Psssst... Yeah you, with the illegal engine swap-Big Brother's watching you. He's got his eye on your type and it's only a matter of time before the Thought Police come drag you out of your bed in the middle of the night.
Well maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it's based on a true story. 'Round these parts, the law is putting the heat on smog scofflaws and getting special training to find and catch cars that may have "illegal" mods. They basically look (or listen) for things like exhaust, wings, stickers, etc. If they see any of these "clues" on your car, they can pull you over. Even something legal like an exhaust tip can be enough to for them to light you up. And once that happens, all bets are off.
If you're unlucky enough to get stopped by one of these smog-nazis, you're at their mercy. They'll make you pop your hood and if they're smart enough to realize it's not the original engine, you'll get a citation and a lesson in bureaucratic BS you'll not soon forget. After paying fines and going to court, you'll still have to make it smog legal if you ever want to register the car again.
And while specific laws vary state to state, if history is any indication, the rest of the nation may have California's draconian smog laws to look forward to.
The only way to ensure you never end up on the wrong side of the law is to follow it to the word. This often proves to be extremely difficult, considering the vast amount of misinformation and outright lies out there on the matter.
To see for ourselves just how difficult it is to keep it all legal, we decided to tag along with our friend Phillip Chase as he attempted to smog and register his '99 Honda Civic with a JDM B16A engine swap.
After making an appointment with a referee two weeks in advance, we showed up with Chase and his Civic, ready to do battle with the referee. Chase performed the swap himself and took the time to ensure everything that was needed was present and properly functioning, as per state guidelines, well before the testing.
A quick and easy way to see what emissions controls need to be on your particular vehicle is to take a peek at the underhood EPA sticker. At the bottom of this sticker will be a list off all the parts that you need to have on the new engine. It's a wise idea to contact your local ref if you aren't sure what you need on your particular application.
After arriving and promptly telling us to leave and return without any photography or recording equipment, the ref started his inspection. After a quick visual inspection, he got a little excited. While the car was technically legal and had all the correct parts, he told us he had his doubts. He explained that the JDM B16A engine Chase had in his car often fails the emissions part of the test for excessive emissions levels.
He told us that of all the B16A swaps that come through his doors, about 1/3 of them fail with excessive NOX levels. He said he's seen several cars that would come back six, seven or more times and keep failing for NOX. Some of the owners even re-built the engines to factory specs, only to keep failing. Strangely enough, he said that the USDM B16A mills usually pass.
After asking Chase a few questions about the engine and electronics, he pulled it onto the dyno to start the actual emissions testing. To the apparent delight of the ref and his assistants, Chase's car failed-for you guessed it, high NOX levels. So learn from Chase's experience: If you are considering this swap, think long and hard before using a JDM B16 if you want to keep it legal and not worry about having one of the 1/3 of the JDM motors that regularly fail.
High NOX levels are usually the result of overly high compression and/or overly advanced ignition timing, so these were the first things we thought may be culprits. But once again, we were shot down by the ref as he informed us the Civic's timing was set at 6 degrees BTDC during the test, which is 10 degrees retarded. This left us with the JDM B16's compression ratio as the next logical culprit. USDM B16's have a compression ratio of 10.2:1, while JDM B16's have a 10.4:1 compression ratio. The 0.2 difference seems too insignificant to make a huge difference in NOX levels, but as the ref pointed out, it is a used motor with an unknown history. If the combustion chambers have any carbon buildup, it could bump the compression ratio beyond 10.4:1, which could raise the NOX levels to the levels we were seeing.
Phased, but not broken, we're determined to get to the bottom of this puzzle. The high compression is probably part of the problem, but is somewhat difficult to address without tearing down and re-building the engine. However, getting any carbon out of the cylinders will help to bring the CR down a hair. And as always, a new cat will always help clean things up-at least for a little while.
While we didn't succeed this time, we'll be back soon with clean combustion chambers and a spanking new cat. Hopefully that'll do the trick.
California Engine Swap Guidelines
1. The engine must be from the same year or newer vehicle. For example, if the car is a 1999 Civic, the engine must be from a 1999 or newer car.
2. The engine can be larger than the original, but it cannot be from a heavy-duty vehicle, unless the vehicle was equipped with one from the factory.
3. The engine and chassis must have all of their original emissions components in place and functioning properly. However, mixing and matching emissions parts from different vehicles is generally not allowed. As such it's up to the reff to decide what needs to be there. A quick way to see what you need there is to look at the sticker under the hood. It will list all the emissions equipment that came on the car.
4. A federally certified engine cannot be used in a vehicle that was originally equipped with a California certified engine.