These Cars Would Be Massively Improved With a Better Factory Engine

So many cars, so close to greatness…

byDerek Powell|
Culture photo


We all know the feeling of admiring something from afar only to be let down by what's under the hood. It's a de facto assumption that bigger numbers track with a better time in the driver's seat—consider, for example, the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 sports cars. Ever since their introduction in 2012, they've been dogged by critics clamoring for more power. If only it had a turbo!

Then it would be perfect.

And the Toyobaru twins are far from the only new cars that came screwed from the factory with the wrong engine. Dream machines are always difficult to get out the door, now more so than ever in an age of increasing emissions controls and corporate cost-cutting. Still, there are a maddening amount of models today that are a few degrees off of true greatness thanks to a subpar powertrain. Something must be done, the proper authorities alerted.

In that helpful spirit, I've put together this list of The Drive's picks for new cars in desperate need of an engine swap, and which new motor automakers realistically should be using. First, some ground rules. These are all new 2020 model year cars on sale today, and the internal combustion engines slated for transplantation are all from that manufacturer's portfolio and could conceivably be made to fit. EV swaps are an altogether different conversation

Most importantly, numbers only count for half the story in my book, if that. Character matters. 

Take the Jeep Grand Cherokee for example, since Fiat-Chrysler has been busy building a cottage industry of in-house Hemi engine swaps anyway. What's a better dream Jeep: the 475-hp SRT with its 6.4-liter free-breathing V8? Or the 707-hp, Hellcat-powered Trackhawk? There are probably an equal number of fans of both concepts reading this right now. That's because simply picking the most powerful engine that fits isn't always the right fix for a shoulda-coulda car.

Now, in no particular order:

Acura MDX

  • Current engine: 3.5-liter J35Y5 V6 | 290 hp, 267 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 3.5-liter JNC1 twin-turbo V6 | 500 hp, 406 lb-ft

In a world where 500-horsepower SUVs are a dime a dozen, why shouldn’t Acura get a piece of the action? Think of it as expanding the halo effect of the NSX in the form of a three-row crossover. All it takes is a little boost—ideally, from the NSX's twin-turbo JNC1 V6 dropped into the Acura MDX's engine bay.

Right now, the timing couldn’t be better, as Acura is assembling the special-edition MDX PMC alongside the NSX at Honda’s Performance Center in Marysville, Ohio. With the Anna Engine Plant just a few miles away from that factory, it's almost too easy. Not so easy is figuring out how to mount the longitudinal JNC1 engine in a transverse FWD application, or fabricating a new rear-drive powertrain for the MDX, but either are a worthy endeavor. You don't even need the full tri-motor setup, since a version of that is already offered on the Sport Hybrid trim. And while I'm on the subject...

Acura NSX

  • Current engine: 3.5-liter JNC1 twin-turbo V6 + three electric motors | 577 hp, 467 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 3.5-liter JNC1 twin-turbo V6 | 500 hp, 406 lb-ft

As Colin Chapman famously said, add lightness. The NSX features a hybrid setup with two front-axle motors (plus a third out back) whose handling gains don't fully justify its weight and complexity. Sure, it gives the NSX all-wheel drive and the golden promise of torque vectoring, but the powertrain's clinical performance isn't as emotionally engaging as it should be. So why not yank the electricals and put the focus back on the NSX being a tactile rear-wheel drive supercar?

While the reduced weight should help to offset that 70-hp loss of electric shove, I also suspect there’s more power to be found in the NSX-specific V6. Incidentally, Acura already offers this configuration—sort of—in the racing-spec NSX GT3. However, it also costs a cool half-million dollars. Replicate this setup in roadgoing form, offer it up with an enticing price tag, and perhaps the NSX could find its audience yet. 

Audi RS5

  • Current engine: 2.9-liter TSFI twin-turbo V6 | 444 hp, 443 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 2.5-liter TSFI turbo inline-five | 395 hp, 354 lb-ft

Here we have an engine in search of a car as much as a car in search of an engine. On paper, the RS5’s 444-hp 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 is a beast, capable of slinging Audi’s hottest coupe (and Sportback) from 0-60 mph in a scant 3.7 seconds and to a blistering top speed of 174 mph. And it does it all without a hint of soul. Fortunately, Audi's still making engines with some of that.

As the TT RS fades into the sunset after the 2020 model year, that leaves only the RS3 (and the rest-of-the-world RS Q3) as the lone models to feature Audi’s brilliant turbocharged five-cylinder mill. That whistling, raspy blat conjures up visions of ’80s Group B rally domination, and it's a shame to squander such a richly characterful engine in a transverse configuration. The 2.5-liter five deserves a proper longitudinally-mounted home, and the RS5 deserves a powertrain that doesn't need fake exhaust noise. A match made in himmel.

Fiat 124 Spider

  • Current engine: 1.4-liter MultiAir turbo inline-four | 164 hp, 184 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 1.7-liter 1750 TBi turbo inline-four | 237 hp, 258 lb-ft

Perhaps the biggest strike against the Fiat 124 is that it’s viewed as little more than a Mazda MX-5 with a body kit. Sure doesn't help that the raucous-sounding 1.4-liter turbo four, which sounds so rorty and delicious in the Fiat 500 Abarth, is overwhelmed and timid in the 124, optional Record Monza exhaust notwithstanding. The 1.7-liter engine from the Alfa 4C, however, has no such inhibitions. Fire it up and it lets out more snarls, pops, and whooshes than the Tasmanian Devil. Plus, with that 77 horsepower bump, this intra-corporate swap would instantly vault the 124 from a sunny runabout to a hellraising handful.

The 1.7 is now an orphan, last used in the recently-departed 4C, and though the 124 isn't long for this world either, I think we can all agree it would be nice to see the two get together and link arms as they cruise towards oblivion.

Lexus LS

  • Current engine: 3.4-liter V35A-FTS twin-turbo V6 | 416 hp, 442 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 5.0L 2UR-GSE V8 | 471 hp, 399 lb-ft

Of all the entries on this list, this oversight is probably the most shocking and most easily rectifiable. A Lexus flagship sedan without a V8? Say it isn’t so! It doesn’t matter if the twin-turbo V6 is a sweetheart of a powertrain, because this full-size, rear-drive luxury segment is still very much about going big. Here, the Lexus LS stands out as the only one to forgo an eight-cylinder option. Turns out there is actually no replacement for displacement, at least when you're talking about stunting on your neighbors with a big sedan.

This decision from Lexus would make sense if the Japanese marque was leaning into forced induction all over, but it still makes a wonderful V8: the durable 2UR-GSE, slight variations of which can be found in the LC500 and RC-F coupes along with the sales-proof GS-F. The age of the naturally-aspirated eight-cylinder sedan may be roaring to a close, but it’s not over yet. C’mon, Lexus—there's still time to give it a proper send-off with the LS-F.

Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride

  • Current engine: 3.8-liter Lambda GDI V6 | 291 hp, 262 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 3.3-liter Lambda II T-GDI twin-turbo V6 | 365 hp, 376 lb-ft

[Editor's Note: Hyundai/Kia doesn't have any engine-out photos available for the 3.8, so no cool cutaway here sadly.]

One look at the broad front end of the Kia Telluride and you'd expect to find a V8 under the hood. But appearances can be deceiving, as both the Telluride and its platform-mate Hyundai Palisade are actually powered by a sideways V6 primarily driving the front wheels. As great as those two extra cylinders would sound, history has shown that mounting a V8 in a transverse configuration isn’t, well, the best idea. But there are no such issues with a twin-turbo V6, and it just so happens that Hyundai/Kia have a terrific one—you know it from the Kia Stinger and the entire Genesis lineup, where it's a lightning performer with surprising low-end punch.

While no transverse application of the 3.3T exists as of yet, the popular Korean SUV twins could provide a solid case for developing one. At the very least make it an option on the Kia Telluride, a model named for a town at 8,700 feet where its naturally aspirated V6 would feel overworked in the thin mountain air.

Kia Stinger

  • Current engine: 3.3-liter Lambda II T-GDI twin-turbo V6 | 365 hp, 376 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 5.0-liter Tau GDI V8 | 420 hp, 383 lb-ft

Make no mistake: The twin-turbo V6 in the Stinger is one hell of an engine. It propels the car from 0-60 in the mid 4s and has ample torque to fry the rear tires on demand, even in all-wheel-drive GTS models. The Stinger is oft-described as the Korean version of the gone-but-not-forgotten Chevy SS, so why not make the comparison even more apt by stuffing a V8 under the hood? Now, cruising would be accompanied by a righteous burble. Justify those smoky burnouts with a proper eight-cylinder roar. Necessary? No. Practical? Hardly. But then again, isn’t that the entire mantra of the Stinger in the first place? 

Cadillac CT5-V

  • Current engine: 3.0-liter LGY twin-turbo V6 | 360 hp, 405 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 4.2-liter Blackwing twin-turbo V8 | 550 hp, 640 lb-ft

Recently we learned that Cadillac is going to bestow the Blackwing name on its forthcoming performance variants. The one thing they'll be missing? The Blackwing engine itself; you know, the state-of-the-art V8 designed exclusively for Cadillac that saw life in exactly one model before the plug was pulled. GM’s prestige brand hasn’t had an engine of its own since its Northstar V8 went out of production in 2011, and the Blackwing would have been a great way to once again crawl out from under the hegemony of GM parts-bin sharing.

Instead, the Cadillac CT5-V is pushing a 3.0-liter twin-turbo V6, and while that engine has its merits, come on. I'm looking for a V8 Caddy here. There's hope on the horizon in a rumored hardcore CTS-V with those two missing cylinders, but word is they'll come in the form of the LT4 V8 from the old CTS-V and Chevy Camaro ZL1. While it sounds properly menacing and out-shoves the Blackwing motor by a not-insignificant 100 hp, there's nothing prestigious about its power.

Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman

  • Current engine: 2.0-liter MA2.20 turbo flat-four | 300 hp, 280 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 2.5-liter TSFI turbo inline-five | 395 hp, 354 lb-ft

Blasphemous? Perhaps, but hear me out: Boxster and Cayman sales tanked in 2017 after the sonorous wail of the iconic flat-six was replaced by a leaf-blower drone generated by your trolley-problem choice of two flat-fours. More torque is always welcome, but the promise of better fuel economy is a wash. Then there’s that noise. There’s not a sweet spot to be found anywhere throughout the entire rev range. When an engine is inches from your head, it should sound marvelous, not torturous.

Dropping Audi’s thrummy, warbly turbo-five into the engine bay of the 718 twins would replace that unlikeable metallic bark with a warm odd-numbered hug. If the 2020 718 GTS now offers a mea culpa in the form of a detuned 4.0-liter flat six pilfered from the GT4, think of the turbo-five as a Hail Mary penance.

Porsche Macan Turbo

  • Current engine: 2.9-liter VW EA839 twin-turbo V6 | 434 hp, 405 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 4.0-liter Porsche twin-turbo V8 | 453 hp, 457 lb-ft

Here’s another example of VW Group’s corporate 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6 delivering phenomenal performance with all the drama of a wet raspberry. The 434-hp Macan Turbo may go like stink, but it’s in severe need of a personality transplant—especially if it’s going to distinguish itself from the cheaper, similar-sounding, and only slightly slower Macan S and GTS siblings. A bonafide Porsche V8 should do the trick. It doesn’t even need to be the 550-hp version found in the Panamera Turbo, either, which delivers acceleration we described as being “inside of a punch.” The 453-hp tune from the Panamera GTS would do just nicely.  

Subaru Crosstrek

  • Current engine: 2.0-liter FB20D flat-four | 152 hp, 145 lb-ft
  • Dream engine: 2.4-liter FA24F flat-four | 260 hp, 277 lb-ft
Hybrid model pictured, but the basic 2.0-liter FB engine is pretty similar across the board., Subaru

A sad but true fact: With the exception of the BRZ and WRX/STI, Subaru owners aren’t interested in performance. Indeed, the WRX-on-stilts, turbo-powered Forester XT commanded only a 6 percent take rate before it was put out to pasture after the 2018 model year. And even though the Crosstrek is set to receive a 30-hp bump from a newly available 2.5-liter for 2021, wouldn’t some boost be better?

Just like the Macan, the endgame isn’t nutty power. I'm not saying we need to go full Gravel Express here. A milder version of the turbo 2.4-liter from the Ascent tuned for drivability could be just right. Say, 220 horsepower. Buyers could appreciate a modest increase in power without having to endure maddening turbo lag, the dramatic gasp of a wastegate—or, worst of all, the constant speeding tickets and expectation of antisocial behavior.

How do you solve a problem like a crappy engine? Simple: Pick a better one. 

Except the right answer isn't always obvious when you step away from the spec sheet and start looking at the car in totality, how everything from the exhaust note to throttle tip-in to idle character to fuel economy all feed this nebulous concept of character. Chances are you've fumed at a few of my choices as you read along, or thought of your own dream candidates for a corporate switcheroo. Well, what are you waiting for? The automakers are listening...