Chevrolet LS Engine Family
Have you noticed that a lot of car enthusiasts are putting Chevy engines in their project cars, as opposed to building a high performance engine that originally came in their car? Well, there’s a few good reasons why you should swap an LS engine into your car if you’re looking for high performance and reliability.
The Chevy LS Engine, first debuted in the 1997 Corvette, GM called it the “Gen III small-block” now known as the LS1. The LS1 is a 5.7L engine and it featured an all-aluminum design, coil near plug ignition, and various other new features that made it vastly greater than the previous generation small block. In 1998 the LS1 replaced the LT1 found in Camaros and Firebirds. Chevrolet then began producing an iron-block Gen III small block which came in the pick-up trucks and SUVs.
Chevrolet later produced the the “Gen IV small-block”, which featured MPG boosting cylinder deactivation, larger displacements compared to Gen III and reengineered camshaft sensing, all of which were great improvements for the LS engine family. The Gen IV family includes the LS2, LS3, super-charged LS9, super-charged LSA, and the all-mighty LS7.
6. Engine Strength
What would a good engine be without a solid foundation? Chevrolet knew that the strength of the block was extremely important when they developed the LS engine. Lets start with the block design. Chevrolet designed the Gen III (LS) block as a “Y” block. The Y block design helps increase rigidity in the main cap area. Previous small blocks didn’t have this design.
The Y block design allows them to use 6 bolt main caps on the crankshaft, 4 facing vertically, and 2 horizontally that clamp the block wall to the main cap. This is what GM engineers call snap-fit cross-bolting. This design provides great crankshaft and block rigidity.
Chevrolet took it a step further by not just designing an incredibly strong bottom end, but also a strong top end. Chevy designed the block to take extra long head bolts that thread much deeper into the block than previous GM small-block engines. This minimizes cylinder bore distortion and variation in the head bolt torque spec which can become a problem when mass producing engines. Subaru and Toyota are currently facing this issue with the FA20.
Chevy also raised the camshaft up and farther away from the crank which allows them to clear a 4 inch stroke crankshaft, which was used in later model LS engines. To further increase the strength of the top of the engine block they used a “valley plate”, which is a large plate of metal that cover the valley where the camshaft lifters reside. This increases the strength of the block by bolting each side of the block onto one plate.
The pistons are the weakest point in the LS engine. They are pretty strong, but when you start getting into serious performance they are the first to fail. All of this combined made the LS engine stronger and smaller than any other GM small-block before it. There are people out there making close to 1,000 horsepower on stock bottom end LS engines.
Chevrolet has produced the LS engine since 1997, and they came in everything from Trucks and SUVs to Camaros and Corvettes. Since they were put in so many cars, there’s a slight over abundance of them, and with the rising popularity of LS swaps, the prices have dropped due to high demand for used engines. You can walk into any junkyard in America and find an iron or aluminum LS engine within a few minutes, they’re that common.
Replacement parts are also very cheap, this is not only because of its extreme mass production, but also the fact that its an American car, so replacement parts are produced by hundreds of manufacturers, which drives the prices down. Although some parts can be expensive, the parts are dirt cheap compared to high performance Japanese engines.
A great example would be the world famous beater bomb. Which is the true meaning of balling-on-a-budget. Beater bomb is a world famous street racing Fox Body. He has blown up a few LS engine’s from spraying to much nitrous, and all he has to do is walk into the junkyard with a couple hundred dollars to get a new engine.
4. Displacement Options
Since the LS engine came in a variety of automobiles for over 15 years now, Chevrolet needed to develop different size engines for different uses. Chevy trucks came with iron-block 4.8L and 5.3L they also came with all-aluminum 6.0L and 6.2L engines. Car engines came in 5.3L, 5.7L, 6.0L, 6.2L and 7.0L size engines, some configured for front-wheel-drive. Not only are there options when deciding on displacement, there are also choices when deciding if you want an iron or aluminum block.
The rise of stroker kits has also increased the amount of displacement options. The LS7 can be pretty expensive, but you can always buy a stroker 427 ci kit for your LS3 and beat an LS7.
If you count Chevy Performance’s LSX engines, then the biggest available LS engine would be the LSX 454 (7.4L). The cheapest of the LS engine family is the 5.3L truck engine, since it came in most of the trucks and SUVs that Chevrolet produced in the early to mid 2000’s. All of these engines have been pushed past 1000+ horsepower by racers, and have done so reliably.
With such a large amount of LS engines, and in such a variety of vehicles, aftermarket companies started making every performance part imaginable. From just the basic bolt-ons like an intake/exhaust, all the way up the race-spec cylinder heads and turbo kits. The most common modification being a high performance camshaft, which is really the best bang-for-buck upgrade you can do on these engines.
The rise in popularity of LS engines has also helped mold some of the worlds best engine builders into LS masters. Companies like Nelson Racing Engines have become extremely popular to do their knowledge of the LS engine and they really know how to get the best bang for buck performance out of them. From mild builds, to high horsepower street cars, to full race cars, companies like NRE can build you one incredible little LS engine for your application.
Chevy also jumped into the aftermarket game of its own engine. Chevrolet Performance produces the LSX, the holy grail of Chevy engines, the most powerful being the LSX454r crate engine which produces a whopping 770 horsepower and 620 ft-lbs of torque. Chevrolet Performance also produces high strength engine blocks, as well as many other components to hop up your LS engine. The aftermarket also makes a lot of swap kits, making it a breeze to swap an Chevy LS engine into basically any automobile you want.
Chevy really knew what they were doing when they designed the LS engines, they designed an engine family that made good horsepower and good torque. How did they do this? The factory heads flow nearly as good as nascar heads did at the time (300+ cfm). They achieved this by using modern computer technology to test different port lengths and designed to find the best performing head design. You may be surprised by how the port shape, size, and length can affect torque and horsepower ratings.
Chevrolet also designed the intake manifold using similar technology, they aimed for the LS engine to produce usable power really low in the RPMs, and decent power up high. They also focused on small features like the cam size, they made the cam core massive, which means you can easily fit a .600+ lift cam and it won’t be that harsh on your motor.
All Chevy LS engines are known to respond to modifications really well, even an intake/exhaust will gain you substantial amounts of HP, the typical head/cam swap is known for gaining over 100 HP. Some people even leave the stock heads on and just have them worked over, combined with a big cam and many LS engines are making over 440rwhp with just head work and a cam. What other engine can you name that makes that much horsepower with just a cam swap?
The internet sensation, the LSX Willys Jeep, is a perfect example of this performance that can be achieved with these engines.
Would you believe me if I told you that a 5.7L LS1 will fit into a 1.6L Mazda Miata? The LS engine family is known for having smaller proportions than its competitors engines, making it much easier to swap into cars with small engine bays. The Chevy LS platform is banned from some motorsports, because it can be swapped into smaller cars and give them an unfair edge over the competition.
The main reason that they’re such a compact engine is because of they’re “old-school” pushrod design, as well as all of the modern designs they used when designing the engine block. The push-rod design that they continue to use is unlike almost all modern engines which have overhead cams. You can achieve better performance and economy with an overhead cam, but at the cost of a much larger and heavier engine.
Thanks to the all-aluminum design, a fully dressed LS1 is nearly as light as a cast iron 4 cylinder. For example, a stock 1995 Nissan 240sx with a full tank of fuel weighs in around 2917lbs, the same car under the same circumstances with an LS1 swap weighs in at 2950lbs. Thats a gain of 32lbs, which is pretty much nothing consider you’d be gaining hundreds of lb-ft of torque, and hundreds of horsepower.
When it comes to engine vs engine, the LS engine typically weighs less than a cast iron 4-cylinder, its not until both are fully dressed and filled with fluids that the LS engine becomes the heavier of the two. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve seen a 4 cylinder vs V8 debate going on and the opposing side always seems to say “heavy” whilst referring to V8’s, and specifically LS engines. But little do they know that they weigh nearly the same amount as their little 4 banger.
LS vs The World
Is the LS as good as I say it is? Well yes and no. Depending on how you look at it, the LS is the best street V8 available, but things like the Ford Modular are better race V8s. DOHC V8s such as the 1UZ, VH45DE, and Coyote are superior on paper and in design, but just don’t make as much power as cheaply as an LS.
To put this simply, there are superior V8s on the market, however the low cost of the LS makes it the better option for most people. The LS will remain king as long as its prices stay low. You can read a lot more about this topic in our Chevy LS vs Ford Modular article.
Here’s the bottom line; the LS is cheap, light, compact, and makes a ton of horsepower. It can fit into nearly anything you want, and it can be done on a tight budget. From the average Joe, to a professional racer, the LS engine is perfect for nearly anything.
There’s a lot of controversy about swapping an American engine into a Japanese car. Some call it blasphemy, and some call it genius. But with so much power, reliability, and such a large aftermarket backing, swapping an LS engine into your car just makes sense. Don’t take it from me though, check out some videos and see for yourself how fast LS swapped cars are.