What Does This De Tomaso Pantera, Mazda RX-7, and Lotus Elise Have in Common?

To LS-engine swap, or not to LS-engine swap—that is the question.

LS-engine swap
Mallory Short

A formula that has consistently proven successful for us in the video business is featuring “LS-swapped” cars. These videos, no matter the car, get a ton of traffic, partially because the purists come out to start arguments in the comments section, and partially because, in general, the LS-swapped version of whatever car we’re featuring makes significantly more power than the standard version. Given two titles—"The 250-hp Rotrex Supercharged NB Miata" or "The 550-hp LS-Swapped NB Miata"—which would you click on?

Exactly.

First, a quick primer: What is an LS-swap, exactly?

The LS-series of engines by General Motors was first introduced in 1997 as the standard engine for the C5 Corvette, known as the LS1. The 5.7-liter V-8 featured an aluminum block and a pushrod design, which means the camshaft is inside the engine block, rather than on top of the cylinder head. Compared to an overhead cam-style engine, the LS engine is physically much smaller and lighter, and it’s only because of that engine design that a Corvette can have such a low cowl height. Overhead cam engines, such as Ford’s Coyote V-8, are much larger in size even though they carry less displacement.

After the C5 Corvette, the LS engine made its way into the F-Body Camaro, all subsequent Corvettes through 2013, the fifth-generation Camaro, a whole range of rear-drive Chevy/Holden/Pontiac sedans, coupes, and utes, and GM’s full size trucks and SUV’s like the Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, and Escalade variants. There are probably a bunch of applications I’m not including, but you get the idea: this engine came in everything in the first part of the 21st century, increasing in power and displacement and with forced induction applications, culminating with the 640-hp Corvette ZR1, the 556-hp Cadillac CTS-V, and the 505-hp naturally aspirated Corvette Z06 and Camaro Z28. Even today, in 2016, you can still get the Chevrolet SS/Holden Commodore with an LS3 engine from the factory. GM will sell you something called an “E-Rod” LS3 out of the Performance Parts catalog, which is a smog legal 435-hp V-8. It can be swapped into nearly any car, even in California, 100 percent legally.

The LS engine is known for its reliability, compact size, light weight, and how well it takes to modifications—a simple set of upgraded cylinder heads and a new camshaft, for around $2,000, can yield 100 extra horsepower at the wheels. Low-boost supercharging applications can show 150 wheel horsepower in gains on stock internals. And by using the truck version of the LS engine, which came with an iron block rather than aluminum, tuners are pushing massive amounts of twin-turbo-fed boost through the LS engine, with results deep into the four-figure horsepower range.

Ok, so the engine is small, light, reliable, powerful, and readily available, with two decades' worth of aftermarket support. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Except, of course, the question, "So what happens when you do an LS swap and how does the car drive afterwards?"

This is where I come in. After a decade of doing this, I’ve got quite the catalog of cars—and I’ve had the opportunity to drive multiple versions of the same car, in stock, modified, and LS-swapped trims. Here, in no particular order, are some examples of how an LS engine changes the character and performance of a car, for better or worse.

Exhibit 1: 400-whp Mazda "FD" RX-7 Big Turbo Modification vs. LS2 Swap

I did this comparison for my show /TUNED, and we were fortunate enough to find two cars that were nearly identical in every way save the engine. They were the same year, had the same suspension setup, and even wore the same wheels and tires. The only differences were the engines and gearbox.

The LS2 V-8 did add a bit of weight, about 75 pounds, to the nose of the car, and the T56 transmission was also a bit heavier than the standard Mazda box. What it gained, though, was a huge boost in torque at the bottom and middle of the power band. You could go just as fast in the LS2 car as you could in the rotary car, and without having to work nearly as hard at it. The LS2 car would make for a better daily driver, at least objectively.

By comparison, the power band of the turbo Rotary engine began much higher, at around 4,000 rpm, and it's narrower, dying off just before the 8,000-rpm redline. The standard Mazda shifter is better than the Tremec T56 necessary for the LS2, and the rotary engine has such a small rotating mass that it revs up and down really, really fast. The rotary is significantly less fuel efficient than the LS2, using more than double the amount of fuel as the LS2 under the same conditions, and the car feels generally more manic. But the rotary car, with its lighter-but-no-softer steering feel, is more eager to turn in. It also has a uniqueness to it, a completely different sound and feel from anything else on the road. (It does need the right exhaust setup to sound good, though; check out a video of that same Turbo RX-7 with a better exhaust here.)

In this case, the LS2 swap is both practical and highly functional choice. The LS2 car is faster than the rotary car in a straight line, and the engine actually work quite well with the chassis. However, I came away from this test thinking the LS2-swapped RX-7 feels way too much like an actual Corvette, to the point where, if that’s the feeling you wanted, you probably should have just bought a Corvette and saved yourself the trouble.

Verdict: LS-swap for cruising, drag racing, or daily driving; turbo rotary for fun.

Exhibit 2: 500-hp Nissan 300ZX Twin-Turbo vs. 500-hp Built 6.0-liter LS

The "Z32" Nissan 300ZX is a very cool car, probably deserving of more praise than it gets. It was sold in the US from 1989 through 1996, and came from the factory with a twin-turbo VG30DETT V-6 making 300 horsepower. They were expensive cars for their day, and were eventually priced out of the American market, continuing on in Japan until 2000. The Z32’s engine bay is notoriously tight, and a known packaging/maintenance nightmare for those brave enough to work on these cars today. (Watch the twin-turbo 300ZX one-take here.)

Regarding tuning, the VG30DETT did have potential, and I found a modified, clean, low mileage version making about 500 horsepower. I also found a clean, low-mile car in New Jersey, born as a naturally-aspirated car but converted at Lion of Judah Innovations with the LS motor, which actually mates to the standard 300ZX transmission using a custom adapter plate.

In this case, the LS engine is lighter than the original engine and sits further aft in the engine bay, improving both weight and weight distribution. In the short-wheelbase version of the 300ZX, this difference is noticeable through the steering and the car's willingness to change direction. It almost feels like the steering ratio has been quickened, even though it’s the same. (300ZX LS-swap video here.)

Here’s the thing, though: speaking as a driver and not a mechanic, the VG30DETT is a wonderful little engine. It feels more similar than different to the even more wonderful RB26DETT that came in the Skyline GTR. It has similar power delivery, similar revving characteristics, and a similar sound profile—although the inline RB is more ‘slick’ while the vee-angled VG has more of a growl. It makes good torque, revs quickly, and feels more modern than you’d expect of a car of that age, just like the RB. I came away from the VG-powered car the same way I came away from my first time in the R32 Skyline: blown away by how shockingly refined it was for a 25-year-old car.

The LS engine is rougher, louder, and meaner. It blasts your eardrums with MURRICAN! V-8 fire and fury. It feels like a race car, not a road car; more like a project than a complete package. The shifter linkage angle becomes a bit wonky thanks to the drivetrain being shuffled around a bit, and rowing the gears is more chore than joy. Throttle response was instant, as expected, but as with most LS engines, the eagerness to rev that I love so much was simply absent.

Verdict: If starting with a twin-turbo car, modify that for more power. If starting with a naturally-aspirated car, go with the LS—just get some good mufflers and Dynamat sound-dampening.

Exhibit 3: De Tomaso Pantera Restored to Stock vs. Ringbrothers "ADRNLN" 600-hp LS3 SEMA Car

Before Toyota figured out how to rig up a battery pack and a gas engine to work together, the word “hybrid” meant something else when it came to cars. In the 1960s and '70s, a variety of small, European manufacturers realized that powerful, reliable V-8 engines from—gasp!—America would be a good idea. Companies like Bizzarini, Iso Grifo, Jensen, AC, and, yes, De Tomaso all wrapped American V-8 drivetrains in sleek, European bodies, giving the world some truly great cars. Some of these cars, like the AC/Shelby Cobras and the Bizarrinis, are worth tons of money on the collector market today.

The De Tomaso Pantera is as quintessentially Italian-looking as it sounds, with a wedge shape and low cowl provided by Ghia; if you didn’t know better, the Pantera could easily have been a Lamborghini. But under the rear bonnet sat a Ford 351 Cleveland V-8, factory (under)rated at 330 horsepower—but really making more like 380 through a five-speed ZF transaxle.

On a gorgeous day in April, I spent several hours hopping back and forth between an immaculately restored 1973 Pantera GTS and, unbelievably, the Ringbrothers’ creation ADRNLN, now owned by “Fast ‘N’ Loud” star Richard Rawlings and on display at the Petersen Museum here in Los Angeles.

(BRAG: I am maybe one of ten people on the planet to ever get to drive this car, and I couldn’t be more thankful to the Ringbrothers for the opportunity. Watch the Pantera Pro-Tour or Restore video here.)

While the 1973 Pantera looked, ran, and drove as if it had just left the factory in Italy, ADRNLN was anything but. Based on a 1971 Pantera chassis, the Rings completely reimagined the Pantera as a modern car, not unlike what Camilo Pardo and Ford did with the 2004 Ford GT. The body is made completely of carbon fiber; only a section of roof, about a foot wide, remains from the original body. Every line, every window, every function has been rethought, redesigned, and (mostly) re-engineered. I’m not sure we’ve ever filmed a car that photographs better than ADRNLIN; as a SEMA build car, that’s to be expected.

What was unexpected was that under the rear bonnet, and indeed under a pair of “Powered by Ford” valve covers, sat a 600-horsepower LS3 engine by Wegner Motorsports. Although the Pantera was a tuner favorite throughout its forty-plus-year run, with modified versions popping up at car shows, track days, and runway events all over Southern California, for many tuners the LS swap went too far, and they were sure to let us know about it.

Truth be told, ADRNLN wasn’t exactly sorted when I drove it. The car had literally covered about six miles since completion by the time I got behind the wheel. Frankly, it drove a little weird. The steering was too sloppy on center and too twitchy under load, the Nike Skunkworks-designed interior was way more cramped than the original car (and did I mention ugly—it was really ugly), none of the vent/defroster functions worked, and in general the car was challenging to drive. But it was fast. My god, was it fast. With an engine approximately 30 percent lighter than the original 351 and making double the power, with 50 percent wider rear tires than the original, straight line acceleration was formidable, and unavoidable. The throttle response couldn’t have been faster, the power delivery couldn’t have been more violent. And with sticky tires on foot-wide rear wheels, it hooked and it went.

I’ve heard that, since my drive, some of the points regarding handling, functions, and brakes have been addressed, but here’s one that hasn’t: the gearbox, which came from the standard car. In the standard car, the ZF five-speed has a gated shifter. Sneaker-pimps Nike replaced the gate with a boot, making it really hard to find the correct gear. Turns out, those gates were there for a reason.

The stock 1973 Pantera is, put simply, one of the finest vintage vehicles I’ve ever driven. I was blown away by that car, to the point that a photo of it now serves as the desktop image on the computer from which I write these words. The 351 Cleveland (so named for the city in which it was built) is a marvelous engine that, in this application, couldn’t be better suited. The stock cam is quite mild, giving it a smooth, even sound. The fact that it’s mounted at the back changes the experience immensely, as you’re no longer hearing exhaust gasses pass under the car beneath your seat. The steering was light and direct, and the balance between smooth, even power, firm brakes, and light steering was perfectly in harmony. The long gearing and big torque meant you didn’t have to hunt for power—it was always just there, whatever gear you’d selected through the marvelous gated shifter.

But I really do have to emphasize, again, the smoothness. That’s what stuck with me. That’s what made the Pantera a European sports car and not an American muscle car. I didn’t want the lumpy cam and shouty exhaust from a Pantera; I wanted refinement, balance, and a harmony between all the elements.

Verdict: While the Ringbrothers have created a masterpiece of a beautiful interpretation of a Pantera, the original car and its original drivetrain are vastly underappreciated from a driving perspective.

Exhibit 4: 700-hp Lotus Elise Twincharged vs. Hennessey Venom GT

The Lotus Elise is an excellent car by any definition of the word, and an absolutely incredible car by Lotus standards. It’s not that Colin Chapman’s theory regarding performance—“simplify, then add lightness”—isn’t sound; quite the contrary. It’s just that when it comes to horsepower, Lotus never really got there. Sure, the last-generation Esprit V-8 had a snarly twin-turbo motor making 350 horsepower. But it could have made well over 500 if the gearbox weren’t made from recycled toilet paper.

The Elise and its relatives, the Exige and 2-Eleven, are objectively the best cars Lotus ever made, and certainly the most reliable, with their Toyota 2ZZ four-cylinder that produced up to 260 horsepower in supercharged “Exige S260” form. These cars are as close as one gets to an adult-sized go-kart while still retaining things like body panels, a roof, and air conditioning. They're light, fun to throw around, and very simple to keep running, which is why a used Lotus Elise will be $30,000 forever.

The Elise is quick, fun to drive, and—ingress and egress aside—not a pain in the ass in any way. The Exige is stiffer, racier, and certainly faster, with its force-fed engine. But honestly, neither of these cars, for all their exotic looks, for all their simplistic performance chops, ever really excited me.

Then I drove a ridiculously complicated, twin-charged (that’s with a turbo and a supercharger) and alcohol-injected 700-hp four-cylinder Lotus Elise, modified within an inch of its life. The video did four million views.

This Lotus Elise was maniacal, incredibly focused, raw, and mean. It was, fundamentally, a time-attack style car for the road. The engine was built and strung within an inch of its life, matching the owner’s personality quite nicely. Widened nine inches on a stock wheelbase and weighing just 2,150 pounds, the word “fast” didn’t quite do it justice. “Hummingbird on mescaline” is more like it. The engine made all the sounds at once: supercharger whine, turbo spool and blow-off, gear squeal, and whatever fear sounds like. The car was twitchy, darty, and undeniably fast as all hell. I was sure that was the limit for the Lotus Elise.

Until John Hennessey and his team shoved an LS engine into one. And the video did 5.8 million views.

I’m sorry, did I say they used an LS engine? I meant they used a twin-turbo, longitudinally mounted, balanced and blueprinted LS engine making 1,300 horsepower and stuck to a Ricardo six-speed transaxle, in my opinion the finest manual gearbox ever produced. (It came in the Ford GT and has a replacement cost of over $25,000). In order to make that stuff fit, Hennessey lengthened the chassis by 18 inches and widened it by over a foot, using new extruded chromoly subframes mounted to the standard Lotus tub, and reinforced with a roll cage.

No matter what you say about John Henessey, what you think of his business or his cars, I cannot deny that the Venom GT is the fastest, scariest, most brutally amazing road missile I’ve ever had the privilege of piloting down a runway. I hit 200 mph from a standing start in just over 15 seconds, without really trying too hard. The force of this engine will suck your eyeballs into the back of your skull. A few seconds at full throttle in one of these can result in just one emotion: the fear giggle. You’re so scared but so full of adrenaline from what you’ve just experienced that you can’t help but crack up on the spot. The Venom will shoot a two-foot flame from its exhaust at full throttle. It will turn men to boys and women without the last name “Force” will want out immediately. I absolutely adore it.

And there’s more! Because the Venom GT’s nuclear reactor of an engine makes 600 lb-ft of torque at just 1,000 rpm, you can creep through traffic without using the accelerator at all. The lengthened and reinforced chassis on custom-valved Penske shocks has a much better ride on the highway than a standard Elise, and with carbon-ceramic brakes stolen from the Corvette ZR1, it stops better too.

There are some downsides, of course. The Venom GT sells for a million bucks, which, depending on your market, will get you between 20 and 30 copies of a standard Elise, and probably two or three killer custom Lotus builds.

The arrival of the “big three” hypercars—LaFerrari, Porsche 918, and McLaren P1—may have put the Venom GT all but six feet under, but the sheer existence of such a thing is, to me, proof there is a God. The Venom GT exists only because if you built your own roller coaster, you’d have to bolt it down somewhere, and you can take the Venom with you.

The verdict: An Elise or Exige make a great and depreciation-free weekend toy. A 700-hp four-cylinder build is insane, but wholly impractical for someone without means and a lot of engineering time. A Venom GT drops the mic; if you have the means, there is almost no four-wheeled vehicle on the planet that’s more terrifyingly thrilling than a Venom GT.

Conclusion:

While we haven’t—and certainly can’t—come up with some kind of overarching conclusion that will satisfy every need, here’s what I have learned about the LS swap:

If your car comes with a unique engine, a special engine, an engine that has a character all its own and that character is an integral part of the experience of that car, and if you can keep and upgrade that engine to make your desired power level with a reasonable level of reliability, you should keep the standard engine, and possibly modify it to your liking.

If your car comes with a bland engine, a blown engine, or no engine at all, and your goal is (relatively) cheap speed, improving the weight distribution with a lighter engine, or a dedicated race vehicle, there is no argument against an LS engine that will satisfy me. In a race, an engine’s character isn’t important; making the most power with the least weight and space is. If you’re building a competitive-level drift car, a pro-touring muscle car, or want four-figure horsepower through a home built turbo setup, the LS range of engines simply can’t be beat.