6s, but many of these turbo-4s are much more fun to drive and easily outrun the big V-8s on a gallon of gas.

We’re still suckers for diesel torque too, but if fuel economy, not towing, is what you’re after, it’s hard to beat the mileage of many of the gasoline-electric hybrids we tested. And hybrid driving dynamics continue to get better with every new application of the technology, so owning one no longer is akin to wearing the automotive hair shirt of the green movement.

Our 10 Best Engines list fluctuates with the times, so don’t rule out a comeback down the road for V-8s, diesels or naturally aspirated V-6s, should consumer demands and other trends turn back in their direction.

We’ve noticed, for instance, the observed fuel economy of some of the thirstier turbo-4s is basically in line with some of the naturally aspirated V-6s, which leaves us wondering if consumer demands, regulatory changes in direction and cost-cutting bean counters may shift engineering focus back to the less technically complex bigger-displacement powerplants.

But for now, turbos and electrification rule the roost.

[email protected] @DavidZoia

Read more about:

2017 10 Best Engines

About the Author(s)

David Zoia Editor

Executive Director-Content

Dave writes about autonomous vehicles, electrification and other advanced technology and industry trends.

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