Over the past decade, lots of independent car brands have been bought out by big corporations, meaning that many makes and models now share components, if not a badge. In some cases, this extends to engines, with many cars sharing the same powertrain as others on the market.
When a car has an engine designed and built by another brand, we call this a ‘donor engine’. The question is, can a model with a donor engine really be considered a great car? We say the answer is a resounding yes, and in this guide, we’ll be looking at 12 of the best cars with a donor engine.
1. Mercedes-Benz A-Class
Mercedes’ sporty hatchback has proven a big hit for the German car brand, with thousands sold since the model was face-lifted back in 2012. Available with several different engine options, the diesel variant features a powertrain made not by Mercedes, but Renault. The 1.5-litre dCi Renault engine is the same used on several Nissan and Dacia models, though in the A-Class, its power output has been tweaked to produce 116 bhp. This, coupled with the refined Mercedes ride and trim, makes the A-Class diesel a great mid-sized car for motorway driving.
2. Ford Focus ST
Ford has long dominated the hot hatchback market with its signature ‘ST’ line, with models like the Focus and Fiesta offering bags of fun for a relatively low price tag – just like any hot hatch should. In the most recent version of the Focus ST, Ford enlisted the expertise of Volvo to ensure that it got the engine just right, after the previous iteration received a lukewarm reception from the motoring press. Volvo came back with a 2.3-litre turbocharged unit, with 220 bhp to ensure the Focus ST returned to the top of the hot hatch pile.
3. Toyota GT86
Toyota were targeting devoted petrolheads with their GT86 sports coupe, a car which, since its launch back in 2012, has won fans across the globe for its exciting performance and classic Japanese reliability. But while Toyota does produce some exceptionally good engines, the GT86 powertrain doesn’t use one. Instead, it’s powered by a flat-four petrol engine made by fellow Japanese car brand Subaru, a brand which has long been associated with producing high-performance cars, like the iconic Impreza.
4. Alfa Romeo Giulia QV
While Italian car manufacturer Alfa Romeo has had its misses over the years, it’s currently riding high on a string of successes, with models like the Giulietta and Giulia helping the brand shrug aside its reputation for building unreliable cars. This has been helped by the massive success of the Giulia QV, Alfa’s high-performance saloon that’s powered by an engine from none other than fellow Italian car brand, Ferrari. Ferrari’s involvement has helped raise the bar at Alfa Romeo, establishing the Giulia as a worthy rival to the likes of the BMW M3.
5. McLaren F1
Given that it was built in such small numbers, there was little point in the McLaren team spending valuable resources on designing a whole new engine. Instead, they approached BMW, whose development team set to work custom-tuning an engine befitting of this hugely ambitious machine. The result was a 6.1-litre monster, capable of the same power as a Formula One car, making the McLaren F1 one of the most powerful and innovative supercars of the era.
6. Lamborghini Gallardo
While the Lamborghini Gallardo is far from a cheap, practical car, it was in some ways designed with accessibility and the mass market in mind. To date, the Gallardo has been Lamborghini’s best-selling car, thanks in part to its relatively low price tag compared to other models in the brand’s line-up. To achieve ‘affordability’, Lamborghini approached Audi to come up with an engine that was both unmistakably ‘Lambo’ but also suitable for a more mass-market car. Audi took the blueprint of Lamborghini’s classic V10 engine and added a new direct-injection system, producing a shouty engine capable of 532 bhp.
7. Pagani Huayra
Pagani is revered as one of Italy’s most progressive and detail-obsessed car manufacturers, with much-loved models like the Zonda cementing it as one of the great modern supercar brands. Its most recent model, the Huayra, features an engine designed and built by AMG, the high-performance arm of Mercedes-Benz. AMG’s engine is a triumph, with 12 valves working to produce 789 bhp. Paired with Pagani’s astonishing detail and refinement, and the Huayra remains one of the world’s most coveted hypercars.
8. Caterham Seven
The Caterham Seven is one of a string of track-day cars released over the past two decades, designed simply to get car enthusiasts around a circuit in as little time as possible. Over the years, Caterham has used several donor engines in the Seven, including the Ford Kent Crossflow and the Lotus-Ford Twin Cam, but the most recent models use engines designed and built by Rover. No matter what’s under the bonnet, however, the Seven has always delivered big thrills, its exceptional handling and light chassis making it a dream on the track.
9. Smart Fortwo and Renault Twingo
Smart has made building small, practical cars its mission, and the Fortwo is the most innovative and stylish the Mercedes-owned brand has made to date. Suffice to say, the Fortwo isn’t built for speed, with a tiny engine designed to take up as little space and weight as possible. In this department, the car shares an engine with the Renault Twingo, as well as a couple of other models from Renault and Dacia. Like the Fortwo, the Twingo is equally space-efficient – with a unique rear-mounted engine to ensure maximum practicality and interior comfort.
10. Ariel Atom
Like the Caterham Seven, the Ariel Atom was built for the track – not for doing the supermarket run. With minimum comforts and virtually no cabin to speak of, Ariel’s super-light track car is by no means fit for day-to-day driving, but it is damn fun to drive. While there have been several versions of the Atom, each powered by different donor engines, the most recent iteration is its most powerful and effective to date, thanks in part to the turbocharged K20C engine that Ariel has borrowed from the Honda Civic Type R.
11. Aston Martin Vantage
Aston Martin has made some of the world’s most beautiful cars over the years, many of which have run on donor engines. Two of the brand’s most recent models, the DB11 and the Vantage, are powered by a V8 bi-turbo engine developed by AMG, so suffice to say, they’re very, very quick. Daimler, the company which owns Mercedes, now has a 5% stake in the Aston Martin brand, so we can expect to see future Astons sharing components with their German counterparts.
12. Lotus Evora
British carmaker Lotus has made loads of great cars over the years, from the Esprit to the Elise, and it may surprise some to learn that they still have a model on the market: the Evora. Like the Elise which it replaced, the Evora is more about lightning-fast handling than straight-line speed, which is why Lotus opted for a V6 Toyota engine under the bonnet. as Toyota’s gifted powertrain develops a cool 436 bhp.
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