Purist engineers cast a skeptical gaze at the process we editors apply to the Ward’s 10 Best Engines competition – unless, of course, their teams leave our awards event with a sparkling new showpiece for the office.
They ask questions such as, “How do you validate the horsepower number?” and “How do you separate the engine from the rest of the drivetrain?”
Those are valid questions, and our answers befuddle engineers who need to quantify everything they know and why they know it. They expect our 10 Best Engines testing data to fit conveniently in some matrix that makes perfect sense to Mr. Spock.
Truth is, our idea of a “matrix” consists of a large grid that ranks each engine based on score sheets for every vehicle evaluated.
And those evaluations are more subjective than objective because they are not done on dynamometers or in anechoic chambers with microphones positioned to capture the slightest errant noise.
No, 10 Best Engines judges experience the test vehicles in their routine daily driving cycles, and there’s a good reason for that: Drive the same roads to and from work every day, and a great engine will make an impression at predictable times – on a long on-ramp to a metropolitan interstate, or on a 2-lane road with little traffic, where the only noise comes from combustion events under the hood.
A 10 Best Engines winner begs to be flogged in these situations, and occasionally we oblige. Of course, we do our best to pay heed to speed limits and practice safe driving.
It isn’t necessary to run a vehicle at Autobahn speeds to decide if an engine is great. Take a vehicle to 45 mph (72 km/h) in second gear (with a manual transmission or an automatic with manual shift mode), and the flaws of a weak engine become apparent as it wheezes for breath, screeches in protest and fails to motivate.
Likewise, exploring third gear on the highway uncorks a broad power band in a great engine and exposes the limitations of the pretenders.
And don’t underestimate the importance of a smooth idle. Sound damping today is so extensive that just about every vehicle sounds like a bank vault inside. And sometimes today’s ultra quiet cars can unwittingly showcase flaws under the hood.
Every sound from the engine bay falls under the microscope of the human ear – from the passage of air through the induction system to the gentle ticking of the valvetrain to the steady rotational rhythm of the crankcase.
A poorly packaged engine allows vibrations to be felt through the gear shifter at idle or through the accelerator pedal when tipping in to the throttle.
We award points for power and torque and NVH (noise, vibration harshness) – as we perceive them in our daily driving cycle. Yes, we look at specs, but what appears on paper does not always push our buttons.
An engine might make hellacious power, but if it’s unbridled and rude, it won’t make the list.
Likewise, if an engine that feels more powerful than the numbers on the spec sheet and illustrates superb powertrain integration (such as the normally aspirated 3.0L I-6 in the BMW Z4), it gets a closer look.
It doesn’t take that long for each editor to decide whether an engine has the makings of a winner. It’s a feeling in the gut, and you’d be shocked at how many engines have made our list year after year based on consensus.
Oh sure, we sit in a conference room and duke it out over which of the top 15 make it into the final 10, but every year there is much more agreement than discord.
People don’t buy vehicles based solely on horsepower numbers and torque charts and the composition of an engine block. We take the same approach in crafting our 10 Best Engines list.
Ward’s 10 Best Engines is copyright Penton Media Inc. Commercial references to the program and/or awards are prohibited without prior permission of Ward’s Automotive Group.