Welcome back! Today we’re looking at two cars with the same engine displacement: 3.8 liters, or between 231 and 232 cubic inches, or if you prefer, just a little over a gallon. They’re similar designs, but from crosstown rivals, and installed in very different cars.
But first, we should wrap up yesterday’s Mitsubishi V6 faceoff. Sometimes, I can sort of guess which way the voting is going to go based on the comments, but this was not one of those times. Lots of love (or at least lukewarm support) for the Shadow in the comment section, but it didn’t translate to votes. We love it when you read, and it’s even better when you participate by voting, but a comment explaining your vote is the best. This is like math class: You have to show your work.
As it happens, I disagree with the silent majority. I don’t dislike the third-generation Eclipse in the way some of you seem to, but I really dig the Shadow/Sundance twins, and this is a good spec. I don’t even mind that it’s all white, though it occurs to me that “White Shadow” sounds like a second-tier superhero, like one of the Mystery Men or something.
Now then: Units of measure are a funny thing. It’s not something that most places in the world struggle with; everything’s metric, and that’s that. But here in the US, we have stubbornly clung to our inches and quarts and acres, except when it comes to manufacturing, where the metric system is used incompletely. Most American cars built since the 1990s or so will require metric tools, but sometimes only for the engine; chassis components may still be in inches. Or vice versa. It gets really confusing sometimes.
However you want to measure them, the engines in these two cars have more similarities than differences: Both are 90-degree V6s, both are overhead-valve designs, both have seen use in front-and rear-wheel-drive applications. The cars they’re installed in are very different, though. And there’s more to a car than the engine anyway. Let’s check them out.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, RWD
Location: Sacramento, CA
Odometer reading: 109,000 miles
Operational status: Current tags and smog certificate, so I guess it runs well
Base-model Mustangs are strange cars. They have the look and feel of their more powerful siblings, but without the power to back it up. All hat and no cattle, I believe is the expression. But Mustangs weren’t really high-performance cars to begin with, and a base engine has always been a part of the equation. And although I haven’t checked the sales data, I imagine you’d find the base models sell a whole lot better.
In fact, in 1974, the first year of the Mustang II, there was no V8 option at all. The fastest Mustang on offer featured a wheezy 2.8 liter V6 making only 115 horsepower. The V8 returned a year later, but it didn’t actually start to help matters in the performance department for almost another decade. Base models, meanwhile, suffered along with a 2.3 liter four-cylinder engine, all through the Mustang II and Fox body days. In 1994, Ford finally banished the little engine that couldn’t and replaced it with the Essex 3.8 liter V6, making more power than the new-for-1975 V8.
This “New Edge” Mustang couples the Essex V6 to a four-speed automatic. It’s not ideal for performance, but again, base-model Mustangs with automatics date all the way back to the beginning. It has low miles, current tags, and a recent smog certificate. I’m always a little leery of cars with these cheap Wal-Mart seat covers; I worry about what they may be hiding. But the rest of the interior is so clean that I think these covers might actually be doing what it says on the box – protecting the upholstery, not covering up flaws.
Outside, it looks OK, but not great. It has a scrape on one side of the front bumper, and a scrape and wrinkle behind the right door. It looks as if someone was inept at maneuvering it in and out of a narrow garage. Worse than the scrape, however, is the knowledge that 2002 Mustangs were available in some really great colors, and whoever ordered this one originally chose boring silver.
Engine/drivetrain: 3.8 liter overhead valve V6, four-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Bloomington, IN
Odometer reading: 154,000 miles
Operational status: Runs and drives great
Pontiac’s big sedan named after a dry lake bed dates all the way back to 1958, but even before that, the name was used on a convertible version of the Pontiac Star Chief, and a really cool bubble-topped show car. The best-known Bonnevilles, however, were the V8-powered monsters of the 1960s and early 70s, and the front-wheel-drive models introduced in 1987, powered by increasingly-improved versions of the 3.8 liter V6.
This 2002 Bonneville features a 3800 Series II engine, sending 205 horsepower to the front wheels through a 4T 65E automatic transmission. It’s a fantastically reliable and durable engine, with only a few potential trouble spots, mostly centered around the plastic intake manifold and valve covers. There was a recall for the valve covers; it’s worth finding out if that work has been done on this one. The seller does say it runs and drives great at the moment.
This is not the greatest era for General Motors interior design. It’s too busy-looking, too cheap and flimsy. This car has “all the bells and whistles,” but they’re all controlled by crappy little gray plastic buttons. At least it all looks like it’s in decent shape. This car is afflicted with a seat cover as well, and I have less confidence that there isn’t some torn leather or a popped seam under there.
Outside, it looks good – until you get to that left rear wheel well. That is a lot of rust. This is a Midwestern car, after all, with all the crispy edges and possible structural problems that go with that distinction. And the left side always gets it worse, I think because it gets sprayed with salty water from oncoming traffic.
These old pushrod V6s are technological dinosaurs, but I love them for that reason. They’re mechanically simple, low-stress, and more efficient than you might guess, especially with nice tall gearing to take advantage of the low-end torque. They have low power output for their size, but keep clean oil and coolant in them, and they’ll just keep spinning. Which one do you prefer?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)