Scour the junkyards of America and you will find an abundance of inexpensive LS engines patiently awaiting resurrection in something awesome. That’s because General Motors first launched the LS family in 1997 with the 345bhp C5 Chevrolet Corvette, then used variants of that engine in pretty much everything they made that wasn’t front-wheel drive. Then, engineers figured out a way to turn the engine sideways and shove it into the FWD Chevrolet Impala SS and Pontiac Bonneville GXP, proving nothing was safe from the LS onslaught.
They come in a range of sizes and performance configurations, but all LS-based engines share a few key traits that make them virtually irresistible for horsepower hunters. For a larger-displacement V8, their old-school pushrod design makes them compact in size and weight compared to most modern engines. Whether iron or aluminum block, they have a reputation for not just creating serious horsepower, but also being reliable and low-maintenance under such strain. There’s also a very broad, well-established aftermarket to support these engines—just choose your desired horsepower and there’s a path to get you there.
And yes, they can be had cheap. Like $250-cheap; that’s for a running 5.3-litre, 295bhp engine from a Chevy truck, not some half assembled, impact damaged block. Add a few more dollars and for less than a grand, you can have a thumping 450bhp V8 with gobs of torque, strong top-end power, and a usable shelf life longer than a can of Spam. There are even companies that specialise in conversion kits, giving petrolheads everything they need to do a complete swap.
Still, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Brand loyalty amongst car enthusiasts can run deep, but beyond that, there’s something to be said for preserving the original character of a particularly special performance machine. I’ll admit to the awesome bang-for-buck potential of an LS swap, but these are five cars where I just couldn’t bear the pain of such a heart-and-soul transplant.
The magic of the S2000 isn’t just in how it handles, it’s spinning that magnificent, overachieving F20C - F22C1 in later North American and Japanese models - to the stratosphere, enjoying every spine-tingling note that only a high-revving Honda engine can create. If you want a nimble, two-seat, open-top sports car with an American V8, please don’t desecrate the S2000 when you can buy something called a Corvette that has all the above. Yeah, you’d have to dye your hair grey to fit the proper Corvette-owner image, but you can buy a C5 ‘Vette for far less than it would take to LS-swap an S2000.
LS swaps on Supras are surprisingly common in the States. Most are found on earlier-generation cars, and to be completely honest, the LS engines really have all kinds of advantages over the A70’s naturally-aspirated and turbo mills. But, like the S2000, part of the joy in driving a Supra stems from goading its inline six, especially when accompanied by a neat-o whoosh of power from the turbo. I would never, ever consider swapping out a 2JZ in the later cars, and if I wanted more punch from the earlier models, I’d much rather add boost than swap out the Supra’s soul.
This might hurt some BMW lovers out there, but I’m not opposed to LS swaps on V8 Bimmers. Considering the sky-high repair costs BMW owners face in the States, an LS swap on an E39 540 can be less expensive than even relatively minor engine work on the stock 4.4-litre V8. An LS swap doesn’t really change the character of that car, but the same cannot be said for an E36 M3. Lower prices on these cars have led to LS-swapped M3s popping up at car meets, and yeah, they’re great performers. But again, it’s not about the sheer performance - wringing out an M3’s inline-six while bounding through corners is as glorious as nailing a 2-3 cog swap on a gated Ferrari shifter. Drop an LS engine into a 540, or a regular 3-series, but please leave the M3s alone.
An LS swap into a rear-engined Porsche? Not only has it been done, but there are companies that specialise in it. One might think such action would completely upset the already tail-heavy balance of the 911, but according to these companies, the LS engine is actually lighter than the big sixes for which the 911 is known. Most swaps are being done on 993 and 996 models, which in the U.S. can actually be purchased relatively cheap right now. Still, what is a rear-engined Porsche 911 without the familiar engine clatter and boxer growl? Save such V8 swaps for Pontiac Fieros; I want my 911 to be as it was always meant to be—tail happy and horizontally opposed.
LS swaps on Mazda rotary cars are everywhere, and it’s easy to understand why. No disrespect to the rotary fans; it’s a cool engine but it does require no small amount of diligence to keep in top form, and it doesn’t have the greatest aftermarket support. Even if you source a dirt cheap RX-7 with a sketchy engine, by the time you invest in a rotary rebuild with mods, you could get one of many LS-swap kits available and be far ahead both in money and horsepower. That said, ask any RX-7 or RX-8 enthusiast why they love their car, and the answer will always be the engine. Whether it’s the smoothness, the uniqueness, the power delivery, or the simplicity, it’s what makes these cars special. And it’s why I’d stick with the rotary as well.