[Editor’s Note: This L59 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 L59 Engines
Meet the hidden gem that helped start the LS-swap craze.
The L59 (along with the LM7) is a Gen. III, 5.3L iron block truck engine you can pick up in wrecking yards for about $600. The engine was introduced in 2002 and received a 10 horsepower bump to 295 in 2004 and was made through 2007.
There were a couple key areas where the L59 excelled:
1. It makes sense for engine swaps.
Fully dressed, it’s a bit lighter than Gen. I/II engines and easier to find one in good shape. Even bottled up and 25 cubic inches smaller, it matched the power and torque of the F-body LT-1’s. The later 2004-07 versions were right there with the C4 Corvette’s LT1. With the availability of engine swap kits, it just makes good sense to use Gen. III/IV engines
2. Drag racing.
The aluminum blocks made good power naturally aspirated, but they aren’t the best choice with big boost and nitrous. Although the iron block L59 is a bit heavier, you can really pour the coals to it. Because of their strength, these engines are likely to see a power-adder sooner than later.
[Every engine spec you’ll need can be found here: L59 5.3L Vortec 5300 Engine Specs: Performance, Bore & Stroke, Cylinder Heads, Cam Specs & More.]
How to Get More Power From Your L59
These engines started life in GM trucks, but there’s just as much of a chance today that you’ll spot them under the hood of a turbocharged drag car.
This article is focused on the power-adder pathway for upgrading the L59, whether it will remain in a truck or be swapped into a car.
The L59 is one of the most popular LS engines for several reasons:
- With iron block strength, it is a great choice for boost or nitrous applications.
- The L59 was equipped for flex fuel, meaning you get the bigger injectors right out of the box.
- GM made a bazillion of them over eight years. The abundance of L59 engines available helps keep prices down.
- Gen. 3 engines didn’t have AFM (Active Fuel Management) or VVT (Variable Valve Timing), so you don’t have the expense of an AFM or VVT delete kit.
- The heads flow similarly to LS6 heads, but have a boost-friendly 9.5:1 compression ratio.
Do they have a downside? Just one. At 216 pounds, the block is 100 lbs. heavier than the aluminum LS1 block.
Basic Bolt-On Upgrades for L59 Engines
Trucks are the everyday hotrods of the 21st century.
The problem is that the engine starts to sound REALLY good and owners find themselves wanting to go faster.
Trucks often come with mechanical fans that sap horsepower. An electric fan kit will free up the power. All these can be done in the garage, but the tune won’t be optimized.
At this point, we recommend you talk 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-in the ECM and take it to the next level.
Shift points can be raised which also makes it easier tune for a bigger cam and injectors later. Additionally, installing a colder thermostat will open up the tuning window.
Below are more upgrades that will improve L59 engine performance.
Upgrading the L59 Camshaft and Valvetrain
If you only do one thing to the engine, make it a cam swap.
The tiny 191 at .050-inch cam really held these engines back.
An LS3 or LS9 cam makes good power, but not where you want it, if the engine remains in a truck.
What you need is a cam that delivers a gut-punch right where the converter hits. We recommend a dedicated truck cam.
If the engine is going in a lighter car with gear and converter, you can be more aggressive.
What’s the difference between a truck cam and car cam?
To maximize torque in the mid-range in a truck cam, manufacturers 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.
The bigger the engine, the smoother it will idle for any given cam, which is why you’ll see the 5.3L L59 getting slightly smaller cams than the 6.0L engines.
What if you have a power adder?
|Intake Duration (@ 0.050 in.)||Horsepower at the wheels after bolt-ons||Idle Quality||Notes|
|191° (Stock)||260-270 whp||Smooth||Heavy drivetrain.|
|215°||+50 hp||Slightly noticeable||Good with auto and stock converter.|
|220° - 230°||+75 hp||Steady lope||Converter recommended. Still can drive daily.|
|230° - 240°||+100 hp||Lopey||Fly-cutting the pistons may be required. Heads and intake good for another 50+ hp.|
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 up to 175 lbs. of seat pressure and 450 lbs. open. You will want to install a trunnion kit for added reliability.
L59 Power Adders
In general, most L59 owners will add boost or nitrous before they begin serious cylinder head work. Before we get into the power adders, there are a couple of things to address.
- A 4-corner steam kit reduces hot spots that can cause the piston rings to butt and snap the piston’s ring lands.
- Any power will put you well past the limitations of the stock injectors and fuel pump. We’ll address those in the next section.
Now for the fun stuff:
- A nitrous oxide kit (at low settings) is great for street driving with stock internals. Up to a 200-shot system is common. Keep in mind the tight piston ring gap is the limiting factor beyond that. If you want 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.
- A roots-style supercharger is dependable and makes great torque in the low- and mid-rpm range. It’s great for melting tires.
- A 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.
Upgrading the L59 Fuel System and Tuning
The factory L59 injectors were rated at 33-36 lbs. and support about 435 hp at the wheels. Note the 2001-04 return style fuel system cam with 33lb injectors running at 50 psi, while the 2005-07 engines were returnless and had 36.6lb @ 58psi injectors. The easy way to know which you have is the 2002-04 rails were plastic and the 2005-07 rails were stainless.
Plan on upgrading to larger fuel injectors to meet the fuel demands of increased power if going over that.
Custom tuning will be required to properly adjust the fuel and ignition timing. Truck injectors had 1.730 spacing between o ring centers versus the longer Gen. III car injectors or the shorter Gen. IV injectors. The connectors are different as well, but adapters and spacers can be used to fit car injectors on an L59.
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 include electronic voltage controllers and hotwire kits.
Upgrading the L59 Intake Manifold and Throttle Body
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, upgrading the intake and throttle body is commonly done before the heads.
The factory truck-style manifold has long runners for better low-end torque. Porting the intake is an option and a good value.
If you’re looking for more power and torque, the Trailblazer SS intake is a step up and a larger 90mm 4-bolt throttle body can be fitted.
Ask your tuner about going with a Speed Density tune. Doing so removes the MAF restriction and will give you a bit more power.
Upgrading L59 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. Keep in mind, if you’re looking to boost to 800+ hp; a heavy duty aftermarket stainless intake valve is a bit tougher and won’t tulip as quickly with the heat.
- 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 2.040-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, 400+ whp naturally aspirated is common even with the heavier truck drivetrain.
Upgrading the L59 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. If you’re going over 800 horsepower, a set of .200 wall tool-steel pins is a good idea.
There are exceptions, but Gen. III rods start getting dicey around 750 whp and the bolts don’t like much more than 7,000 rpm. The 2004½-07 modes were bushed for full-floating pins and were stronger. If you’re getting forged pistons, it’s best to also get forged connecting rods with 7/16-in. rod bolts.
The L59 crank was cast but strong. They’ve been known to handle over 1,000 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.
Notes of caution:
- The 5.3L iron blocks had shorter cylinder sleeves than the aluminum blocks (5.430 in. vs. 5.500 in., on average). Much of the piston skirt drops out of the bottom of the cylinder at BDC. The best piston manufacturers have compensated for this by eliminating skirt taper until a point well above where it meets the bottom of the cylinder sleeve at BDC. Any skirt taper at this intersection acts as a razor blade and will wear out the piston quickly.
- The blueprint deck height of the block is 9.240 in., but it’s common to find them in the 9.230-in. range. It’s best to measure deck height before ordering your rotating assembly. Thicker head gaskets or using an aftermarket 6.098- to 6.100-in. rod will ensure enough piston-to-head clearance.
Upgrading the L59 Engine Block
The 5.3L iron blocks can be bored to the LS1’s size.
If you’re running boost and nitrous, most will just hone the blocks to 3.800-in. or up depending on piston and ring availability.
The blocks have been known to withstand 1,300 whp with proper machining, racing fuel, and an excellent tune.
Head and main studs are advised if you’re making more than 850 whp. Four head bolts per cylinder aren’t optimal, but you can O-ring the block if you’re aiming for 1000+ whp.
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 the “Upgrading the Gen. 3, 5.3L, Iron Block, LS Truck Engines” article at Summit Racing’s searchable database of FAQ tech info. Go there and search “LS engines” for a comprehensive collection of LS engine tech information.)
NOTE: You can find engine specs and detailed engine upgrade advice for every LS and LS-based Vortec truck engine in one place: The Definitive Guide to LS Engine Specs and LS Engine Upgrades.