Top 10 Best Diesel Engines Ever Offered in American Cars and Trucks
Updated May 28, 2018
Although diesel engines never found their place under the sun in the US car market, they did play a major role in powering all kinds of trucks over the years. And they still do. Of course, some of them have even made their way into conventional American-made automobiles, but the engines themselves weren’t necessary American as well. Regardless, this time we’re listing the best diesel engines ever offered in domestic cars and trucks, and that’s the only thing that matters. While the engine itself could have been made in Peter Pan’s Neverland for all we care, the application needs to come from one of historical American badges. Of course, all of us have our own favorite powerplants and following 10 aren’t the best for being the most powerful, durable or innovative. It’s more of a combo. All of them, however, have that one special feature that makes them great.
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1982-2000 Detroit Diesel V8
Although it was never part of a standard setup in any civilian vehicle apart from the Hummer H1, Detroit Diesel V8 still managed to create a long lasting legacy. Sort of a sixth man in NBA terminology if you will, it was available as an option in numerous GM application over almost two whole decades. C/K pickups, K5 Blazer, Suburban, Tahoe and Chevy Van (later Express) all came with one. If you ended up ticking rather pricey diesel box in options list, that is.
There were couple of displacements available: 379ci 6.2L and 395ci 6.5L. Former was offered until 1993 while latter succeeded it and lasted until Duramax line took over. Although they aren’t around in general population markets any more, Detroit Diesel V8’s are still being produced. At least 6.5L version is. They always served as motivational factors behind AM General’s HMMWV, and they still are today. If 190-horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque diesel is good enough for the likes of Humvee, it’s good enough for us too.
1994-2003 Navistar International 7.3L Power Stroke
There hasn’t been a better fighter for diesel rights since, and I doubt there ever will be another such powerplant in the US than Navistar International’s Power Stroke V8. This is the engine that single handedly promoted diesels into the mainstream. Electronically controlled, direct injection, turbocharged mill has found its way to some 2 million satisfied owners. That many people can’t be wrong – can they?
Although performance figures varied over the years and in-between setups, most powerful 7.3L Power Stroke diesel iterations delivered up to 275 horsepower and 525 lb-ft of torque. Ford Econoline vans, Excursion and Super Duty F-Series pickups were lucky enough to be powered by it and so was the only mass production diesel Bronco ever – the 4-door, 4-wheel drive C-350 Centurion Classic. When 7.3L Power Stroke finally couldn’t keep up with new emissions regulations, International replaced it with smaller 6.0L version of the engine. Sadly, successor was nowhere near the predecessor in terms of quality.
1984-1998 Cummins B Series
Cummins B Series is cool for multiple reasons. For once, Cummins never used the V angle in any of B Series’ iterations, and they never had more than six cylinders. Family of straight-four and straight-six diesels had, however, motivated some very powerful vehicles in their heyday – most notable of which was the Dodge Ram (and still is).
5.9L version of the engine first appeared in Dodge Ram for 1989 model year, and subsequent installations followed. 24-valve 5.9L ISB Cummins diesel replaced the 12-valve version of the same displacement in 1998, in order to meet the new emission regulations. Similar thing happened when 6.7L mill replaced the mentioned ISB engine in 2007. That same 6.7L 350-horsepower straight-six turbo diesel Cummins B Series mill still powers the RAM trucks while throwing in 610 lb-ft of torque and very good fuel economy figures as a bonus. They weren’t the first diesel engines offered in pickup trucks, but B Series Cummins mills sure were some of the best.
1983-1991 BMW M21
It’s Bavarian in origin, but it did make its way into one of the most famous American personal luxury cars. I’ll give you a chance to remember which one it was and move straight to the specs. This 2.4L inline-six diesel came either with 84 horsepower and natural aspiration or with Garrett turbocharger which pushed the max output figure to 114 hp. It was a result of almost decade-long engineering process whose ultimate goal was to produce a powerful diesel mill with fuel economy to match. Moreover, M21 was the first BMW-made diesel engine ever. It also delivered 112 lb-ft of torque in natural aspiration package. Turbo diesel version of the M21 made 155 lb-ft of torque.
Apart from powering E28 and early E34 BMW 5 Series, and E30 BMW 3 Series diesel models, M21 engine, as mentioned above, also motivated none other than the Lincoln Continental Mark VII. It only stuck for two initial model years before disappearing from the lineup, however. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good. It simply didn’t have as much power as personal luxury car customers required. It would have been much better fit for mid to full-size family cars of the time but most of them were already promised to Oldsmobile Diesel engines. Engines that were less potent and guzzled more fuel in the process.
2014-Present VM Motori L630
A630 version of this Italian 3.0L V6 turbo diesel used to stand behind the likes of Jeep Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 300 in Europe. Moreover, high performance version of the A630 is good enough for the likes of Maserati Ghibli, Quattroporte VI and Levante. That’s the reason why US spec L630 version of the engine has also been good enough fit for domestic Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ram 1500 in 2014.
240 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque provided by the engine are just one thing it does admirably. There’s also fuel efficiency to take into account. Furthermore, Gale Banks Engineering manufactures their own version of the engine dubbed the Banks 630T. Banks engine’s primary customers are the military and other specialty application purveyors. But small batch of their VM Motori turbo diesel improvement should also be available to the general public. Their version of the engine also delivers 240 horses, but pushes the maximum torque limit to just shy of 500 lb-ft. And all that from a box that weighs less than 500 pounds. Now you see why VM Motori L630 turbo diesel is actually one of the good Italian engines offered in the US. It certainly has a huge upside even if it doesn’t satisfy all the requirements in its basic form.
1987-2009 Detroit Diesel Series 60
By 1987, Detroit Diesel division’s market share accounted to paltry 3%. All signals suggested it would be an anti-climactic end to diesel engine market’s creator as they didn’t have the answer to highly reliable Cummins diesel counterparts. Two major events would take place then and turn the tide in Detroit Diesel’s favor. First they introduced the new Series 60 inline-six four stroker on-highway family of engines and then they were bought by Roger Penske who acquired 60% stake in the company. By 1993, Detroit Diesel and Penske Corporation would increase their market share to 33%. Quite a jump compared to 3% from 5 years earlier.
First Series 60 engine was the 677ci 11.1L mill capable of making 350 to 365 horsepower with cruise control on. It was also available with the 775ci 12.7L displacement which would prove to be the most popular Series 60 engine ever made. 12.7L was finally discontinued in 2007 and replaced by even larger 885ci 14L unit. Series 60 was Detroit Diesel’s first ever clean sheet design. Moreover, it was the first fully integrated electronically controlled heavy-duty diesel engine built in the US. At the end of the line, most powerful Series 60 mills generated upward to 525 hp and 1,750 lb-ft of torque. Over 1 million of them have been sold and they still power numerous semis and buses out there.
1984-Present Navistar International DT466
Whenever you notice a medium duty bus or truck out there, know that it’s likely motivated by one of DT466 engines. Navistar International’s most widespread powerplant has been around for more than 30 years and currently goes by the name MaxxForce DT. Its initial name was derived from 466 cubic inch displacement which is still present. Most potent Navistar 466 mills peak at 300 horsepower and 860 feet-pound of torque. They are some of the most reliable and durable diesel engines out there.
When they first arrived, International DT466’s used mechanical fuel injection system and 2 valve per cylinder head design. Bosch MW pump was used until 1992 while Bosch P pump replaced it from 1993 to 1995. Although all subsequent iterations would use hydraulically actuated electronically controlled unit injector and 4 valve per cylinder head design, a few P pump mills would still find their way out of the assembly in 1996 and 1997.
2001-Present Duramax 6.6L
As already mentioned above, Duramax 6.6L V8 took over the responsibility of powering GM medium duty trucks (Kodiak/TopKick), pickups (Silverado/Sierra) and vans (Express/Savanna) from the 6.5L Detroit Diesel V8. Built by DMAX of Moraine, Ohio which is nothing other than joint venture company of GM and Isuzu, Duramax has helped GM to finally establish themselves as a major name in the US diesel manufacturers’ circles.
Initial code LB7 Duramax engines have been known to suffer from numerous issues. After all, they featured an experimental composite design cylinder head. Severe overheating and even blown head gaskets were much too common early on and they continued for some time. At least LLY code units introduced mid-2004 featured easily removable valve covers which significantly simplified the repair process. Current Duramax engines have no such issues. They’re highly capable and reliable diesel workhorse engines able to yield as much as 400 hp and 765 lb-ft of torque.
1938-1995 Detroit Diesel Series 71
Almost 60 years of production, and myriad of different versions, configs and displacements have made Detroit Diesel Series 71 two-strokers some of the most versatile diesel engines ever devised. Their fields of use were practically limitless. They appeared in everything from farm tractors to medium tanks like the M4A2 Sherman. However, they were most common in all kinds of medium-duty trucks including most of the common fire trucks.
At first, Series 71 featured inline cylinder configuration. One, two, three, four and six cylinder configs to be more precise. V-block versions would make their debut in 1957. They came with six, eight, 12, 16 and 24 cylinders. Apart from being some of the most versatile engines ever made, Series 71 diesels were also highly durable and laughably easy to maintain. Some grease and good kick with the hammer were often enough to make them start buzzing again. Inline models also earned numerous nicknames over the years. Screaming Jimmy, Green Leaker and Driptroit Diesel are only some of them. They sure did leak from all directions all right. V-block versions had nicknames of their own. Detroit Diesel Series 71 V12 was called Buzzin Dozen due to its sound with the exhaust brake on.
1978-1985 Oldsmobile Diesel
Olds Diesel? Really? I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out first. I remember entering a wacky hairstyle competition when I was 10 or so. There were only two more guys lined up against me so I thought why bother? I just messed up my hair a little bit and figured out I’d be heading home with the third place plaque. And what did the jurors do? They only handed out prizes for the first two spots (the bastards). Do you believe that!? Little did I know then that Oldsmobile Diesel was watching and giving me the attaboy. For Olds Diesel can relate to that turn of events. Although intended as gasoline emission standards immune counterpart to choked out petrol engines of the day, Olds Diesel was neither particularly efficient nor powerful. It ended up being lazy, slacking, good for nothing POS just like yours truly in that competition.
However, Oldsmobile Diesel was also the only American-made diesel engine offered in domestic passenger cars at the time. And that makes it a candidate for this list. 4.3L V6 and 4.3L V8 were rarer of the three versions with 350ci 5.7L V8 being the flagship model. Code-named LF9, it served as driving force behind applications such as Buick Riviera, Cadilac Eldorado, Chevy Impala, Pontiac Grand Prix and Olds Toronado, among others. It produced 120 horsepower at first. A figure which would sink down to 105 hp later on. Same thing happened with the maximum torque which downgraded from 220 lb-ft to 205 lb-ft.
Anemic and unreliable as they were, it’s safe to say Oldsmobile Diesel engines were a flop. They weren’t thoroughly thought out since GM division’s engineers used the same 10-bolt head design as in petrol engines. However, diesel engines are subject to much higher compression ratios and higher temperatures which, in turn, lead to head-gasket failures and severe engine damage. Moreover, lack of water separator lead to fuel system’s corrosion. And the problems mounted on. V6 version of the engine was, however, much more reliable as it included reinforced head bolts. But the damage was already done and V6 only accounted for fraction of the market.
So, what was Oldsmobile Diesel good for? Well, we have Olds Diesel to thank for the lemon law. Plus, its reinforced blocks have found their new purpose in many a race car’s petrol engines.
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