Technically, you can fit any engine in to any car, but which ones really work? Here’s our list of best engine swaps.
Engine swaps really personify modified cars. Fitting a more powerful motor is a fantastic way to improve the performance of any car. But which engine swaps are best?
These days we’re spoilt for choice with engine tuning, so we don’t need to go to the hassle of an engine swap. But that doesn’t mean it’s no longer a good idea. It can still be one of the coolest mods to make, and is often the most cost effective way to massive performance gains.
With enough time, money, and skill, you can fit any engine swap you want. You can have a Bugatti Veyron engine fitted to a BMX if you really wanted to. But for the sane (or slightly less insane) among us, we want the best engine swaps to offer great value for the time, money, and effort we put in.
And this is exactly what this feature is about. Read on to discover which the best engine swaps you can make right now.
Best Engine Swaps: VAG 1.8T in to any FWD or mid-engine RWD
Compact, super cheap, hugely tuneable, and with a strong transmission. The 1.8-litre 20V turbo lump found in countless VAG vehicles has became one of the most popular engine swaps in to, well quite frankly, anything.
The most common place you’ll find the 1.8T outside of its factory installation is still in Mk1 (check out this 1.8T Mk1 Golf), Mk2, and Mk3 Golfs, That’s thanks to its relatively ease to upgrade, but we’ve seen 1.8Ts in Renault 5s and Clios, Peugeot 205s, Lotus Elises, MR2s, even a Ford Focus and a Mk3 Escort. There’s no reason why you couldn’t put one in anything you fancy.
While there’s no non-VAG fitting kits out there, there is a lot of info available for 1.8T engine swaps. Plus, they’re still cheap and plentiful, so doing the conversion is far less of a headache than most engine swaps. What are you waiting for?
Best Engine Swaps: Saab Turbo into Vauxhall
Saab isn’t the first company you think of when it comes to tuning or best engine swaps. But it was one of the pioneers of turbocharging and made some damn good motors. And, because it was part of the GM group from the 1990s-onwards, those engines share a lot of parts with another GM brand, Vauxhall.
That means it’s easy to put the strong and tuneable turbocharged Saab engines in to both front- and rear-wheel-drive Vauxhalls. For the front-wheel-drive cars, nearly all of the component parts are interchangeable from Saab to Vauxhall. You can buy a scrap Saab 900 or 9-3 Turbo and more-or-less swap the entire thing over to your FWD Vauxhall. Which is nice.
For rear-wheel-drive engine swaps it’s not quite so simple. The main headache here is finding a suitable gearbox. But would you believe it? The Omega tranny bolts directly to the Saab engine. So, as rear-wheel-drive swaps go, this one’s pretty damn easy too.
Best Engine Swaps: GM LS series V8 into anything RWD
The default engine swap for just about anything is the good ol’ LS V8. These swaps are so common some people have started considering them boring. Trust us, no LS-swapped car is boring from behind the wheel.
If you didn’t already know, the LS series is GM’s modern V8. From the factory it was fitted in everything from pick-up trucks to Corvettes, and was available in sizes ranging from 4.8-litres to 7.0-litres. And they all have one thing in common – massive tuning potential.
500bhp is standard or comes from simple bolt-on upgrades for the performance versions. And the smaller truck versions are incredibly strong and capable of 1000bhp-plus, even on standard internals. It’s no wonder the LS V8 is considered one of the best engine swaps of all time.
Doing a big V8 engine swap usually has three major issues. Firstly, it’s hard to shoehorn one in to your car. Secondly, they’re usually all hooked up to automatic transmissions. And thirdly, they’re usually bloody heavy, which ruins handling.
But not the LS. It’s no heavier than a Toyota 2JZ or similar. There are plenty of off-the-shelf LS conversion kits for most popular RWD cars. And not only do the LS engines come with super strong manual boxes as standard, there’s also full conversion kits available to allow you to use the common, cheap, but very strong BMW gearboxes. Ideal.
Best Engine Swaps: Toyota 1/2JZ to anything RWD
The JZ is arguably the best all-round inline six-cylinder engine ever made. So, it’s no surprise JZ conversions make for the best engine swaps.
We’ve seen these swaps made to countless cars over the years – even models that already have fantastic factory-fitted engines such as Nissan Skylines, 3-Series BMWs, Honda S2000s, and Mazda RX7s. The JZ swap really is that good.
The JZ motor is still relatively common and inexpensive considering the massive tuning potential on offer. It’s easy to see why a JZ swap is so tempting, and for many cars there are full fitting kits available too.
There are even full conversion kits to allow you to run a BMW gearbox if you want, making it one of the best engine swaps available for any RWD with an engine bay long enough for an inline six.
Best Engine Swaps: Toyota 1UZ to anything RWD
The 4.0-litre 1UZ V8 typically found in big Lexus models was unheard of for years, but these days it’s one of the best engine swaps money can buy.
Designed as a race engine, it is incredibly over-built for the standard power levels. It’s capable of massive power and high revs with ease.
Since people have noticed the 1UZ’s potential, using it as a donor for engine swaps has become popular. We’ve seen them fitted all manner of RWD cars, in naturally aspirated, turbocharged, and supercharged form.
While they only ever came with an auto ‘box as standard, there are kits allowing Toyota, BMW, and Nissan manual boxes to be used.
Another big reason the 1UZ is so popular is due to its very lightweight and compact design; it’s barely any heavier than a typical four cylinder. This allows the 1UZ to be fitted to smaller RWD cars like MX5s and AE86s without negatively affecting the handling – we’ve even recently seen one fitted to a Ford Focus ST170, complete with twin turbos!
Best Engine Swaps: Honda K20 in to MR2s and Elises
We don’t need to tell Honda fans how good the K20 engine is, but for the rest of you, listen up. It really is about the best transversely-mounted engine you can get. Capable of over 300bhp when tuned even when naturally aspirated is impressive enough but add some boost with a supercharger or turbo conversion and things get really crazy.
Massive power, massive revs, strong transmissions, and decent reliability too. No wonder it’s considered one of the best engine swaps you can make. The K20 is still popular when swapped into earlier Civics, and more recently has found homes in the Mk6 Ford Fiesta ST. But perhaps one of the best swaps is when the K20 is fitted to the back of mid-engine sports cars like the Toyota MR2 or Lotus Elise and Exige.
Keeping it in the family…
Robbing a bigger, more powerful motor from another model in the same family can make for some of the easiest and best engine swaps available. Here’s a few options of how robbing parts from a bigger brother can improve your car.
Z20LET into Vauxhall Corsa engine swap
C20XE and C20LET swaps into Novas and Corsa Bs formed the basis of Fast Car magazine for a large portion of the 1990s and early 2000s. Today the same principals can be applied to the later Z20LET engine and the Corsa C.
Corsa Cs cost peanuts and weigh less than 1000kg. Z20LETs are similarly cheap, yet are easy to tune. And full fitting kits costs just a few hundred quid. Fitting a Z20LET to a Corsa C is a marriage made in heaven. No wonder this is a hugely popular conversion; it’s one of the cheapest and easiest engine swaps out there.
Puma 1.7 into Mk5 Ford Fiesta Zetec S engine swap
If you’re looking for a bolt-on engine swap, then look no further. The Ford Fiesta Mk5 shares a platform with the Puma, meaning the Puma’s VVT-equipped 123bhp 1.7-litre Zetec SE engine literally bolts straight in place of the Fiesta’s 100bhp 1.6-litre. It’s so quick and easy Fast Ford magazine even fitted one in less than 24 hours for a mag feature a few years ago.
Breakers even sell complete kits of all the parts you’ll need: engine, gearbox, ECU, wiring loom, ignition key, and spa on, to make it a simple bolt-in conversion. Even the wiring – typically one of the biggest headaches – is a plug-and-play job. Make sure you get the key and transponder ring; the key is coded to the ECU, but it all plugs straight in.
This is one of the best Ford engine swaps you can make and is probably the best engine swap for a beginner. Plus, 23 percent gains for a day’s work isn’t to be sniffed at!
VTEC B-Series, H22A, or K-Series engine swaps
There’s a whole heap of non-performance Hondas out there, but it’s easy to swap in a VTEC B-Series, H22A, or K-Series. These engine swaps will fit most 1990s-onwards Hondas, partly due to the interchangeability of parts from the factory and partly thanks to the huge Honda tuning scene.
Swapping big power Honda motors in to base models makes a lot of sense. They’re more common to find for sale than the hot models, and many owners will start with the smaller engine model when younger but want more power once insurance prices drop. The best reason though, is because cars like a K-Series-powered EG Civic don’t exist from the factory. Creating your own is undeniably cool. Plus, it makes for a very fast, lightweight car – even with a standard engine. Add some boost, and you’ll create an animal!
Cosworth YB engine swaps
The legendary Cosworth YB engine has been fitted to almost everything over the years. We’ve seen it in a wide range of modified cars, from classic Minis to Caterhams, BMWs to Transit vans. But its most loyal following is, unsurprisingly, the fast Ford scene. That means the YB has been squeezed into almost every Blue Oval you think of; from classic Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts, Capris, and Cortinas, right through to modern Fiestas and Focuses, and even a Ka! (You can check out that Ford Focus Cosworth photographed above here)
Traditionally, the conversion used to involve chopping up a Sierra floorpan and stitching that into whatever body your were building. Then you’d simply bolt on all the Cossie components; either 4×4 or rear-wheel-drive spec. Most Sierras are rotten beyond repair these days, so more modern methods involve fabricating custom mounting points. Typically the YB is used alongside Ford transmissions (MT75 for 4×4, or BorgWarner T5 for RWD) and differentials/driveshafts. But mating the YB to a suitably beefy BMW gearbox and/or stronger Toyota rear diff is becoming increasingly popular.
Either way, when the YB is in the bay, tuning is seemingly limitless. The stock 204bhp is nothing to write home about, but simple bolt-ons will take that closer to 400bhp. Open it up and tinker some more and well over 600bhp is easy to achieve. We’ve seen YBs producing over 1000bhp, and regularly see 700-800bhp road cars.
The only downside is the price. As parts become rarer, and the desirability of original cars goes up, the price for buying, maintaining, and modifying a YB has rocketed in recent years. That said, it’s still one the of best engine swaps you can make, to almost anything.
RB into 200SX
For huge tuning potential and an insane soundtrack, the Skyline’s RB six-cylinder is a brilliant engine swap for the 200SX. The conversion is almost a direct drop-in; it’s so easy it has been suggested Nissan planned to fit the RB in the first place. There are few things to sort out, but nothing too taxing. Do it, and you’ll add an extra pair of cylinders and extra 500cc, another turbo, and loads of tuning potential!
Zetec Turbo into FWD Fords
Eighties Fords have undeniable retro appeal, but the rattly old CVH engine leaves a lot to be desired. One of the best engine swaps is to upgrade to the later Zetec engine, ideally with a turbo bolted on the side. Because the Zetec is basically an evolution of the CVH, fitting one in place of the eight-valves is a piece of cake. Most of the bolt-holes line up, and providing you source the right parts, it all bolts together nicely. Only minor fab work is needed for engine and gearbox mounts to turn a wheezy CVH into a fire-breathing Zetec Turbo.
N54 into BMWs
The N54 is the 3.0-litre twin-turbo motor found in the BMW 335i amongst others. Quite frankly it’s an amazing piece of kit, and makes for some of the best engine swaps going. It’s incredibly strong, incredibly tuneable, and with a pretty indestructible gearbox to match. It’s not too expensive either. But it’s not the easiest engine to swap; complicated electronics mean fitting now into an earlier E36 or even E46 isn’t a straightforward bolt-in job. But the reward on offer matches the difficulty to install, so it’s still one of the best engine swaps you can make.
Words: Stav & Jamie