10 amazing engines you need to buy and the cars to buy them in
The UK’s set to phase out petrol engines. Here’s how to secure the best on a budget
Perhaps more than any other engine, the LS defines democratic performance. And that's been the case since it took over from its granddaddy, the small block Chevy, which cemented the V8 as an achievable performance engine way back in the Fifties.
And if it defines democratic performance, the LS redefines ubiquity – at least over in the US of A. The LS swap is so popular and so easy to achieve that its affordability, ease and obviousness earns it scornful disdain for being too cheap, too easy and too obvious.
But, and this is the important bit, who gives half a flying toss? Name us another engine that's as compact and lightweight, as simple to maintain as it is to modify for titanic power, as widely used by its OEM as it is supported by the aftermarket scene. Unless we're very much mistaken (it's been known to happen), you can't.
If you live in America (and to a lesser point, Australia), we have two big recommendations: 1) get a proper NHS already, and 2) make hay while the sun shines – the sun won't set on the LS until it sets on all engines.
If you're in the UK, there's no need to feel left out, though – flip through your second-hand car site of choice and check out how affordable early Vauxhall Monaros and VXR8s are. Yes, they're huge and uncouth, much like the lazy stereotype of Australians. But they're also as fun as a night out in Chalk Farm with actual Australians. When the sun comes up, it's time to head home, yeah?Advertisement - Page continues below
Speaking of small, popular engines that have taken on meme-like status, yo. Honda’s four-cylinder engines have, like the LS, taken on mythic status, even though they’d struggle to be any more different in terms of philosophy.
It's all in the name, really – Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control. And, if the eagle-eyed among you have spotted that the initialism of that phrase is actually VVTLEC, well done. Doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well though, does it? The point is that Honda derives its power from on-the-fly adjustable cam profiles and valve lift duration (which are interrelated, obvs). Or, to put it slightly less technically, they supplicate themselves at the altar of high-tech. The LS, on the other hand, is rocking two valves per cylinder and a single, non-adjustable cam. Yes, GM did try VVT in later LS engines, but that's like grooming a Clydesdale and trying to play Polo on it.
The series of VTEC engines (and there is a staggering array of hits in there, in multiple displacements and applications) is the purebred Polo pony – lightweight, agile and quick.
The Honda S2000 with the F20C is our absolute pick here. Sure, there are VTEC engines with turbos big enough to inflate a continent-sized jumping castle and the sort of always-on shove usually reserved for rugby scrums. But we'll cast our vote for the 2.0-litre wonder from the aptly named S2000, which held the record for highest naturally aspirated power per litre until Ferrari’s F136F V8 from the 458. Yep, it took a Ferrari to beat this thing on power per litre. And even then, it was in an engine with twice the cylinders and more than twice the displacement.
Yeah, yeah, get your jokes in now. The fact of the matter is that these things are absolutely brilliant, despite their age, despite their antiquated design, despite their lineage as an unpopular American V8 bought by no one’s favourite car company and put in cars that worked about as often as the people who built them.
If you think about the Rover V8 as the British version of the LS, you’d not be far off the mark – lightweight, aluminium head and block (a huge deal back in the day) and a simple, compact pushrod design. And, like the LS, it was used in a staggering range of cars and 4WDs as a standard engine, then set upon by professional and backyard tuners until it was making properly worrying power.
And this is where the Rover V8’s flexibility would shine through – it’d happily haul a Range Rover over hill and dale, serenely propel Rover P5Bs along the new-fangled motorways and scare the last wit out of a TVR driver as they set new records in unintended oversteer. It found its way into Morgans and MGs, Triumphs and thousands of hot rods, kit cars and bona fide racers. This engine really was, to quote our favourite childhood book, the little engine that could.Advertisement - Page continues below
If you're going to save engines, it's no good only saving the conventional, regardless of how far they take the regular recipe or how they spice it up. Look beyond reciprocating pistons, to the literally one other type of car engine we've created in the century or so since the first one.
Yes, folks, it's the rotary engine (in case the heading didn't give it away), the outside-the-box oddball that is simultaneously the more logical engine and the least-widely understood. It's also an engine with a genesis only slightly more historically uncomfortable than the VW Beetle’s. Felix Wankel was, as well as the father of the rotary engine, a literal Nazi.
The Wankel engine was a fragile, thirsty white elephant until the wondrously go-their-own-way bods at Mazda did things properly and sorted things out. The basic architecture is still flawed, by the way – paging failed apex seals – but Mazda came closer than any other to making it stick. And believe us when we say that lots of companies tried, enticed by the otherworldly smoothness and free-revving nature – and promptly threw it in the too-hard basket.
So let's instead credit Mazda for taking what would otherwise have been a failed technological relic from the wrong side of the world's biggest conflict and making the most unique mass-produced engine ever fitted to a car.
The 13B is the obvious victor here, able to be finished and tuned to produce astonishing power for such a small displacement, but we’re going to go out on a limb and plant our flag for the terminally awesome, deep-cut 20B-REW, a 2.0-litre, triple-rotor turbo with 300bhp and about the same in torque, direct from the factory. It was only fitted to the Eunos Cosmo (Eunos is to Mazda what Lexus is to Toyota, just vastly less successful), a gorgeous grand tourer from the last days of the Japanese economic miracle.
Also, if you do find a 20B Cosmo, remember who your friends are. Then bypass them and come to see us, OK? We’re much cooler and also have snacks and beer and stuff.
Without question or shadow of a doubt, the S54 engine makes one of the greatest sounds to ever reverberate through the air. Being an engine from M Division, of course, it also has other benefits, like forward motivation and the ability to make people without one only slightly more jealous than Cain.
To find yourself an S54 engine of your own, you’re looking at E46 M3s (already climbing in price in an alarming manner) or the Z4M from the E85/86 generation. Our pick is the E46 M3, of course – a perfectly proportioned coupe from the can-do-no-wrong era of M Division, but you’re free to make your own choices and mistakes as you see fit.
High-mileage coupes with manual gearboxes are starting at about £10,000 (up from £5,000 just a few years ago), so now’s the time to find a decent one if you’re going to. If you’re American, you can find the same for about 15,000 Freedom Francs. Australian? Eh, you already know how overpriced every single thing is in your country, and how that goes double (and then triple, just for the hell of it) when it comes to any kind of performance car. Our advice would be to look more locally for an engine to save, if you’re a little more on the impecunious side of things.
And if you are an Australian, you probably have some idea of what we’re about to suggest next.
Now that S54-engined M3s, 2JZ Supras and RB26 Skyline GT-Rs are either ridiculously priced or heading that way ridiculously quickly, it’s easy to think that your chances of a turbo-nutter straight six are pretty much off the table. But don’t fret yet, pet – Australians and New Zealanders have already been enjoying a home-brew version for nearly two decades. That’s right, it’s time to talk about the mighty Barra.
So what, exactly, is the Barra named after? Well, there’s an island in the outer Hebrides called Barra, a fact that has absolutely nothing to do with the straight six’s name. Similarly, it has little to nothing to do with Brazilian football clubs, nor Camorra hitmen. It is, in fact, rather more prosaic than that. The Barra engines are named after the Barramundi, a generally gigantic and exceptionally delicious white-flesh fish from the crocodile-infested rivers and estuaries of Australia and across the Indo-West Pacific. Basically, wherever you find saltwater crocodiles, you’re likely to find Barramundi. Or what’s left of them.
Being Australian, the bods behind the Barra engine decided that long names are for chumps and abbreviated Barramundi to Barra. But the name really isn’t as important as the engine itself. If you’re not aware of the Barra already, allow us to condense what it’s all about into one simple sentence: imagine a four-litre 2JZ, built by guys who say ‘mate’ a lot.
Yes indeedy, it’s Ford Australia’s greatest gift to the car world, after Mad Max’s XB coupe and the concerningly powerful Falcon GTHO from the Seventies. From the factory, regular production cars with the turbo Barra could make as much as 415bhp and about the same in torque. A limited-run version offered 435bhp at the crank (running up to nearly 500bhp on overboost), but this was, like the 2JZ, just the beginning. Barras can do 600bhp at the rear wheels with only a few supporting mods and, if you go all out, four-figure power outputs are on the table. A few local nutca... er, enthusiasts managed more than 2,000 horsepower from a highly frigged-with – but still standard block – Barra. And that’s probably enough, isn’t it?
The Busso V6 may just be the prettiest engine of all time. This would all be for nought, of course, if it managed to produce all the power of a AA battery and sounded like a blender full of bolts, but the Busso is no one-trick pony. As an aside, all ponies are one-trick, aren’t they? They do that amazing thing where they turn themselves into glue and Tesco burgers and for the life of us, we still haven’t figured out how they manage the feat.
Moving on. The Busso V6, in its ultimate factory form, is a 3.2-litre, 250bhp V6 with enough torque to wreak genuine havoc on unsuspecting differentials. Ask us how we know. It also makes not just one of the most glorious V6 sounds ever, but one of the all-time great engine notes. In fact, writing about it now does make us miss our old 147 GTA more than we really should. Really, to own a 147 GTA is to truly understand what a love/hate relationship really is.
We had the pleasure and pain of a 147 GTA, which is the obvious and best choice to nab the top-tier Busso, just as long as you’re ready for things you never thought were consumable items becoming consumable items – ball joints, wishbones, bushes… water pumps. But the Busso made it into still-affordable, interesting and inherently flawed Alfas from the GTV6 and 75 to the 156 GTA.Advertisement - Page continues below
While it may or may not be the greatest V8 of all time (and we’re firmly in the former camp), the hand-built, motorsport-ready V8 from AMG is an utterly unforgettable experience. Also, did we mention the whole ‘hand-built by AMG to go racing’ bit? We did? OK then. Just checking.
Putting aside the much more expensive and rarefied M159 version, the power of the ‘regular’ M156 V8 ranges from a merely sublime 475bhp to a full 520bhp, depending on the car and its tune. The 6.2 will happily accept more tuning and superchargers if you’re perfectly potty, but we never found ourselves thinking ‘golly, this really is a bit on the slow side’.
But it’s not just a high-revving maniac that champs at the bit at every moment, just biding its time to unleash hell. The 6.2 is just as happy burbling away at 70 miles an hour on the button, cosseting you in the warm and gooey knowledge that one of the best sounds in the business is just a quick prod of your foot away.
Does this list seem a bit heavy on the V8 to anyone else? Maybe so, but it makes a certain kind of sense, doesn’t it? We’re on the hunt for engines that are both desirable and democratically priced. And that’s what the V8 has been across continents and generations. So why would we overlook it?
Not to say that Toyota’s 1UZ-FE V8 was anything but plutocratically priced when it debuted in the LS400 back in the late Eighties. Nor was it in the mould of the affordable American burbler – with quad cams, four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing made for incredible smoothness and economy from a four-litre V8, plus more than enough power to keep Mercedes honest.
Barring its engine, the LS400’s a bit on the dull side of completely uninteresting, so why not shrug off the boy-racer connotations and nab yourself a Toyota Soarer? It’s built on the same platform as the hallowed A80 Supra, just with country-club styling on top and a roughly bulletproof V8 under the bonnet.Advertisement - Page continues below
Well how about that? We close out with yet another V8. Although even the most curmudgeonly purist would have to admit that we picked a doozy. Given one of the hardest acts to follow in motoring history, the S65 was the M3’s brief dalliance with V8 engines before the free-revving, naturally aspirated engines got their curtain call in roughly every performance car going.
And what a damn dalliance it was – individual throttle bodies, dual variable valve timing, a 12:1 compression ratio and an 8,400rpm redline, good for 414bhp from four litres. Or, to put it another way, sodding brilliant.
It was so good that BMW took it racing from 2008 to 2016, long after the road car had swapped to a turbo inline six. And, if you’re a denizen of our misty and mizzly isles, you’ll notice that secondhand E90 and E92 M3s are going for very reasonable money (at least until people catch on to the brilliance that is the last naturally aspirated M3), so you know the drill. The old saying does say act in haste, regret at leisure. But remember that if you act too leisurely, you’ll still have all the time in the world to regret.