What does a Buick Encore, Honda Accord, Ford Mustang, and Rolls-Royce Phantom have in common? They all feature a turbocharged engine. Yet ten years ago, none of them had turbos, so what gives? Here’s a look at why turbo tech is everywhere, and why that’s a good thing for you.
Turbochargers, and similar superchargers, are both types of forced induction, meaning they force compressed air into the engine. On common vehicles up through about 2010, most engines were naturally aspirated, meaning the more you press the accelerator pedal, the more air the engine sucked in at normal air pressure. This air combines with fuel in the combustion chamber, then flows away out the exhaust system ending at the tail pipe. In a turbo engine, you press the accelerator and the RPMs start to climb. The increased exhaust gasses build up and spin a turbine, which is connected to a compressor wheel on the fresh air (intake) side. The compressed oxygen, along with additional fuel, creates a larger bang when ignited inside the engine, giving you what we feel as horsepower and torque.
Originally, turbos were just designed for more power, in military aircraft and then race cars. Turbos made it to street cars thanks to the early hot-rodders of the 1950s. Production units quickly followed in cars like the Chevy Corvair and Oldsmobile Jetfire, but the metallurgy and manufacturing techniques of the era didn’t allow for reliability, so buyers quickly shunned turbo cars. A few manufacturers managed to squeeze in performance turbos here and there, making legends like the Porsche 911. With that history it’s curious that turbos are now commonplace, even under the hoods of Kia Sportage crossovers.
Benefits of Turbocharging
The recent trend of turbocharging everything came about due to new regulations. The EU’s stringent 2014 emissions requirements on gas-powered cars, combined with recent increased MPG standards in the USA, ratcheted up the need for manufacturers to produce higher mileage, cleaner burning engines. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, that same need for higher MPG and lower emissions lead to some seriously under-powered engines, like the 140 horsepower V8 Mustang.
Manufacturers knew modern buyers wouldn’t accept that, and looked to an engineering answer in the form of the turbocharger. Turbos offer the ability to downsize the engine size which lowers weight due to smaller parts, and fewer emissions as it uses less air to fill the smaller cylinders. Engineers kept the same amount of power (or raised it) through increased air pressure, which also increased torque. That torque at lower RPMs lets you get up to speed without being heavy on the gas pedal, allowing great gas mileage. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that with modern aerospace-grade engineering techniques, turbocharged engines should prove just as reliable as non-turbo engines, probably lasting 200,000 miles with no major engine work required.
Standout Turbocharged Examples
Honda Civic – The compact market segment leader, the Civic’s 10th generation gained turbocharged power to continue leading the way. The turbo 1.5-liter produces 174 horsepower, 164 lb-ft of torque, and gets 42 miles per gallon highway. Compare that to ten years prior, when a larger non-turbo 1.8-liter powered the Civic, with 140 horsepower, 128 lb-ft, and only 34 MPG.
Mercedes-Benz C-Class – Turbos also populate the luxury market, including the popular C-Class. The base C 300 is equipped with a turbo 2.0-liter generating 255 horsepower, 273 lb-ft, and matching the old Civic’s 34 MPG economy. Impressive. Ten years back, a C 300 still looks pretty today, but the non-turbo 3.0 V6 only made 226 horsepower, 221 lb-ft, and an SUV-like 26 MPG.
Chevrolet Equinox – The modern Equinox is a capable ride, and the turbo four cylinder delivers 252 horsepower, 260 lb-ft, and can return 29 MPG even with AWD. A decade ago, things were pretty sad comparatively. The base 3.4-liter V6 wheezed to 185 horsepower, 210 lb-ft, and could only muster 24 MPG highway.
Ford Mustang – The legendary Mustang offers perhaps the most convincing example of the turbo revolution. The current base model features a turbocharged 2.3-liter four cylinder, making a spectacular 310 horsepower and 350 lb-ft, and can hit 32 MPG highway, giving you plenty of power and economy. Compare this to a decade ago, when the V8 Mustang GT made 300 horsepower, and the base V6 only managed 210 horsepower and all of 26 MPG. It seems we live in the golden age of powerful, economical, and reliable vehicles.