When setting out to build a project car, there’s an absolutely enormous variety of makes, models, and eras to utilize as a donor vehicle. And while a great many of the models from decade’s past undeniably boast markedly more character and personality than modern late-model offerings, they tend to be powered by relatively antiquated, underpowered, unreliable engines. One readily available solution to this problem is standalone new production motors, commonly referred to as “Crate Engines.”
No matter what build genre or style, there will be a wide variety of compatible crate engines available, from existing powertrains plucked directly from production car models to high-performance forced-induction mills. With the popularity of automotive projects continuing to grow, automotive manufacturers have responded with an ever-more-impressive array of ready-to-go lumps. And while there’s admittedly no shortage of truly solid a la carte motors to choose from, there are an elite few that stand out from the crowd due to either their incredible performance capabilities and power output, versatility, or value.
Looking Under The Hood
The Qualities To Consider When Buying A New Crate Motor
Even the more primitive engines that exist are still incredibly complex machines, and as such, there’s an extensive number of factors to take into consideration when shopping around for a crate motor. Without venturing too far into the weeds, we’ve compiled this condensed list of seven of the most important elements to take into account before making your purchase.
Engine Size & Configuration: Measured by displacement in cubic inches or liters, an engine’s size is one of the more important factors in determining its power and performance. Likewise, the type of engine configuration being utilized will also play an equally pivotal role in an engine’s overall abilities. If you’re largely unfamiliar with the specific traits and characteristics of the different available engine types, this is an area well worth looking further into, as different setups — such as V-layouts versus inline configurations — will offer different strengths and weakness, making them more conducive to some projects than others based on factors such as power delivery.
Aspiration & Fuel Delivery: Another incredibly important factor in calculating an engine’s power output is how said engine is aspirated. Powertrains that have been fitted with forced induction systems (i.e. superchargers or turbochargers) are capable of punching well above their weight in terms of power output relative to their displacement. Unsurprisingly these systems don’t come cheap, though they undeniably hugely bolster performance. We’d also recommend opting for a fuel-injected crate motor as they’re markedly more efficient and will save you the headache of having to perform routine carb work.
Horsepower & Torque Output: A vehicle’s size, power delivery, and running gear will all play crucial roles in determining performance, though no other metrics will give you a better sense as to an engine’s raw abilities than horsepower and torque output. On top of an engine’s outright oomph, it’s also worth exploring at what point in the rev-range an engine’s (peak) power kicks in. And, with power output being such a central focal/selling point of engines, manufacturers have been producing mills with some wildly impressive power figures right out of the box.
Physical Dimensions: In what will probably come as a shock to absolutely no one, the size of the crate engine you can use will be dictated by the available real estate in your donor car’s engine bay. For this reason, it’s wildly important to double-check the physical dimensions of both the crate engine and the engine bay, while being sure to factor in other parts such as the transmission, cooling system, intake and exhaust, and so on.
Conduciveness To Tuning: Many of today’s production crate engines already put down genuinely impressive horsepower and torque figures, though if you’re interested in squeezing out a bit more muscle you should definitely consider a crate motor that lends itself to massaging and tuning, as some crate engines are much more conducive to performance upgrades than others. What’s more, there are also third-party companies that produce pre-tuned high-performance and race-spec turn-key crate engines.
Fuel Type: Though the vast majority of today’s crate engines can comfortably run on pump-fuel, there are some more high-performance powerplants that sip on higher-octane race fuels, which are not only substantially more difficult to source, but also come at a much steeper price, with 110-113 octanes typically costing around $10 – $20 per gallon.
Additional & Unforeseen Costs: When making a budget to build a project car, it’s important to consider all of the costs involved. When it comes to crate engines, this not only means the MSRP of the crated motor, but also tax and shipping costs, and money for installation — as well as cash set aside to purchase any parts that weren’t included with the engine such as intakes, disturbers, spark plugs and wires, thermostat and housing, alternator, wiring harness, and everything else needed to get up and running. While on the subject, it’s also worth pointing out that some manufacturers do sell complete turnkey engines with everything need to put together a running motor, plus there are combo bundles with grouped together items such as a crate engine and a controller pack.
Ford 306 Windsor-Block
Developed by Ford’s team of race engineers, the 306 Small Block engine is an extremely capable motor offered at an unbeatable price. Its immense popularity has also resulted in a massive aftermarket sector for the engine. And, while no longer offered directly through Ford Performance, these Small Block mills are still readily available brand new from a variety of parts dealers and online retailers.
Engine: 5.0L V-8
GM Performance SP350/385
Putting down a healthy 350 horses, GM Performance’s 350/385 (with the name denoting its displacement in cubic inches and its horsepower) is another massively popular plug-and-play engine that offers solid performance at a very reasonable price point. GM even sells a 290hp variant of the engine for just under $2,400. And, just like with the Windsor-Block, there’s an incredibly robust array of available aftermarket upgrades for the 350.
Engine: 5.7L V-8
Honda Civic Type R Crate Motor
Honda’s Civic Type R is dollar-for-dollar one of the best value, high-performance cars currently in production, so it’s frankly unsurprisingly that the motor powering the Japanese-made hot hatch would offer similarly impressive bang-for-your-buck as a crate engine. Sold through Honda’s Racing Line Program, the Civic Type R’s turbocharged 2.0L VTEC K20C1 engine represents the most powerful Honda (automobile) production engine ever offered on American shores.
Engine: Turbocharged 2.0L Inline-Four
Ford Performance Mustang 2.3L Ecoboost
The powertrain found in the 2018 Mustang, this forced-induction crate motor kit includes the 2.3L four-banger itself, along with its throttle body, alternator, starter, mounting hardware, and a production turbocharger. On top of the turbocharging, this engine — which was developed specifically for rear-wheel-drive applications — also benefits from direct injection and twin independent variable cam timing (or “Ti-VCT”).
Engine:Turbocharged 2.3L Inline-Four
Ford Godzilla 7.2L V8
Plucked straight from the 2020 model year F-250 Super Duty, the aptly-named Godzilla V8 is a large powerful engine with a cast-iron block, a cam-in-block overhead valve design with variable cam timing, aluminum cylinder heads, forged steel crankshaft, cast aluminum pistons, and a composite intake manifold with an 80mm throttle body. An ideal choice for powering trucks and other larger automotive projects, the Godzilla V8 cranks out 430hp and 475ft-lbs of torque right out of the box.
Engine: 7.3L V-8
GM Performance eROD LS3
In the never-ending quest to squeeze ever-more power out of modern engines, manufacturers frequently run into problems with emissions not being up to snuff. And that’s a big part of what makes the eROD LS3 so noteworthy, as, in addition to its potency, reliability, tune-ability, and overall performance, this contemporary V8 is also CARB-compliant in every state in the country. The eROD LS3 is also sold in a bundle with a plethora of supplementary parts, too.
Engine: 6.2L V-8
Ford Gen 3 5.0L Coyote
The third generation Aluminator Coyote engine is built around a 2020 Mustang GT aluminum block that’s been gifted a generous array of high-performance internals including Mahle hard-anodized forged pistons with Grafal low-friction coating, Manley H-beam connecting rods fitted with ARP 2000 bolts, a forged steel crankshaft, and a tuned composite Mustang GT intake manifold with production drive-by-wire throttle body. Pre-tuned to 460hp and 420-ft-ls, this high-end turnkey engine lends itself to everything from resto-mods to off-roaders.
Engine: 5.0L V8
Mopar Hellcat Crate Engine
Dodge’s latest Charger SRT Hellcat is a wildly-popular take on a modern-day muscle car, largely due to the incredibly competent performance capabilities afforded by its Mopar-tuned and supercharged 6.2L HEMI V8. Now available as a complete crate motor, this engine allows you to bestow any vehicle (with an appropriately-sized engine bay) with supercar-comparable power, though it should be noted that its immense oomph also requires some serious braking and suspension hardware to keep all 707 horses in check.
Engine: Supercharged 6.2L V-8
Chevy Performance LT5
Though they spent several decades paling in comparison to their German and Italian-made competitors, late-model Corvettes offer some seriously hair-raising performance abilities with incredibly potent mid-placed big-bore LT5 engines. And now, for under $20,000, Chevy Performance is now producing the ZR1’s forced induction 6.2L mill as complete engines (sans electronics). unsurprisingly for an engine that produces north of 750hp right off the shelf, this LT5 lump comes with a host of top-of-the-line internals, as well as a 2.65L supercharger that offers up to 14psi of boost.
Engine: Supercharged 6.2L V-8
Chevy Performance LSX454R
The mighty LSX454 is the most powerful LS crate motor — as well as Chevy’s most potent small-block — ever produced by any company under the GM banner, putting down a whopping 750hp and 680ft-lbs. Boasting an all-forged, super-tough rotating assembly and LSX six-bolt cylinder heads, the R-spec of the already impressive LSX454 is a thoroughbred racing engine, aimed at competition and track-only vehicles. With some additional tuning, the LSX454R can easily crack the 1,000 horsepower barrier, too.
Engine: 7.4L V-8
Katech Gen 5 LT5
Professionally-tuned by the expert race mechanics at Katech, this generation five LT5 engine is a turn-key motor that’s already been thoroughly massaged and treated to a collection of trick internals. Katech offers a road-legal spec of its LT5 with 700hp and 620ft-lbs of torque for just under $25K, though the renowned shop also produces a track-only “BEAST” spec with 806hp and 640ft-lbs for $32,800.
Engine: Supercharged 6.2L V-8
Harltey Enterprises H1 MAXI V8
Known as the H1 MAXI V8, this ridiculously potent “Frankenmill” is comprised of two 1,340cc inline four-bangers from Suzuki’s mighty Hayabusa superbike that have been mated together into a 520hp and 280ft-lb V8. This highly-unique high-performance engine features a crankcase that’s been machined from 6061-T6 aluminum billet, a low-profile sump, and an offset cylinder design that reduces the length of the motor. Hartley Enterprises also offers optional dyno-tuning for its ‘Busa-based V-8, plus sells the H1 MAXI V8 as a DIY kit. And, just like with the Hayabusa itself, this engine is incredibly conducive to being turbocharged.
Engine: 3.1L – 3.3L V-8
Horsepower: 420HP – 520HP
Torque 240FT-LBS – 280FT-LBS
The Mopar Hellephant engine is something of a legend in the automotive community, lauded for its otherworldly power output, cranking out an objectively bonkers 1,000hp and 950ft-lbs of torque straight out of the crate. As a result of its unparalleled power output — and the admittedly exorbitant MSRP that comes with it — Mopar’s Hellephant crate motor is typically reserved for some of the most elite one-off automotive projects, if not being used in outright race machines.
Engine: Supercharged 7.0L V-8
Racecast Turn-Key V12 LS
Take an already potent LS V8 engine, tack on an additional two pairs of cylinders, tune it to hell and back, and that’s pretty much what you’ve got with Racecast’s V12 LS crate engine. Generating 700hp on regular pump gas, this turnkey V-12 engine sports all ultra-premium internals with LS7 port YellaTerra alloy heads and rockers, JE forged pistons, K1 rods, ARP hardware, cast valve covers, and a billet valley plate and crankshaft. Racecast also offers a 1,000hp power bump as well as an alloy block upgrade, both for an extra $5K each.
Engine: 9.5L V-12
HKS-Tuned Nissan RB26DETT
Sold through race specialists and Pikes Peak open class winner, Evasive Motorsport, this is a brand new version of the 2.8L straight-six from the legendary Nissan Skyline GT-R that’s been tuned to perfection by eminent race shop, HKS. Practically every individual part, internal, or component that can be upgraded has been and has been done to with all top-of-the-line equipment. It may look expensive, but once you start delving into its parts list and spec sheet, it quickly becomes abundantly clear why Evasive is charging $57K for this turnkey mill.
Engine: 2.8L Inline-Six
The 15 Best Complete Kit Cars
Now that you’ve got an engine picked out, why not check out an array of complete kit cars to build around it from our guide to the best complete automotive kits for more than a dozen high-performance street and track-day rides.
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