When it comes to making power, the heads are where it’s at! You can increase the compression ratio of the cylinder’s and create more volume for the air to come in, but the airflow of the heads and how long the valves can stay open will determine how much power you can make. This is the reason camshaft upgrades work. Remember the basics, air plus fuel equals power!
Since a lot of the builds, admittedly all a fantasy because I don’t have any money, that I have in my head lately have been focused around putting a GM 5.3L truck engine into about a dozen different makes and models of cars. Because of this I thought I would write a post on vortec heads, and the Vortec Engine series in general. I will attempt to find out how vortec heads perform compared to other options, how much they cost, and if they are worth upgrading to or not.
First, it seems that Vortec heads are pretty appealing to the performance enthusiasts. They came out in 1996 and were originally installed on GM 350 engines, or the 5700 series vortec. It seems that in stock form with no porting, the vortec heads can produce up to 450HP with proper cams and Compression Ratios. While browsing the internet looking for information on these heads, I cam across this article on Nasty Z28 which details all of the specifications and tricks to getting vortec heads to a high level of performance. It also has some interesting information from Gary Penn who worked for GM during the development of the vortec head design.
Since my goal is to just swap in a 5.3L into “any” car, I have looked to see if the vortec heads that are on the 5.3L motor are the same as the 5.7L motor. I don’t believe that they are only because the older engines are built on a different architecture than the new 5.3L Vortec motor. However, the LT series engines that are in the cars will have heads that are interchangeable with the 5.3L vortec heads. You would not want to put the 5.7L heads on the 5.3L engine though because of the difference in the combustion chamber, the difference would effectively lower the compression ratio of the 5.3L and reduce horsepower. On the other hand, you could gain compression ratio on the 5.7L engine if you put the 5.3L vortec heads on it!
Now for the cost! Surprisingly they don’t seem to cost too much money. I have seen them on Craigslist for as little as $250 for a used set with the valves and valve springs still intact. Even more surprisingly, I’ve found them brand new at Summit racing for around $350! That’s awesome and really cheap. In reality you could do a stock rebuild with a hopped up cam and roller rockers and have a pretty stout little engine!
I can’t talk about Vortec Heads without talking about Vortec Engines. There have been many types of Vortec Engines that have been produced by GM. I know when I think about the Vortec Engine, I think about V8’s and pickup trucks. After researching the availabilty of these engines, I have come to find that there are Vortec Engines with as little as 4 cylinders!
There were three four bangers that were produced, there was a 2.2L which produced 120HP, a 2.8L (wow what a giant 4 cylinder, I owned a 6 cylinder Camaro with the same displacement!) which produced 175HP, and a 2.9L that made 185HP. These engines were found in the S10 pickup starting in 1996 and eventually found their way into the Chevy Colorodo and GMC Canyon Pickup trucks. Most of these motors were either bolted to a 5-Speed manual transmission or a 4-Speed Hydra Matic automatic.
Surprisingly, they also produced a couple of I5 engines! These engines can be found in the GMC Canyon, Chevy Colorodo, Hummer H3, Hummer H3T, and Izuzu i-370 trucks. They came in two varieties, one was a 3.5L that produced 220HP and a 3.7L which produced 242HP and were mated to GM’s 4L60e 4-speed automatic transmission.
Two models of six cylinder vortec engines were produced. The first model was a 4.2L inline six which was found in the Trailblazer, Envoy, and Bravada. This engine was the basis for the above mentioned I4 and I5 engines and was rated between 270HP and 291HP during its production run. There was also a V6 Vortec Engine produced, based on Gm’s 350 V8, it was a 4.3L 90 degree engine that utilized a cast iron block and produced about 200HP. The V6 vortec engine can be found in 6 cylinder versions of the Silverado, Astro and Safari vans, the Express and Savana vans, the Blazer and Jimmy, as well as the Oldmobile Bravada. There was also a special version of this engine that was Turbocharged and Intercooled that was found in the GMC Cyclone and Typhoon, the engine code for this desireable model would be the LB4 which put out 280HP.
Now on to the V8’s! Besides the mention of the LB4 6 cylinder mentioned above, these are the Vortec Engines that I am interested in. They should be plentiful and would also provide a cheap engine swap to put into almost any front engine, rear drive performance car you can think of. There are many companies out there that produce motor mount kits for almost any application. You could put these motors into Nissan’s, Mazda’s, Toyota’s, Porsche’s and any number of other imports. You can also put these motors into any other GM vehicle that had a V8 in it from the factory very easily. The Vortec engine could be an upgrade to an older F-Body vehicle or any other GM 8 cylinder that would need more power for not a lot of money.
The smallest displacement V8 that the Vortec series of engines has is the 4.8L, this engine came in three different generations and is still in production today. It’s essentially a 290 Cubic Inch V8 which can be found in GM vans and pickups from 1999 to the present. It is most commonly found in the Express and Savana Vans. These Vortec Engines produced between 255HP and 302HP, the 302HP models being the specs from the current generation of the 4.8L. This engine was the replacement for the 5.0L Vortec Engine which was also found in the Express/Savana Vans and Chevrolet CK trucks. This motor only made about 220HP and had a limited production run.
The 5.3L Vortec Engine is what I am really interested in, it prompted this entire post! They are super abundant and have been in production since 1999. There have been multiple varieties throughout the years and incremental increases in Horsepower have been made but they all are basically the same with cast iron blocks and aluminum heads. The 5.3L Vortec Engine started life making around 270HP and through improvements over the years has been able to get that number up to 320HP. They can be found in almost every GM SUV and Pickup Truck that you can think of, and since they sold a ton of them they should be everywhere!
There was a 5.7L Vortec Engine as well, it was not in production for very long but was found in some SUV’s and Pickups from 1999-2002. The origins of this engine date back to 1955 and you can still get one today as a crate motor from GM, but they are not currently being put into any production vehicles. The L31 code of the block will signify this model engine, and the vortec heads that are on it will fit all older small blocks. Swapping the Vortec Heads from this engine is a popular upgrade for older engines, the superior flow characteristics make the Vortec heads an ideal swap for performance minded individuals looking to make more power.
The 6.0L Vortec Engine is still in production today and like the 5.3L has gone through many variations. Starting in 1999 the iron block / aluminum head engine was rated at 300HP-320HP, depending upon application and can be found in your heavy duty trucks. As the years went on, the vortec engine went through a couple of revisions, with the latest LFA model getting an aluminum block instead of the cast iron one, which produced 367HP.
A 6.2L was produced for the Cadillac Escalade in 2007. This motor was an all aluminum design and produced 403HP. It eventually found its way into the GMC Yukon, the Yukon Denali, and the Silverado and Sierra pickups. The engine made slightly less power in the pickups but it was the same none the less.
There were also a couple of big block Vortec Engines. There was the 7.4L (454) which was found in the 2500 series pickups and other commercial vehicles starting in 1996. This engine was produced for five years and was then replaced by the 8.1L Vortec Engine (496) which made between 340HP-550HP depending on the application. This engine was in use all the way to 2009 when GM stopped putting big blocks into their heavy duty trucks.
I’m going to dig a little deeper into the 5.3 vortec engine. This is the motor that I believe will be the basis for most of the builds that I am going to (hopefully) be performing. You can look to see what fantasy builds I have in my head here. One of these days, maybe I’ll actually build one of these cars. Like I stated earlier in this post, these engines should be everywhere since they have been put into over 1 million different models of GM Trucks since 1999. It should be possible to source a decent one for around $500.
These motors are essentially an iron block version of the Chevrolet LS1 with a smaller bore. Also the cylinder head design is very similar as well, pretty much the same except the 5.3 vortec engine’s heads have a smaller combustion chamber. GM also built a smaller number of all aluminum 5.3 vortec engines which are identical to the iron block ones just made with the lightweight aluminum. The weight savings of the aluminum block version is less than 100 pounds so I would not be overly concerned with having to have the aluminum block.
Identifying these engines are pretty straight forward, but if you are like me and are going to be going to the junkyard looking for one, you will need to know. The first thing to look for is the tall plastic intake manifold. That should tip you off right away that it is a 5.3 vortec. If that is not enough, you can look towards the back of the motor and see if you can find the stamp that says 5.3 on it. If the motor is still in the vehicle, you can always look at the emissions information sticker to see which motor it is.
Besides being plentiful, the 5.3 vortec engine will fit in any vehicle that will accept a GM small block, with a few minor modifications. You will most likely need to get motor mount adapters, and if you are putting it in a car (which I know I would be doing) a different intake manifold will probably be necessary since the truck style manifolds are quite tall and probably will not fit under the hood. With a minimum of 285HP, these engines are plenty powerful and would propel any car decently down the road. However, this whole blog is about driving, and these motors respond extremely well to power adders. Simple modifications will get another 100HP out of them easilty without spending a lot of money. The stock vortec heads flow so well that with just a cam change these motors can see improvements of up to 80+ Horsepower! All you guys with these motors in your trucks should be thinking about that, and what about swapping it into your 3rd generation camaro that had Horsepower numbers around 200 throughout most of its production run. Can we say double that with the 5.3 vortec? Yes We Can!