By Tony Whitney

There are all kinds of “car of the year” competitions organized by everything from enthusiast magazines to journalistic associations, but polls for excellence in the area of power units are rare indeed. One organization that does stage such a competition is the US-based automotive analyst Ward’s Automotive, which selects the “best of the best” in the powertrain field annually – and has done for 12 years now. The Ward’s 10 Best Engines program is highly respected around the auto industry and manufacturers posting a win are quick to publicize it in all kinds of ways – print and TV advertising, auto show displays and point-of-sale material in dealer showrooms.

While no auto buyer should regard any such poll as the “last word,” these contests do give us an indication of what the industry leaders are up to. For example, there are many outstanding engines around that didn’t make the top ten, but the list is worth a look by anyone dickering this way and that over a new vehicle purchase.

Ward’s points out that the best engines demonstrate that auto buyers can “have it all” and combine exhilarating performance with improved fuel economy with the current generation of powerplants. Ward’s calls its “10 Best Engines” report “a highly anticipated annual barometer of powertrain prowess.”

The 2006 “10 Best” report includes two Audi engines – the 2.0-litre FSI turbocharged double overhead cam inline 4-cylinder in the new Audi A3 hatchback and the 4.2-litre double overhead cam V8 featured in the Audi S4. I haven’t tried the A3 yet, but the V8 powered S4 is one of the most amazing sports sedans I’ve ever driven with almost unbelievable speed and handling. The 2.0-litre turbo is also used in Audi’s A4 and the 4.2-litre V8 has a home in the big A8 sedan.

BMW made the list with its 3.0-litre double overhead cam inline 6-cylinder as used in the new 330i sports sedan. Inline sixes are rare birds in the auto industry these days, most automakers having switched to ‘V’ configurations. BMW has always made the most satisfying sixes around and it would be a sad day for enthusiasts of the marque if the inline configuration was abandoned. Thankfully, there’s no sign of that yet and BMWs using these straight sixes still have that turbine-like feel and response buyers have got used to over the years.

DaimlerChrysler took an award for its mighty 5.7-litre Hemi Magnum OHV V-8, as featured in the powerful Dodge Charger R/T and several other products from this manufacturer. The “revival” of the Hemi brand has been one of the successes of the industry in recent times and has given its manufacturer a considerable boost in prestige.

Ford Motor Company made the ’10 Best’ with the 4.6-litre single overhead cam V8 featured in the new Mustang sports coupe. This engine endows the much-praised Mustang with great power and flexibility and also offers, in this package, something the car has always been famed for – “bang for the buck.” Few cars around the world offer the Mustang’s performance, not to mention looks, for anything remotely close to its reasonable price.

General Motors Corporation placed two powerplants in the Ward’s ’10 Best’ – the 2.0-litre double overhead cam supercharged inline 4-cylinder, as used in the sporty Chevrolet Cobalt SS, and the 2.8-litre turbocharged twin cam V6 powering Saab’s 9-3 Aero. It’s fascinating that GM’s pair of winners used different types of forced air induction. Superchargers are engine-driven to force more air into the engine and turbochargers are driven by exhaust gases. Both types of engine usually provide a great combination of power and fuel economy.

Mazda took a place in the list by way of its 2.3-litre DISI turbocharged double overhead cam inline 4-cylinder, as used in the Mazdaspeed6. This is a wonderful engine and gives the Mazda6 based car the kind of performance you’d expect only from the very best European sports sedans. Mazdaspeed is the company’s performance division and its products are always very exciting to drive.

Japanese nameplate rival Nissan made the final list with its 3.5-litre twin cam V6 as used in the Infiniti G35 6MT luxury sportster and various other products around the Nissan/Infiniti group. This engine has been part of the impressive turnaround staged by Infiniti in recent years – it’s smooth, flexible and potent and buyers can’t ask for more than that in a good powerplant.

Not to be outdone, Toyota took an award in Ward’s 10 Best with its 3.5-litre double overhead cam V6, as used in the new Lexus IS 350 sports sedan. This proved a very impressive powerplant indeed when I recently tested this car and is a fine replacement for the long-lived inline 6-cylinder engine earlier IS models used.

Ward’s points out that the two key engineering developments this time round were direct-injection gasoline (DIG) and forced induction in the form of superchargers and turbochargers. Both developments are aimed at generating extra power without any fuel economy penalty. The power unit in the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, for example, achieves over 100-horsepower per litre yet still records fuel economy of 10-litres/100 km in the city and 8-litres/100 km on the highway. Watch for more models like this in the years ahead.

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