If it seems like we beat the LS drum to death, there is a good reason. As a replacement for the original (and ultra-successful) small-block Chevy, the LS had some pretty big shoes to fill. History will show that despite the legendary status, the original small-block can’t hold a candle to the modern mouse. The LS is better in every way, offering more power, improved fuel economy, and reduced emissions.
No longer the new kid in town, the LS has now been replaced by the direct-injected LT engine family. Though an evolutionary step up, even the LT can’t compete with the older LS in this author’s opinion. The LS is still the biggest thing going in the automotive industry. Sure, the newer stuff offers plenty of power, a broader torque curve, and improvements in fuel mileage, but that only applies to the guys who can afford a brand-new vehicle.
What about all the rest of us regular Joes who run on basically beer money? You are not going to find a complete LT1 motor lounging in the wrecking yard for a couple-hundred bucks, nor will you be able to swap it into almost any vehicle imaginable with readily available kits. The LS continues to dominate the market and will do so until the yards empty of all those wonderful potential race motors.
Boosting Made Easy
The LS certainly has sheer numbers and availability going for it, but let’s now toss boost into the equation. Unlike the original small-block Chevy, the hot set up for an LS owner looking to make serious power is to apply a little positive pressure to the intake tract. The advent of affordable offshore turbos coincided with the popularity-boom of the LS. The combination of the two has produced amazing results.
One only needs to look at the ability to exceed 1,540 horsepower or running seven-second e.t.s with the stock bottom-end to appreciate the potential. For those just joining the program, 500-horsepower street-cars are so five minutes ago! 1,000 horsepower is the new black but fear not. 1,000 horsepower is not some far-off pipe dream.
The recipe for four-digit power is simple: Start with one wrecking-yard 5.3L, add a cam and valvesprings, then add the required boost. The details are a little more complex, but that is basically it. The popularity of turbo LS engines means there are a great many routes to boosted performance, but so too does it mean there are a great many questions. Luckily for turbo LS enthusiasts, we have answers!
Given the popularity of the turbo LS market, it is only natural that many aftermarket companies jumped in to service the needs of the LS enthusiasts. One company that went big into the market is Holley, offering all manner of components, from simple valley covers to complete engine swap kits.
Factory-Quality Aftermarket Manifolds
Included in Holley’s offerings are a pair of cast-steel exhaust manifolds from the Hooker Headers line, designed to allow installation of a single turbo on an LS application. The Hooker manifolds have a lot going for them, including strength, ease of installation, and fitment.
Toss in solid heat retention, great plug access, and adaptability to a variety of different chassis, and you can understand their popularity. The hefty, cast-iron manifolds are considerably stronger than their stainless tubular counterparts, and the cast material and wall-thickness maximize heat transfer to the turbo.
Naturally, the manifolds are as easy to install as factory components and offer exceptional fitment and access for things like plugs and wires. This is in sharp contrast to the tubular turbo headers that limit plug access and require (at a minimum) custom wires. Burned plug wires are also not uncommon with tubular turbo headers.
The Hooker manifolds are designed to work with a cross-under tube to channel the exhaust from the driver’s side to the merge in the passenger-side manifold. The channeled exhaust then flows through a 3.0-inch V-band exit.
As much as we like the Hooker turbo manifolds, we couldn’t help but wonder about the exhaust flow offered by the merged-manifold design. Given the packaging issues often associated with swapping a turbo LS into a tight engine bay, the design is a compromise between fitment and flow. We wanted to see just how well this street turbo system works compared to a more race-oriented setup.
Putting the Manifolds to the Test
To gauge the differences in power, we set up a test starting with a stock 5.3L LM7. We increased the ring gap to .030 inch on the stock short-block, then added ARP head studs and fresh .041-inch-thick Fel-Pro MLS head gaskets. Additional components included COMP Cams 26918 valvesprings, a Lil John Motorsports Solutions Stage-2 turbo cam (.605/.598 lift, 226/231 duration at .050, 113 LSA) and a TrailBlazer SS intake manifold.
Also used in the setup were a set of FAST 89lb/hr injectors, a FAST 92-mm throttle body, and Holley HP engine management system. Feeding boost to the 5.3L was a single Precision 7675 turbocharger. A ProCharger air-to-water intercooler kept the IATs in check, and a single Turbosmart Hypergate45 wastegate managed boost levels.
To demonstrate a change in power, we needed something to compare the Hooker manifolds against. This was not a problem, as we had a race system on hand with plenty of dyno time. The race system featured tubular headers from DNA Motoring equipped with 3.0-inch V-band flanges. For turbo use, the headers were reversed to feed forward, then connected to a custom, 3.0-inch Y-pipe fitted with a T4 turbo flange.
In addition to the flange, the Y-pipe also featured provisions for a pair of Turbosmart wastegates and a fitting to allow measurement of pre-turbo exhaust backpressure. We drilled and tapped the 90-degree turbo flange used on the Hooker system to monitor backpressure as well. Now, all we had to do was run the two systems at the same boost level and measure any difference in back pressure and power.
If only it were that easy. You see, the operation of the wastegate is a function of more than just boost pressure. Exhaust back pressure plays a part in the opening of the gate as well. Exhaust pressure acts on the face of the valve, while boost pressure acts on the diaphragm. We also have dual wastegates on one system and a single gate on the other.
That means there was no way (short of possibly an electronic wastegate) to match the boost curves of these two combinations. Instead, we were forced to match boost and backpressure at a specific engine speed.
First up on the dyno was the Hooker system. The Turbosmart wastegate was combined with the manual controller to provide a maximum boost pressure of 11.3 psi. Run at this boost level with 21 degrees of total timing (on race gas) and an air/fuel ratio of 11.8:1, the turbo 5.3L produced 729.8 hp at 6,600 rpm and 649.3 lb-ft of torque at 4,900 rpm.
The boost pressure started at 7.7 psi and rose to a peak of 11.3 psi. The exhaust pressure registered in the system began at 6.2 psi, then rose to a maximum of 21.2 psi, meaning the backpressure was almost twice as high as boost pressure (21.2 psi vs. 11.3 psi).
For the next test, we reconfigured the exhaust with the 3.0-inch race system. Run with the new race set up, the power output of the turbo 5.3L rose to 768.1 hp at 6,600 rpm and 739.4 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm. The peak torque value was significantly higher because of the significant change in the boost curve, due to the different wastegate setups.
Looking at the difference in power at a point where the two systems had identical boost levels, air/fuel ratios, and timing gives us a better look at the real story. Measured at 6,100 rpm, the power difference between the two systems was 47 horsepower.No doubt caused by the more than 6-psi difference in exhaust backpressure (14.2 psi for the tubular headers vs. 20.3 psi for the cast manifolds).
Obviously, there are power gains to be had from the freer-flowing tubular exhaust manifolds. But given the hassles associated with running the tubular pieces, as well as the durability of a cast manifold, we’d opt for the Hooker manifolds on almost any street application.