Chevrolet LS Engine Family
Have you noticed that a lot of car enthusiasts are putting Chevy engines in their project cars? It almost seems like the Chevy LS is more preferred than building the factory engine. Well, there are a few good reasons why you should swap an LS engine into your project. Especially if you’re looking for high performance and reliability.
The Chevy LS Engine was first debuted in the 1997 Chevy C5 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. It also featured coil near plug ignition, and various other new engine management features. These new features 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 “Gen IV small-block”, which featured MPG-boosting cylinder deactivation. Gen IV also featured larger displacements compared to Gen III and re-engineered camshaft sensing. These were all great improvements for the LS engine family, making it a word class engine. The Gen IV family includes the LS2, LS3, supercharged LS9, supercharged 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. Let’s 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. Four bolts are facing vertically, and two bolts 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 deep into the block. This minimizes cylinder bore distortion and variation in the head bolt torque spec. This can help with mass manufacturing of engines. Subaru and Toyota are currently facing these kinds of issues 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. Chevy used a 4″ stroke crank to achieve the 7.0L displacement of the LS7. To further increase the strength of the top of the engine block they used a valley plate. The valley plate is a large plate of metal that covers the valley where the lifters reside. This increases the strength of the block by bolting each side of itself onto one metal 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 rear wheel drive. Since they were put in so many cars, there is a slight overabundance of them. This has kept prices fairly low, and with the rising popularity of LS swaps the prices have dropped further. You can walk into any junkyard in America and find an LS engine within a few minutes.
Replacement parts are also very cheap, and this is due to a number of reasons. The main reason is that Chevrolet is one of the largest manufacturers in the US, and many companies make parts for Chevy products. Although some parts can be expensive, parts are generally 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 Mustang. He has blown up a few LS engines from spraying a ton of nitrous. Luckily all he has to do is walk into the junkyard with a couple hundred dollars to get an LS engine.
4. Displacement Options
Since the LS engine came in a variety of automobiles, 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. There are also options when deciding if you want an iron or aluminum block.
The rise of stroker kits has also increased the number of displacement options. The LS7 can be pretty expensive, but you can always buy a stroker 427 ci kit for your LS3. Another popular stroker size is a 383ci LS1 stroker.
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 has produced. All of these engines have been pushed past 1000+ horsepower by racers, and have done so reliably.
As you can imagine, the aftermarket for the Chevy LS has exploded since its massive rise. 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 the LS engine.
The rise in popularity of LS engines has also helped mold some of the world’s best engine builders into LS masters. Companies like Nelson Racing Engines have become extremely popular to do their knowledge of the LS engine. These companies 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 a 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 engines 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 competitor’s 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 their “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. That’s a gain of 32lbs, which is pretty much nothing considering 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, it’s 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 bangers.
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.
Which LS Should You Swap in Your Car?
The world would be an awesome place if everyone could afford to put an LS9 in their car, but that’s not how it works. There are quite a few choices when it comes to which LS you should swap into your car. If you have the money an LS7 or LSA are awesome options. The LS7 produces a ridiculous amount of horsepower naturally aspirated. The LSA produces a ridiculous amount of power with its supercharger.
If you’re on a budget then the truck LS engines are a great option. You can purchase an aluminum or cast iron 5.3L or 4.8L LS for a couple hundred bucks. Install a cam and do a little head work and you’ll easily be making 400whp or more. If you’re planning on boosting your project the 4.8L truck engine will be perfect for you. The 4.8L can take insane amounts of boost completely stock and will really perform well.
If you don’t want a bare bone 5.3L or 4.8L you could always step up to a 6.2L truck block which is based on the LS3. With the larger displacement and slightly better cylinder heads, you can get your project in the neighborhood of 500whp or more.
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.