The year was 1996: the C4 was about to make its graceful exit after twelve years of prolonged service, and with it the Generation II small-block V8s that had exemplified GM’s breadth of sporty eight-cylinder-ness for the better part of the 1990s.
The LT line of engines was headed for the parts bin as GM engineers readied the stage to debut the new and improved series, dubbed “LS”. The move turned out to be one of the biggest windfalls for General Motors, spurring and spawning dozens of aftermarket companies to adapt to the platform to meet the demand for the new kid on the block. With the exception of the 2014 Z28, the C7 has effectively bookended the production run of these epic mills, but the LS will not be easily forgotten thanks to expansive use across the high-performance spectrum, from drag racing, to pro touring, and off roading.
It Begins: Generation III–The LS1 And LS6 (1997-2005)
Numerous factors were responsible for the introduction of the LS: governmental requirements, enthusiast demand, competing brands, and more got the higher-ups at General Motors to recognize the need to evolve. Production wound down on the Gen-IIs and Gen-Is and ramped up on these new aluminum-head V8s.
To fans of the Corvette, the 1997 model was a rare convergence of new–new engine, new drivetrain, and new style, all wrapped up in one package. It made for a potent combination not felt, seen, or heard since the days of the L88. Gearheads were quick to notice differences like the aluminum heads, Y-block design, and coil-near-plug ignition setup, all of which made the new powerplant an enjoyable platform to work with, modify, and improve.
Enhanced performance also derived from a sensible 1-8-7-2-6-5-4-3 firing order that made for better harmonic levels, replacing the 1-8-4-3-6-5-7-2 seen on the weaker SBC (Small Block Chevy). Needless to say, the LS1 was a vast improvement over its predecessors.
Soon to follow the Corvette were the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird in 1998, as well as the iron-block versions that went straight into full-size trucks and SUVs under the “Vortec” moniker. For these engines, GM downsized the displacement from 5.7L to 4.8L and 5.3L, in addition to crafting the block from iron instead of aluminum (although larger 6.0L and 6.2L versions were later available).
De-tuning and cheaper internal parts were also swapped in to keep the costs down while maximizing longevity. GM-owned Aussie automaker Holden was also keen to improve their lineup in the late 90s, and made a point of using the LS1 in just about everything that filtered through its Special Vehicles (HSV) division. These included the Commodore, Grange, Monaro, and other high-performance cars.
In 2001, the LS6 was released through the Corvette Z06. It was the beefed-up brother to the LS1, made better through small changes that increased both fuel efficiency and output numbers. These included windows between the cylinder bays, stiffened main web, higher-flowing intake and MAF sensor, higher compression, sodium-filled valves, and more.
The LS6 would finish production in 2005, but not before spreading to the Corvette high-performance sedan cousin, the Cadillac CTS-V for model years 2004 and 2005. Even Shelby American could not ignore the call of the LS mill, as evidenced by its use in the Ultimate Aero TT, a turbocharged supercar that could reach up to 256 miles per hour.
Picking Up Steam: Generation IV–The LS2 Through The LSA (2005-Present)
Kicking off the Generation IV series was the 6.0L LS2, which, in addition to expanding displacement options, heralded a new technology dubbed Active Fuel Management. It was a fancy way of saying that the motor had the ability to save fuel by shutting off certain cylinders throughout the combustion cycle. Also, there were accommodations for variable valve timing, and the intake runners were re-contoured along with enlargement of the plenum.
Once again, the Corvette lineage bore the honor of receiving these new powerplants first, as the inaugural 6th-generation Vette saw improvements over previous models to the tune of 55 hp and 50 lb-ft of torque, for a total of 400 in each category. Other models that utilized the LS2 included: the Chevrolet SSR and Trailblazer SS, Cadillac CTS-V, Pontiac G8 and GTO, Saab 9-7X Aero, and a handful of Holdens.
Following the LS2, the Corvette line was blessed again with the 6.2L LS3 in 2008. Here, the engineers saw fit to increase the bore, which boosted the displacement from 364.1 to 376.0 cubic inches. The L92 heads which had found success in the 2007 Cadillac Escalade were inserted into the LS3, giving it better flow than what was possible with a stock LS2.
The LS3 also benefitted from being able to swap in heads from other LS motors, a trick that it learned from the LS2. The only heads that wouldn’t work were the LS7 or C5R varieties. These and other enhancements brought the LS3’s output levels to awesome heights, reaching 430 hp and 424 lb-ft of torque. Before long, the motor was spread out over a wide mix of fellow GM machines, including the G8 GXP, Camaro SS, and Holden SV models like the Maloo R8, Grange, and GTS, to name a few.
They say that every family has a black sheep, and on the LS platform that member happened to be the LS4. Birthed in 2005, the 5.3L V8 differed from every other LS family member by virtue of its transverse configuration, despite its roots in LS2 block construction.
Notable features of the LS4 included its shorter length, attributed to the crankshaft that was cut by 13 millimeters (10 on the front, 3 on the rear), as well as a water pump that was mounted outside of the serpentine system to save space. As odd and unique as it was, the engine was deserving of the LS name if, for nothing else, sheer numbers: 303 hp and 323 lb-ft of torque.
These days, the engines are not highly sought after, and even the cars that they went into–the Chevy Impala and Monte Carlo SS, Pontiac Grand Prix GXP, and Buick LaCrosse Super–were short-lived sideshows. Nonetheless, we can’t help but wonder how awesome it would be to see some oddball LS4 creations, like a Fiero or a Corvair.
For all of the uniqueness that the LS4 clung to, however, it was a pale comparison to what GM had in store. In 2006, the 4.125-inch bore spaced V8s were due to arrive, and they represented an entirely different level of cutting-edge performance not seen before from the General. Here came the LS7, and nothing was going to get in its way.
Like all LSs, the LS7 came from an aluminum Y-block design, but that’s where the similarities ended. GM saw fit to have the LS7 be an ode to racing applications, and as such spared no expense in its production. These steps included hand-built craftsmanship, forged construction, and high-value components like titanium connecting rods and sodium-filled exhaust valves that cut down on overall weight while enhancing performance.
Other touches included a dry sump oil system, sleeved cylinders, and the forged steel crankshaft and main bearing caps. Meanwhile, the cylinder heads could maintain a steady flow of up to 370 cfm, keeping the motor well-supplied to churn out over 500 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. This was natural aspiration at its finest.
Making its debut in the 2006 Z06 Corvette, the engine was more or less intended purely to see use in competition, which was reflected in the high price ($65,800) that customers paid. All were built at the GM Performance Center in Wixom, Michigan, and even today production continues on the motor for the 2014 Camaro Z/28.
That wasn’t all that the LS7 wound up in, however. Other craft included the Hennessey Venom GT, 2008 Holden Special Vehicles W427, 2012-present Falcon F7, 2014 Korres P4, and even a helicopter, the Vertical Hummingbird. As crate engines, they can be had straight from Chevrolet at $16,503.
Following the epic success of the LS7, in 2009, GM dropped the ultimate hammer with the debut of the LS9. Here, wrapped in 6,162 CCs of greatness, was a supercharged monster that only the ZR1 was worthy of. The platform was lightweight, streamlined to a T, and the first ever capable of 200+ miles per hour straight from the factory.
Seeing as the engineers at GM had reached the limits of what displacement could offer as far as output, the only option left was to go the route of forced induction. The team settled on the Eaton R2300 supercharger and intercooler, which generated 10.5 pounds of boost inside a 2.3-liter package.
This brought the monster up to 638 hp and 604 lb-ft of torque, the highest ever offered from General Motors. One did not take the LS9 lightly and come out on top, and anyone fortunate enough to be a part of the driving team behind the “Blue Devil” mule tests would likely agree.
One of three ways are available to the average Joe to get his LS9 fix: purchase it from Chevrolet for just a hair over $26,000; or find it in either a 2009-13 C6 ZR1 or Equus Bass 770, the modern-day tribute to classic American musclecars.
Finally, we reach the LSA, which rounds out the supercharged LS twins of the family. Here, you had a detuned LS9 that coincided with Cadillac’s evolution in the luxury market, a serious car–the CTS-V–that had to be taken seriously if it was to compete with the likes of the BMW M3, Audi S4, and Lexus IS F.
It dropped into the marketplace in 2009, the same year as the LS9, and quickly made waves as the most powerful engine ever offered on a Cadillac vehicle, rated at 556 hp and 551 lb-ft of torque. It differed from the LS9 mainly in terms of the size of supercharger, which was 1.9 liters compared to the LS9’s 2.3 liters. Other dissimilarities included the LSA’s hypereutectic pistons, where the LS9’s were forged.
But it wasn’t fair to keep all the fun limited to one model, so GM offered to have an uprated version installed under the hood of the 2012 and newer ZL1 Camaro, as well as the 2013 Holden Special Vehicles GTS. The more the merrier, as they say.
The LS Dynasty
The legacy left by the LS platform is one we’ll probably not see matched ever again. Amid the cries and shrieks for tighter CO2 emissions standards, smaller focus on gasoline, and general tendency towards economical and practical devices, something as big and bad as a V8 is already starting to seem archaic and useless to the next generation; one need only look to the vigor and rapture surrounding Tesla, Eco-“X” engine platforms, and so on.
But to understand the dynasty of the LS is to appreciate American ingenuity, that which was able to reconcile practicality with balls-to-the-wall performance. Not to mention, building enough of them to go around for years to come. So raise your glass to the LS and drink deeply–the symbol of V8 excellence, without which we all would have turned into Europe sooner than we would have liked.