Talk to most car enthusiasts, especially older ones who lived through the ’60s and ’70s, and you’ll hear most of them talk about big V8’s. The V8 seems to be the epitome of power and performance in the eyes of most enthusiasts. Mention a measly four-cylinder and their heads will turn sideways like a confused puppy. The bigger the better for most, especially Americans. But engines with only six cylinders rarely get the love they deserve.
Six-cylinder engines just typically aren’t as sexy as big V8s or V12s. They aren’t engines that people drool over or lust for. Plus, six-cylinder engines can come in any variety of car, even boring ones, so people often don’t associate six-cylinder engines with the sort of passion as their larger counterparts. But not all six-cylinders are created equal. The Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima are available with V6 engines, but that doesn’t mean that a Camry or Altima is as special as a Jaguar F-Type. There have been many sixes throughout the ages that have been absolutely phenomenal and CarThrottle has created a list of nine of the best, which kills my OCD as it should be a list of ten.
1. Alfa Romeo ‘Busso’ V6
The Busso is easily not only one of the greatest six-cylinder engines of all time but one of the greatest engines of any variety of all time. It’s an engine of nearly unparalleled smoothness, made an absolutely sensational noise and was even beautiful to behold. Jeremy Clarkson once claimed that the Busso was more of a heart than it was an engine. It was an incredible engine. It also lasted decades. The Busso started life in 1979 and lasted all the way up until 2005, ranging anywhere from 2.0 liter to 3.2 liters and powering such greats as the Giogiaro-styled GTV6.
Part of the family of Mezger engines, the M97/74 4.0 liter flat-six engine is one of the all time great Porsche engines. It had genuine racing car technology baked into it, including the crankshaft from a Porsche 911 RSR and revved to an astonishing 8,250 rpm, making a naughty sound while doing it. It was one of the most enjoyable engines in any production road car at the time, as it was just so fun to rev all the way out and made beautifully linear power throughout its rev range. The 4.0 liter Mezger is one of the all time greats.
3. BMW S54
It didn’t take long for BMW to make the list. The S54 engine, which powered the famous E46 M3 and Z4 M, was an absolute gem. The naturally-aspirated 3.2 liter inline-six engine developed 333 horsepower, giving it just over 100 hp/per liter, an impressive feat for a free-breathing engine at the time. This was one of the last great naturally aspirated M engines. It was so wonderfully smooth and punchy with an incredible soundtrack. BMW I6 engines always had a sort of metallic sound, as if you can hear the metal in the engine really working, and it just sounds wonderful. This engine is a big part of the reason why the E46 M3 is so revered.
4. BMW N54
Back to back placements for BMW. The N54 was a twin-turbocharged 3.0 liter I6 that powered pretty much every BMW for some time. It developed 335 hp in the 1 Series M, which ironically is the only M car to have a non ‘S’ named engine, but put out around 300 in most BMWs. But it wasn’t the horsepower that made the N54 so special. The reason why it was so loved was that it made turbocharging feel naturally aspirated and no one had ever really done that as well as BMW had with the N54 up until that point. It had such a smooth and linear powerband, odd for a turbocharged car. Throttle response was excellent and there was very little turbo lag. It’s an engine that makes every BMW fan shiver with excitement.
5. Jaguar AJ126
Jaguar isn’t very well known for its six-cylinder engines, though one could argue that the British brand’s 3.8 liter I6 in the Jaguar E-Type should be ahead of this engine. The AJ126 is in quite a few Jag’s but it’s most famous in the stunning F-Type. There’s no doubt that this is a fantastic engine. It’s torquey, powerful, has excellent throttle response, is buttery smooth and makes one hell of a noise (though some of the noise is fake exhaust trickery). But I wonder how much of its love is really just lust for the F-Type itself. Regardless, though, it’s an excellent engine. Better than the original E-Type’s? Not so sure, but a damn fine engine.
6. Ford Barra
Most of us don’t know much about the Ford Barra engines, because they were built and sold in Australia. The Aussies like their muscle cars, much like we do in America, so big V8s are usually the Aussie favorite. However, this Ford I6 engine could make you forget about V8s. The last car to use the Barra I6 engine was the Ford Falcon FPV F6, which developed 420 hp from its 4.0 liter engine. They were big, brutish, muscular and loud engines that epitomized Australian performance.
7. Nissan VR38DETT
Probably the least attractive sounding engine name ever, the Nissan Vr38DETT sounds like it’s a fax machine. However, it is an absolute powerhouse. The 3.8 liter twin-turbocharged V6 engine is currently used in Godzilla, the Nissan GT-R. While the GT-R, including its engine, are criticized for not being as emotional as many enthusiasts would like, its engine is no less impressive because of it. Out of just 3.8 liters and six cylinders, it’s able to create 600 hp in the GT-R NISMO. Now, the previous sixers on this list are more charismatic, make better noises and evoke more emotion. But none of them produce anywhere near the amount of sheer fury that this one does.
8. GM LF4
This is where I have to disagree with CarThrottle. There are many six-cylinder engines in history that are far better than this one. Admittedly, it’s a good engine, there’s no denying that. Out of just 3.6 liters and developed specifically for the Cadillac ATS-V, it’s able to create 464 hp, which is impressive. It also has titanium connecting rods and fancy low-inertia turbochargers. But the fact of the matter is that its 464 hp still doesn’t accelerate as hard as any of its current six-cylinder counterparts, it’s not very smooth and has had several complaints about sounding like a hairdryer. It’s just not a very sexy or exciting engine and doesn’t do anything exceptionally well. It’s a good engine, don’t get me wrong. But top nine of all time? No, thanks. GM has plenty of remarkable engines in its stable, but they all have eight cylinders.
9. TVR Speed Six
Remember TVR? Probably not, right? TVR was the plucky British sports car company that went bust and came back about a million times over. It’s a shame, really, because when TVR was making cars, there weren’t many better pure sports cars on the road, back in the day. Modern TVR was a bit strange and never captured the magic of its predecessors from the ’60s and ’70s, but they did have great engines. The Speed Six was developed in house by TVR and was a naturally aspirated 4.0 liter I6 that made 380 hp. It was brutal and loud and violent. What an engine. This TVR should be ahead of the GM LF4, as it was just so much more charismatic. Sure, it broke down every 45 seconds, but for those 45 seconds there were few other engines you’d rather be controlling with your right foot.
10. Ferrari Dino V6
CarTrottle only gave us nine, but my OCD was freaking out and needed to add a 10th. Plus, making a list of best six-cylinder engines of all time and not including the Dino 206 GT engine should be a crime. This was the first six-cylinder engine to ever come from Maranello, but because it wasn’t big enough or powerful enough to wear a Ferrari badge, it was called a Dino. Plus it was the last engine designed by Dino Ferrari, the son of company founder, Enzo Ferrari. The Dino 206 GT had a 2.0 liter quad-cam V6 engine that revved to 8,000 rpm in 1968. That’s incredible. It made 180 hp, which sounds like nothing today, but it was a good amount in 1968 and the whole car was very light so it was enough. It also made one of the best six-cylinder engine sounds of all time.CarThrottle]