Much like how a bowl of leafy greens is just a carrier for decadent blue cheese dressing, a car is just a place to house a delicious engine. After all, even a Camaro with the most badass suspension ever devised is nothing but yard art without a stellar mill under the hood to put it in motion.
When we picked up our ’01 Z28 project car it was a lot like that bowl of lettuce: clean and healthy, but a bit boring. To dress it up, we tackled the brakes along with the suspension, and we even spiced up the 120,000-mile LS1 with some better flowing heads and a healthier cam. That’s where we hit a roadblock. You see, old cars are easy to upgrade, but “new” cars like our ’01 have to bow to the smog police alter, so our LS1 was pretty close to being at max potential here in emissions-strict California. It was also starting to seep oil, and we noticed a bit more smoke exiting the tailpipes when we got on it.
Now, we could have just pulled the LS1 and done a rebuild, but where’s the challenge in that? Plus, it wouldn’t bring anything to the party power wise. Instead, our gray matter started to ponder what would be involved in putting a new Gen IV LS3 crate engine under the hood. Sure, the general architecture is the same as the Gen III LS1, but in the last decade GM has engineered a few critical internal changes and made a hobby of moving around sensors. After a phone call to Chevrolet Performance, a shiny new LS3 crate engine was sitting in our shop. Besides being half a liter bigger (that’s an extra 30 cubes for the metric challenged), the LS3 features a much roomier intake tract and freer-flowing heads. It’s just an all-around better engine.
Thanks to the aftermarket, you can swap in an LS3 with a minimum of pain or extra cost. After buying all the new parts and selling off the old stuff, the cost for this swap ended up coming in at just over five grand (not counting the dyno tuning). The good news is that all the swap tricks work with a used, pull-out engine as well, but we like the reliability a new engine gives us.
To make the swap happen, we hit up our friends over at Don Lee Auto in Rancho Cucamonga, California, since they had an empty lift and a killer set of tools. Plus, they’re pretty damn fast at dropping LS engines out of F-bodies.