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Turbochargers for Everyone!

More than half of all U.S. cars are predicted to have turbos by 2020. That's a good thing.

By Clifford Atiyeh Mar 8, 2012 6:22AM

Porsche 911 Turbo, courtesy MSN AutosTurbochargers used to be a badass honor badge. Just seeing the word “turbo” emblazoned on the side of a Dodge Daytona was enough to cause alarm -- or, when scripted on the back of Porsche 911s, envy.

I remember how a turbo turned my father’s average 1982 Volvo 240 into a fast, invigorating car. In the passenger seat, I’d feel a tickling surge as the boost gauge dived back and forth into the yellow with each gear change. That Volvo moved. And that sound, that wonderful high-pitched howl it made. Just brilliant.

Until, more than once, the turbo started bellowing smoke and broke.

Several years later, my father almost bought a red 1995 Mazda RX-7, one of the most beautiful modern sports cars ever made. Its engine: a Wankel with two sequential turbos, an absolute bullet. But those turbos hated heat, and with the prospect of many a hot summer day with leaking coolant and whatever else dripping on our driveway, he wisely passed.

Great cars, those boosted Mazdas and Volvos. When they worked.

Photo by Mazda.Reliability was a serious problem with yesterday’s turbochargers. Their very nature -- a turbine spinning pressurized air into the intake, fed by the exhaust -- seemed too delicate. Hot exhaust was often difficult to cool. The turbines couldn’t handle high rotating speeds for very long, and many engines simply weren’t strong enough to handle the pressure. When you bought a used turbocharged car in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was likely you’d be running with only a portion of the advertised power. One by one, turbos disappeared and became a rarity, except on diesels.

Soon, turbochargers will be on 60 percent of all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. That’s what Honeywell, the world’s largest turbo manufacturer, predicts will happen by the decade’s end. Today, turbos command about 10 percent of the market; by 2015, J.D. Power and Associates says a quarter of all our cars will have turbos. With strict fuel-economy mandates -- in the U.S., automakers must meet a fleet average of 54.5 mpg by 2025 -- turbochargers attached to downsized engines are the only way we’re going to sip less without dropping $40,000 on a Nissan Leaf.

“Sometimes when you strap something on [an engine] that wasn’t designed for it, you find out its limitations,” said Steve McKinley, U.S. vice president of engineering for Honeywell turbos. “Engines are now being designed from the ground up to handle both a naturally aspirated and a boosted option. The whole package is more reliable.”

Honeywell is behind much of the fuel-economy improvements we’ve seen on the newest cars: Ford’s twin-turbo EcoBoost V-6 engines in the Explorer and Lincoln models; BMW’s twin-turbo V-8s in the new 5-, 6- and 7-Series; the tiny turbos in the Chevy Cruze and Sonic; all the Mercedes BlueTec diesels in the U.S.; and the upcoming Dodge Dart and Fiat Abarth.

While cylinder deactivation and other advances such as direct injection can make any car more efficient, displacement is still the No. 1 factor for how much fuel an engine burns. The idea is simple: Use a smaller engine than normal (like the pipsqueak 1.6-liter in the 2013 Ford Fusion, a heavy midsize car) and boost it back to speed with a turbo or two (or three, as BMW is doing on its diesel-powered M cars in Europe).

“Cylinder count used to be a cheat sheet for getting there,” McKinley said. “That’s what's changing.”

Thankfully, the kinks have been worked out. Turbo lag, that temporary lull in acceleration due to the turbine attempting to spin, is mostly gone. Advances in lighter, stronger turbines mean they can spin faster and last the life of the engine. Better intercoolers can chill the exhaust gas much faster, increasing the amount of air that can be pumped into the intakes. Better materials, such as nickel alloys, can withstand sustained blasts of heat. Using two turbos of different sizes can better optimize boost across low and high engine revs. You can barely hear the turbo whistle anymore, unless you’re in a 1,001-horsepower Bugatti Veyron, which has four turbos.

Basically, the days of dinky engines and smoking Volvos shortchanging your driving fun are gone.

There is a small problem. Turbos are essentially a muffler, and as such, they tend to dull the rock-star sounds of the world’s best V8s and V12s. It’s a main reason Lamborghini hasn’t fitted turbos on any of its supercars. The new twin-turbo AMG V8s are another example. They've improved in both horsepower and low-end torque, but no longer feel as maniacal and unchained.  At full speed, a 911 Turbo is often described as a vacuum cleaner. I much prefer the 2011 AMGs with their bigger, turbo-free 6.2-liter engines and a standard Carrera with a sport exhaust.

But can’t we swallow that? For more power, more fuel economy, lower emissions and less cost than outfitting hybrid and electric powertrains?

Yes, I can swallow that. Just give me back my turbo badges.

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving and riding in cars he doesn't own. He was raised in Volvos and has grown to love fast, irresponsible vehicles of all kinds. He lives in Boston, is a member of the New England Motor Press Association and has reported for The Boston Globe, Car and Driver, Popular Mechanics, and The Times of London.

Mar 8, 2012 1:57PM

i do believe that we will see more smaller three cylinder displacement turbo's.

this article was pretty accurate on many points!

i remember agriculture tractors, you sometimes had a choice of a 4 cyl. turbo diesel or a 6 cly.. naturally aspirated one of the same horsepower (they did this with locomotives as well). the wiser usually picked the larger displacement non turbo due to its reliability and much lower maintenance costs. when the turbo (or blower) worked you had good power but when it stuck from burned exhaust creosote the tractor was next to worthless. heaven forbid when you swallowed a fan blade the machine  was practically a complete write off.

the reliability issues did not outweigh the fuel savings. i do believe and agree that turbos reliability have greatly improved, this is very good news! but, i still prefer a gear or belt driven blower over a exhaust driven one.

Mar 8, 2012 1:23PM

A turbo charger uses the Exhaust to drive the air compressor for the intake.

A Super-charger uses the Crankshaft to drive the air compressor.

So it is wrong to say "turbos are surperchargers". There is a technical difference.

Mar 8, 2012 11:52AM
I worked at Garret AiResearch in 1978, on the passenger car turbos, 34 years ago.  Saab had it about right even then, sweet to drive and "optimized" like today's Ford "EcoBoost" on small cars.
But couldn't convince anyone else, tried to sell the idea to GM until blue in the face, kept telling them they could use their "Iron Duke" four with turbo to haul their cash cow Buick LeSabre around  with good performance and much improved fuel economy.  But they didn't want to hear of it, "that market only wants V8's" was their position then. Well, we've seen where that went (but I still hope GM-II does well).
Two nit-picks with the article, the intercoolers are on the intake side, not the exhaust.  The beauty of the "turbo whine" depends on the person perceiving it.  MB didn't want it, so we fixed it.  Then Ford & GM complained, so we had to "unfix" it for their units.

Mar 9, 2012 5:23AM
So it is wrong to say "turbos are surperchargers". There is a technical difference.
Any device that increases the volumetric efficiency beyond what is capable from atmospheric pressure going into the cylinders is a supercharger. A "turbo" is a turbine driven supercharger vs a belt or gear driven type. Thats where the name turbo came from. It IS a fine point indeed.
Mar 8, 2012 8:04AM
The key being, as pointed out in the article, is the total package engineering that has brought turbos/superchargers ( well turbos ARE superchargers technically) into the realm of reliability that can be covered by warranties, outstanding. The right pitch turbo/super whine is almost as much fun as a great exhaust note, almost.
Mar 8, 2012 6:12PM

I prefer high rpm engines with hi flowing heads and trick valve trains.  I remember the turbo Saab's,  my Accord was more fun to drive, got better mileage, lasted a lot longer,  and I ran the snot out of it and it never broke.

With today's six or more speed trans,  a good Vtec or other well designed cylinder head type  engine can turn low rpm to get mileage and piss wine high rpm for power.  Honda can do it, surely others can.  One thing to think about is the money the dealer will make replacing turbos.

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