Selecting among Ward's 30 candidates for the Ten Best Engines of 1996 proved to be a tough call. Simply put, all of the powerplants we tested generally had attributes that made them winners. Some I especially liked that didn't make the cut were Ford's 3L Duratec V-6 in the all-new Taurus/Sable; GM's 2.4L Twin Cam I-4 in Cavalier and Sunfire -- spunky little performers in their segment; and Chrysler's 2.4L I-4, which I found to have ample power and amazingly good fuel economy over 500 miles of rigorous mountain driving in the Appalachians.
My favorite loser, though, is the 3L I-6 in the Lexus SC300 mated to a manual gearbox. Like so much that Lexus does, the engine/trans combo is almost transparent in an overall excellent package. But in some twisting, hilly, hard driving in the Northern Michigan boondocks, I found the SC300 to be an outstanding performer at low and high speeds -- and all speeds in between. Quiet, vibrationless and solid, the 3L I-6 was scary in that its natural habitat was around 90 mph with no sense you were busting every speed limit in sight. Our final 10 are damn good, but I lament that this baby was on the cusp. Maybe next year...
Dear C36: My love has limits. I love Mercedes-Benz cars more than anyone else at Ward's. Trust me on this. I send a note every month (and a check) to Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp. that professes my undying devotion to the three-pointed star. Even so, I couldn't bring myself to give my highest marks to the $50,000 AMG C36. The ordinary $37,000 Mercedes C280 -- with its 2.8L and 194 hp -- is just too good. So is the 275-hp, V-8 E420, which costs about the same as the C36.
It is a wonderful engine and a magnificent car, but not $13,000 better than the C280, and not an equal to the E420.
Perhaps if I were able spend a few days with the car in its natural environment. I can picture myself blowing down the ultra-smooth autobahn outside Stuttgart, hurtling along in the left lane at 155 mph, flashing my lights at all those pokey BMWs and Porsches, waving to all the young frauleins... Um, where was I?
Ah yes, value. The AMG nameplate, giant tires, and 268-hp motor might be worth such a stiff premium in Germany, but not in 65-mph, pot-hole city USA. And not when BMW can deliver an awesome M3 for only $5,000 or so more than a standard 3-Series. Sorry.
I campaigned desperately for Volkswagen's amazing, 1.9L TDI direct-injection turbodiesel. Sixty MPG at a steady 56 mph. Simple engine controls (remember, no ignition system, for one thing) and an extremely low level of "lifetime" emissions. No "smoke." The TDI simply rewrites the diesel book as we know it.
I drove a TDI-equipped VW in last summer's One Lap of America long-distance race/rally. The car was -- laugh if you will -- a real flyer.
Problem was, for the Best Engines competition VW sent us a Passat wagon with the TDI coupled to a 4-speed automatic. It was a hard-used company "beater" obviously suffering with tired engine mounts -- and in U.S.-spec. it delivers about 20 less hp and 17 ft.-lbs. less torque.
Okay, the automatic tranny and crummy NVH at idle were probably enough to scuttle the TDI anyway. But shame on the VW group for once again shortchanging its U.S. arm, denying buyers the 110-hp, 166 ft.-lb. TDI now being fitted in European Audis. Dr. Piech, are you really serious about selling Volkswagens here?
Every engine finalist in Ward's Ten Best is exemplary. If I had my druthers, though, I'd include Volvo's turbocharged 2.3L I-5 in the Swedish carmaker's 850 model.
My love affair with the powerplant began when Volvo brought the turbo version to the U.S. back in '94. My affection has not waned.
Powered by the 2.3L turbo, I found the '96 850 Turbo wagon staffers drove in this year's Ten Best competition to be quite capable of dancing in and out of Detroit traffic. The morning race to work with this powertrain package left rush-hour Andrettis on I-696 eating my exhaust. I guess one could call it convert sports-car driving. I mean, who expects 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds out of a station wagon? Hah!
I must admit I was a little surprised -- stunned actually -- that our Top Ten engines list didn't include the Mercedes C36.
Of course, the C36 has a couple strikes against it, including the price. With a sticker of $51,000, this car misses the mainstream by more than a few thousand bucks. And having passed through the capable hands of the people at AMG, it isn't exactly a regular production car. It does have a few high-tech goodies -- variable valve timing, direct ignition and state-of-the-art engine management system, but its 74-hp/L rating leaves it a few rungs from the top of the ladder in terms of design efficiency. Perhaps this is what kept my fellow panelists from rating it higher.
But for pure performance, few of the engines came close to delivering this level of power and torque in such a refined package. Truly amazing is how much this 6-banger can do despite being handcuffed by an automatic transmission. In my book, the C36 goes head-to-head with most any of the manual-equipped, luxury V-8s we tested. In fact, this is one of the few cars in the list where an automatic not only seems adequate, but preferable.
I still feel a bit like a bank president every time I slide behind the wheel of a Mercedes, but thanks to the 3.6L -- and styling tweaks by AMG -- I could get comfortable in a C36.
Loser? I can only think of one "loser" in the batch. And, quite fortunately, that manufacturer graciously let us give it a second chance in another model, but we can go into that later over a few beers.
Beers? That's my budget. There's no question the expensive stuff is nice. You get lots of looks on the freeway in a C36 or a 540i Sport. The parking lot attendant tends to call you sir if you show up in a Seville or a Millenia.
Can I afford it? Nope. My favorite model that didn't make this year's cut comes fresh off the Top 10 list from last year: Ford's 2.5L V-6 Duratec. You step on the pedal and it goes; 170 hp is enough neck-snapping for this 40-something dad. It's quiet, tight, quite nimble and doesn't tire out lower extremities on my longer-than-usual commutes.
This is a best-in-class effort. Careful scrutiny will reveal that it offers about the best horsepower/dollar rating of any of our contestants.