LS Engines

LC9 5.3L Engine Upgrade Guide: Expert Advice for LC9 Mods to Maximize Performance

 
LS supercharger truck

(Image/Lysholm)

[Editor’s Note: This LC9 engine upgrade guide is part of a series of LS engine upgrade guides assembled by a team of LS experts at Summit Racing that we are sharing at OnAllCylinders. For a primer on the entire LS engine universe, read LS Engines 101: An Introductory Overview of the Gen III/IV LS Engine Family.]

Intro to the LC9 Engines

The LC9 came in GM trucks and SUVs in 2007-‘11 and made 315 horsepower right out of the box.

It’s a Gen. 4 5.3L aluminum-block engine, so you’re getting the better intake manifold, connecting rods, and ECM. The engine also had 799 or 243 casting heads which are closely related to the LS6. The engine has flex-fuel capability.

In 2010, the LC9 gained VVT as well as pistons with valve reliefs, and compression dropped from 9.9 to 9.6:1.

For LC9 engine specs, read this:

How to Get More Power From Your LC9

These engines start life in trucks and SUVs.

The LC9 is gaining popularity for several reasons:

  • It’s an aluminum block alternative to 5.7L engines that are getting more difficult to find. The intake and accessory drive swap over, but a Lingenfelter crank sensor trigger conversion is required.
  • General Motors made a bazillion of them which helps keep prices down.
  • The flex fuel injectors will support 450+ horsepower at the wheels.

Do they have a downside? Just one or two. Most will want to get rid of the AFM immediately and VVT isn’t for everyone.

Fortunately, deleting one or both is straightforward and easy.

Basic Bolt-On Upgrades for LC9

Trucks are the everyday hotrods of the 21st century and you can think of the LC9 as the modern equivalent of the old 327—a long-time favorite of hot rod builders.

For many people, it starts off with a cold air intake and aftermarket exhaust. The problem is that the engine starts to sound REALLY good and owners find themselves wanting to go faster. All these can be done in the garage, but the tune won’t be optimized.

At this point, we recommend talking to your chassis dyno tuner and decide on a computer programmer. Whether you’re towing on low-octane or springing for good fuel, a tuner can dial the ECM and take it to the next level.

The 5.3L loves to rev, so raising the rev limit and shift points is common. It also makes it easier to tune with a bigger cam and injectors later on. Before you go, make sure to install a colder thermostat to open up the tuning window.

Below are more upgrades that will improve the performance of the LC9 engines.

Upgrading the LC9 Camshaft and Valvetrain

LC9 AFM Delete

(Image/YouTube – 07 LMM Dirtymax)

As we mentioned earlier, the engine came with AFM—which is known to fail.

If your engine is in good running condition now, you can install an AFM disabler.

If a lifter is already failing, it’s best to go with an AFM delete kit.

The earlier trucks may also have high oil consumption, but there’s a fix for that too. In October 2010, GM installed a deflector on the oil pressure relief valve in the oil pan.

And if you’re in this deep, why not put a cam in it?!

The first thing to decide is whether you want to maintain VVT.

Although not commonly used for all-out racing, VVT widens the powerband in a street-driven vehicle. If that sounds good, a VVT limiter kit and VVT cam is just what you need.

What are the downsides to VVT?

More serious cams often require 400 lbs. of valve spring open pressure. This makes it hard for the phaser to actuate. In addition, tuning VVT is a little more complex. If you don’t want to deal with that, a VVT delete kit is an option. It opens the door to a wide selection of camshafts.

Generally, 3-bolt cams are more common and just requires the addition of a 3-bolt 4-pole upper gear to convert it over.

So how do you choose a non-VVT cam?

The price point of a LS3 or LS9 cam is good, but they make the engines pretty soggy up to 5,000 rpm. This is due to the intake valve closing (IVC) point being late and bleeding off a lot of compression down low.

What you want is a dedicated truck cam.

What’s the difference?

To maximize torque in the mid-range, manufactures close the intake valve at about 40 degrees (@.050 in.) after bottom dead center and alter the intake valve opening to set the idle quality. For a good idle and low end, you’ll often see the 5.3L truck cams in the 210-215 @ .050 range if it’s still a daily driver.

If the engine is being swapped into a lightweight car with deep gears, converter, etc., the LC9 responds well to bigger cams.

Intake Duration (@ 0.050 in.)Horsepower at the wheels after bolt-onsIdle QualityNotes
196° (Stock)270 whpSmoothHeavy drivetrain.
215°+50 hpSlightly noticeableGood with auto and stock converter.
220° - 230°+75 hpSteady lopeConverter recommended. Still can drive daily.
230° - 240°+100 hpLopeyFly-cutting the pistons may be required. Heads and intake good for another 40+ hp.

If you’re planning to turbocharge your 5.3L, you’ll want a dedicated turbo cam.

They reduce overlap to keep high turbine inlet (backpressure) from flowing back into the cylinder. Generally, supercharger cams and nitrous cams will have slightly more lobe separation and longer exhaust duration.

Drop-in .500 in. lift cams are popular, but LS6 springs allow you to run .550 in. lift and extend the rpm range. Spring life isn’t a problem because trucks generally don’t spend a lot of time at high rpm. Beyond that, .575 to .600 in. isn’t a problem with dual valve springs.

The stock rockers are good to 175 lbs. of seat pressure and 450 lbs. open. You will want to install a trunnion kit for added reliability.

There are a few other parts needed for a LC9 cam swap such as an LS2 timing chain, LS7 spec lifters, LS2 timing chain damper, and .080 in. wall pushrods.

LC9 Power Adders

5.3L turbo by Speed Society

(Image/Speed Society)

In general, the LC9 will see boost or nitrous before any serious head work. Before we get into the power adders, there are a couple things to address:

  • A 4-corner steam kit reduces hot spots that cause the rings to butt and snap the piston’s ring lands.
  • Any power-adder will put you well past the limitations of the stock injectors and pump. We’ll address those in the next section.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff.

  • roots-style supercharger is dependable and makes great torque in the low- and mid-rpm range. It’s great for melting tires.
  • centrifugal-style supercharger is lightweight and makes more power at high rpm. This is partially due to a larger intercooler mounted in front of the radiator.
  • nitrous oxide kit (at low settings) is great for street driving with stock internals. Up to a 200 shot is common. Keep in mind the tight piston ring-gap is the limiting factor beyond that. If you’re wanting to get serious, a single plane intake is less prone to break from a nitrous backfire. A plate system has better distribution than the original intake, but an eight-nozzle fogger system is even better. Running higher octane fuel is advised.
  • Truck engine bays make fitting turbos easy. Single turbo systems using turbo exhaust manifolds are an inexpensive way to make big power. If you’re running a single turbo, the T4 hot-side fits well, but the small turbine diameters limit exhaust flow. The 650 whp begins to feel like 400 did in a hurry, so take this into consideration. V-band style exhaust housings open up the turbine options and make plumbing easier. Although twins are a little more expensive out of the box, you’ll have more room to grow.

Upgrading the LC9 Fuel System and Tuning

We recommend looking at the injector’s part number before taking it to the tuner.

The LC9 injectors were rated at 37 lbs. and won’t support much more than 450 hp. Luckily, you have many options.

If you have a 2007-2009, you will need an aftermarket injector that’s 1.890 in. between o-ring centers.

If you have the 2010+ with the shorter 1.730 in. centers, the L96 injector bumps capacity to 49 lbs. and bolts in. The shorter 59 lb. LSA/LS9 injector also works, but a spacer will be required to fit the fuel rail.

Keep in mind, the best injectors are fully characterized which helps your tuner maximize idle quality, etc.

When running boost, you can use a water-methanol system to supply extra fuel and lower charge air temps.

The factory pump is good to about 430 whp. Many fuel system upgrade options are available. Drop-in fuel pump modules and external pumps are popular. Other options to maintain or increase pump pressure includes electronic voltage controllers and hotwire kits.

Upgrading the LC9 Intake Manifold and Throttle Body

FiTech throttle body for LS - Super Chevy

(Image/Super Chevy)

If you have a power adder, the intake and throttle body can take a backseat for a while longer. If you are naturally aspirated though, it’s commonly done before the heads.

The factory truck-style manifold has long runners for better low-end torque. Porting the intake is one option and a good value.

In most cases a single plane is the wrong way to go, but might make sense if you’re running a lot of nitrous because it’s stronger and the cylinder-to-cylinder mixture distribution can be better.

If you’re looking for more power and torque, the F.A.S.T. LSXRT intake allows a bigger 102mm+ throttle body. Truck engine bays also accommodate tunnel rams. These trade a little bit of torque down low for more up high—and nothing looks cooler.

Manifold StylePeak HorsepowerTorque
Single Plane+10 hpLosses everywhere below 5500 rpm. *Only recommended for nitrous or boost.
F.A.S.T. LSXRT+25 hpMore low-end and top-end.
Tunnel Ram+35 hpSlightly lower below 3000, equal at 4500, and big gains beyond 5500.

Ask your tuner about going with a Speed Density tune. Doing so removes the MAF restriction and will give you a bit more power.

[Trying to find an LS engine for a swap or build? Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our LS Spotter’s Guide.]

Upgrading LC9 Cylinder Heads

  • The stock heads can be CNC ported for more airflow and milled up to .030 in. for more compression. Flow numbers can be as high as 325 cfm at .600 lift. Lightweight hollow stem LS3 valves can be cut to 2.000 in. to fit the seats. Between the light valves and better springs, the engines will pull cleanly to 7000 rpm.
  • A better option is aftermarket cathedral port heads. They reduce down time, they’re all new, and you can usually offset the added cost by selling your original heads. Valve angles are typically laid over to 13.5 degrees and 2.100 in. intake valves are common. They flow great and the cross-sections are great for boost. When comparing heads, look at .400 lift numbers as a general indicator of how the heads will perform. With a medium-sized cam, 425+ whp naturally aspirated is common even with the heavier truck drivetrain.

Upgrading the LC9 Rotating Assembly

Still looking for more?

As mentioned before, the pistons are a weak point and you probably know a guy that’s popped one. A set of forged pistons should be high on your priority list. They have stronger wristpins, thicker ring lands, and the added valve reliefs allow you to run big cams.

There are exceptions, but Gen. 4 rods start getting dicey around 800 whp and the bolts don’t like much more than 7000 rpm. They are likely to bend before they break when subjected to real track conditions. If you’re getting forged pistons, it’s best to also get forged connecting rods with 7/16 rod bolts.

The LC9 cranks were cast but strong. They’ve been known to handle over 1000 whp. The main reason for going with a stroker forged crank is for the added cubic inches. The extra cubes bring boost on quicker which means you can use bigger turbos.

Performance rotating assemblies are available in many combinations.

Engine SizeBore Dia.Piston Comp. HeightStrokeRod LengthWristpin Dia.
LC9 5.3L (Stock)3.780 in.1.338 in.3.622 in.6.098 in.0.9431 in.
5.3L to 5.7L3.903 in.1.338 in.3.622 in.6.098 in.0.945 in.
5.3L to 5.7L3.903 in.1.304 in.3.622 in.6.125 in.0.927 in.
5.3L to 6.3L3.903 in.1.115 in.4.000 in.6.098 in.0.927 in.
5.3L to 6.3L3.903 in.1.110 in.4.000 in.6.125 in.0.927 in.

Upgrading the LC9 Engine Block

LS engine swap dyno

(Image/Super Chevy)

There is no replacement for displacement.

If you’re running boost, it’s common to overbore .020 in. to 3.800 in. The blocks can be taken to 3.905 (.007 oversize LS1) if it’s not going to see a lot of power.

When combined with a 4.000-inch stroke, this will increase displacement to 383 cubic inches.

The blocks have been known to withstand 850+ hp at the wheels with proper machining, racing fuel, and an excellent tune. Head and main studs are advised if you’re making more than 850 whp.

At that point, a set of head studs are a good idea. Although LS9 gaskets don’t have the optimal bore size, many have used them with success.

The factory main caps aren’t doweled. It’s better to reduce ignition timing and compensate with added boost to reduce the cylinder pressure spikes that lift heads and cause the main caps to dance.

(Information for this article originally appeared in this Upgrading the Gen. 4, 5.3L, Iron Block, LS Truck Engines article at Summit Racing’s searchable database of FAQ tech infoGo there and search “LS engines” for a comprehensive collection of LS engine tech information.)

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One Comment

  1. Currently in the middle of a rebuild. I’m doing an afm delete with a BTR stage 2 cam. The machine shop said my pistons are a little wore and I’m considering buying a new set. From what I understand, can I get them to bore the block to 3.908 and pick up some pistons with the specs of:
    Bore: 3.908
    Stroke: 3.622
    Rod Length: 6.125
    Is this correct?

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