This isn't getting any easier

Welcome to the eighth annual installment of the Ward's 10 Best Engines awards. Our list of the year's best engines remains the auto industry's only best of list to concentrate solely on the engine, what we consider to be any vehicle's single most important collection of components. For 2002, nothing about our few 10 Best Engines rules has changed. All engines compete on equal footing. Small-displacement

Bill Visnic

February 1, 2002

11 Min Read
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Welcome to the eighth annual installment of the Ward's 10 Best Engines awards. Our list of the year's best engines remains the auto industry's only “best of” list to concentrate solely on the engine, what we consider to be any vehicle's single most important collection of components.

For 2002, nothing about our few 10 Best Engines rules has changed. All engines compete on equal footing. Small-displacement 4-cyl. engines, potentially hamstrung because they typically lack the amount of pleasing horsepower and torque common to larger engines, nonetheless must earn a winning place among the smooth and powerful multi-cylinder powerplants. That they do indeed win is testimony to numerous other attributes. To remain eligible for a Best Engines award, engines must be in vehicles with a base price of no more than $50,000, fitted in regular-production vehicles, and sold at franchised dealerships, during the 2001 calendar year.


Engine type: 3L DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 2,979
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 84 mm × 89.6 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 225 @ 5,900 rpm
Torque: 214 lb.-ft. (290 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm
Specific output: 75 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10.2:1
Application tested: 330 Ci

For model-year 2001, BMW strapped on its excellent double VANOS infinitely variable valve timing system for the 2.5L engine and added a displacement bump in addition to VANOS 3L for the outgoing 2.8L variant. The already buttery 2.8L's horsepower and torque both jumped back into a range that not only is highly competitive but firmly in the range of what we'd call “healthy” at a rock-solid 75 hp per liter.

Ward's judges were entranced by all the expected NVH virtues, combined with an amusingly muscular midrange that was missing before double-VANOS. And in the 330 Ci application, there was an intoxicating basso exhaust note when dipping into the throttle, particularly at low speeds, that cemented the experience.


Engine type: 3.2 DOHC inline 6-cyl.
Displacement (cc): 3,246
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 87 mm × 91 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 333 @ 7,900 rpm
Torque: 262 lb.-ft. (355 Nm) @ 4,900 rpm
Specific output: 103 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11.5:1
Application tested: M3

Okay, here's an easy one. Take all the superlatives you find in the previous glowing write-up of BMW's 3L inline 6-cyl. — all the talk of sparkling NVH and beautiful balance and heraldic exhaust-pipe trumpeting. Then add, oh, just another 97 hp.

And 0-to-60 mph (97 km/h) in 5 seconds.

And the ‘I'll-take-two-of-'em’ price of $46,900.

That spells WINNER in our book. And if you're saying, “Well, who the hell wouldn't go for the marvelous M3 mill, because everybody knows serious money buys serious stuff,” listen here: BMW was asking pretty much the same money last year for the M3, and we did not — repeat, did not — vote its 3.2L inline-six one of last year's 10 Best Engines.

That was for a couple of reasons. Mainly because we knew that Europe and other markets were getting the “real” M3 engine: the one making a rollicking 320 hp from 3.2L. Second, some testers found last year's M3 engine lacking in the area of low-speed driveability and thought its throttle tip-in too fussy.

DaimlerChrysler AG 5L SOHC V-8

Engine type: 5L SOHC 90° V-8
Displacement (cc): 4,966
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 96.8 mm × 84 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 288 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 325 lb.-ft. (441 Nm) @ 2,700-4,250 rpm
Specific output: 58 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: ML500

Progress. It isn't always about moving forward. In Mercedes' case, moving back is progress, too.

In the early 1990s, everybody wanted a Mercedes 500E.

It was an intense car, largely hand-built in Zuffenhausen, Germany, in a cooperative deal with Porsche AG. The 500E's V-8 made 322 hp and 354 lb.-ft. (480 Nm) of torque. Oh, and the car cost $80,000. Although the 500E was special, even by Mercedes standards, that 80 grand wasn't too much more than what customers those days expected to pay for any Benz packing a V-8.

Juxtapose that with 2002's winning 5L Mercedes V-8. In the tested ML500 we're getting 288 hp and 325 lb.-ft (441 Nm), so it's just 34 hp and 29 lb.-ft. short of the 1990 DOHC V-8 that was considered firebreathing. And the price? Almost half of what it cost a decade ago — the ML500's base price is $44,950, making it — by our reckoning — perhaps the least-expensive V-8-toting Mercedes of all time. Heck, even the S-Class flagship with this motor only costs the $80,000 Merc got for the 500E — a decade ago!

Stuff in this 5L V-8 and the 2002 ML500 isn't your typical slug SUV: 0-to-60 mph (0-to-97 km/h) comes up in 7.7 seconds, plenty quicker than with last year's 4.3L V-8.

Ford Motor Co. 5.4L SOHC V-8

Engine type: 5.4L SOHC 90° V-8
Displacement (cc): 5,409
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 90.2 mm × 105.7 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 260 @ 4,500 rpm
Torque: 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm) @ 2,500 rpm
Specific output: 48 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9:1
Application tested: F-150 SuperCrew

When Ford Motor Co.'s Triton 5.4L SOHC V-8 first won a Best Engines spot in 1998, nobody expected that, five years later, this “truck engine” would become a stalwart member of the 10 Best Engines list.

But five consecutive wins prove that Ford takes seriously the idea of continuous improvement for its highest-volume V-8 engine. The 5.4L Triton started life at 235 hp and 333 lb.-ft. (447 Nm) of torque. Then a significant power upgrade in 1999 meant we're now enjoying a stout 260 hp and 350 lb.-ft. (475 Nm).

Now, Ford engineers are after refinement and NVH. Peter J. Dowdling, Ford's modular V-8/V-10 Engine Program Manager, led a team whose goal was to bring the Triton engine family up to class-leading refinement levels. Although they really don't want to name names, the team was gunning for Toyota's Tundra, which is the acknowledged NVH king of fullsize pickups.

General Motors Corp. 4.2L DOHC I-6

Engine type: 4.2L DOHC I-6
Displacement (cc): 4,160
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 93 mm × 102 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 270 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 275 lb.-ft. (373 Nm) @ 3,600 rpm
Specific output: 64 hp/L
Compression ratio: 10:1
Application tested: GMC Envoy

All-new straight-six engine programs are practically non-existent these days, victims, we're told, of years of front-wheel-drive vehicle development and intensifying crash standards.

Ron Kociba, GM Powertrain chief engineer for the all-new Vortec 4200 I-6, is fond of reminding, “We could've had a V-8,” when deciding on what engine layout GM's next generation of midsize-truck/SUV powertrain development would focus.

But Kociba and his engineering team wanted an inline 6-cyl. for all the NVH potential and for a number of other I-6 design advantages.

GM's first new inline 6-cyl. truck engine in 15 years — and GM's first since dropping I-6s altogether in '93 — proves, says Kociba, that DOHC engines are plenty applicable to trucks. The new Vortec 4200 isn't just “a top-ender” he asserts, pointing out that 90% of the 4.2L straight-six's peak torque is on tap at just 1,600 rpm.

General Motors Corp. 6.6L OHV V-8

Engine type: 6.6L 90° turbodiesel V-8
Displacement (cc): 6,599
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 103 mm × 99 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 300 @ 3,100 rpm
Torque: 520 lb.-ft. (705 Nm) @ 1,800 rpm
Specific output: 45 hp/L
Compression ratio: 17.5:1
Application tested: Chevrolet Silverado HD

Every now and then, you've just gotta go for displacement.

Last year, when General Motors Corp.'s Duramax 6.6L turbodiesel V-8 won a Best Engines award in its first year of production, we thought perhaps we'd just been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of a totally new V-8 diesel with every available new-generation design trick. We just don't get diesels in this market, you know, and the Duramax is a damn good one, even if it is offered only in medium-duty pickups.

But this year, we realized it's probably a bit simpler, more elemental than that: 6.6L of displacement and 520 lb.-ft. (705 Nm) of torque is intoxicating. Nothing corrupts like power.

The colossal torque can almost change your life after a week in various whiny 4-cyl. conveyances. One begins to be infected by this uncannily smooth diesel and the equally amazing 5-speed automatic transmission that doles out the Duramax's twist with the aplomb typically associated with a luxury car.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. 2L DOHC I-4

Engine type: 2L DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,998
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 86 mm × 86 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 200 @ 7,400 rpm
Torque: 142 lb.-ft. (193 Nm) @ 6,000 rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11:1
Application tested: RSX Type-S

For Honda Motor Co. Ltd. this year, it wasn't so much a matter of would one of its engines win — it was which of its engines would win. The still very-independent-thank-you company prides itself on its reputation for standard-setting engine development, and 2002 finds Honda in a sweet spot, awash with a generation of great new engines.

In the end, a hard-earned Best Engines win goes to the Acura upscale division's sparkling new DOHC I-4, boasting “intelligent” augmentation of Honda's well-known VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift, Electronic Control) variable valve timing system.

The Acura's Type S 4-cyl.'s solid doses of around-town torque are combined with the ability to rev sweetly to the redline but with markedly less eardrum assault than the fun-but-frenzied S2000 engine.

The Acura Type-S 4-cyl. doesn't have to be continually flailed to redline.

Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. 3.5L DOHC V-6

Engine type: 3.5L 60° DOHC V-6
Displacement (cc): 3,498
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 95.5 mm × 81.4 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 240 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 246 lb.-ft. (334 Nm) @ 4,400 rpm
Specific output: 69 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Altima 3.5SE

The bad news: We have to say “so long” to Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s spectacular 3L “VQ” DOHC V-6, retiring from Best Engines competition after seven consecutive wins only because, (paradoxically to us,) Nissan is discontinuing in most world markets the 3L variant of the ground-breaking modular VQ engine family.

The good news: the larger 3.5L VQ we now get to replace the 3L simply is more of a good thing. Chocolate fudge smothering chocolate ice cream, if you will.

The outgoing 3L VQ checked out producing a maximum of 227 hp. The new 3.5L V-6, as tested in the 2002 Altima, makes 240 hp. In the Maxima, the engine's tuned for 260 horses, and next year we'll see it develop even more juice when it shows up for duty in the reincarnated Nissan 350Z sports coupe.

Porsche AG 2.7L DOHC H-6

Engine type: 2.7L opposed DOHC H-6
Displacement (cc): 2,687
Block/head material: aluminum/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 85.5 mm × 78 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 217 @ 6,500 rpm
Torque: 192 lb.-ft. (260 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm
Specific output: 80 hp/L
Compression ratio: 11:1
Application tested: Boxster

Each year, there are a couple of Best Engines about which there is no dissent — they're clear cut winners from the moment you turn the key. The Porsche AG “boxer” 6-cyl. is one of them.

If you need an example of the differences that result from more lavish spending up, down, and across the development and sourcing chain, look no further than the Boxster's 2.7L flat 6-cyl. Its layout is identical to Subaru's 3L opposed 6-cyl., yet Porsche's effort easily is the more convincingly executed. As it should be, we'll admit, in a limited-purpose 2-seat roadster that costs nigh on $50,000.

But our normally cost-conscious Best Engines judges forget their parsimonious affiliations when the throttle drops on this beautifully developed engine. And everyone is transfixed by the deeply satisfying intake and exhaust sounds; the Porsche engineers responsible for coaxing this alluring symphony from unfeeling metal and plastic should be awarded, well, whatever is the German equivalent of knighthood.

Volkswagen AG 1.8L DOHC I-4

Engine type: 1.8L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Displacement (cc): 1,781
Block/head material: cast iron/aluminum
Bore × stroke: 81 mm × 86.4 mm
Horsepower (SAE net): 180 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 175 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) @ 1,950-5,000 rpm
Specific output: 100 hp/L
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Application tested: Jetta 1.8T

Auto makers of the world, fix your gaze upon this engine.

How does Volkswagen AG manage to give out this much in cars that don't cost a whole lot? After all, this grunty but high-tech little powerhouse now can be had with a Volkswagen badge for around $19,000.

This engine has enjoyed a unique distinction of migrating on and off the Best Engines list a couple of times, usually depending on the power level. We originally liked this 4-cyl. technical showcase at its initial 150-hp rating, so it stands to reason we're happier still with an added 30 hp. The 180-hp rating has done nothing to blunt this engine's outstanding NVH properties — the VW 1.8T continues as one of the market's sweetest, most powerful 4-cyl. engines, and to call it a “base” engine is a disservice.

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