• Mar 14th 2012 at 11:30AM
  • 311
Techsplanations: Turbocharger

Turbo chargers have been around the auto industry for decades, typically used to boost the performance of already powerful engines. But today, the turbo is showing up in cars, SUVs and trucks of every stripe and price to boost fuel economy.

The Hyundai Veloster, Chevy Malibu, Chevy Sonic and Ford F150 pickup are all sporting turbos to make small fuel efficient engines perform more like bigger, thirstier ones. If you are interested in a new car that comes with a turbo, and you have never driven or considered one before, here is what you should know before signing on the bottom line.

What is it?

A turbocharger - or just "turbo" for short - is a mechanical device that boosts engine power. All car engines require three things to create the explosions that power them: air, fuel and ignition. Turbocharged engines are called "forced induction" engines, because the turbo forces more air into the engine. This allows it to burn more fuel with every revolution, making the engine more powerful than one without a turbocharger, which are known as "naturally aspirated engines." Turbos allows car manufacturers to put replace bigger engines with smaller ones, such as dropping a V-6 for a four-cylinder engine or replacing a V-8 with a V-6. The only thing consumers notice is improved fuel economy.

How does it work?

It's actually pretty simple. The turbocharger is attached to the engine near the exhaust manifold, so that gasses can pass through the turbo before they go into the pipes that carry the exhaust back to the muffler and tailpipe. The exhaust gasses pass through a turbine in the turbocharger, spinning it at thousands of revolutions per minute. The turbo pressurizes the fresh air that's headed into the engine. The real beauty of the system is that it doesn't require any extra energy to compress the air headed into the engine.

To simplify it a bit more, think of a turbocharger as a pair of big fans. The exhaust gas coming out of the engine spins one of the fans. That's connected to the second fan, which blows fresh air back into the engine. Since the air going into the engine is pressurized, more of it can be crammed into the same volume in the cylinders than a naturally aspirated engine. So the engine control computer is able to add more fuel to the cylinders, to create bigger explosions, which translates into more power. This means the engine only produces more power when the driver wants it.

Why would I want it?

Easy: Better fuel economy with no sacrifice in power. Most of the time you're driving your car you don't need lots of power. A car only uses about a third of its maximum horsepower to drive on the freeway, and most of the time you're driving in the city you're actually decelerating, braking or stopped. At these times, the turbo is off, so the engine consumes less fuel than a bigger, naturally aspirated engine.

But when it does come time to accelerate, the turbocharger allows the smaller engine to produce enough power to feel like a much bigger engine and propel the car smoothly up to speed.

Is there any downside?

In earlier eras, turbochargers got a bad rap for being prone to failure. They also developed a reputation for having "lag," a delay between the driver pressing on the accelerator and the turbocharger producing its full effect. Both problems have been largely consigned to history, as modern materials and manufacturing techniques have made turbochargers much more durable. Lag has been mostly eliminatd, but you need to test drive the car, of course, to see for yourself. The degree of lag varies from car to car.

The one downside to turbocharged engines is that they do have extra parts compared to naturally aspirated engines, which can make them a bit more expensive to manufacture. This usually translates to a slightly higher price for turbocharged trim levels of the same model.

What vehicles offer it?

Volkswagen has long offered turbocharged four-cylinders in most of its lineup - the current 2.0-liter turbo engine with direct injection makes 200 horsepower in the 2012 Beetle. That powerplant is also offered in the GTI, Jetta GLI, and Tiguan, among other VW and Audi

Ford has gotten into turbocharging more recently, and in a big way. Its "EcoBoost" line of engines all incorporate turbochargers, along with direct injection technology, offering better fuel economy from smaller engines. Ford's flagship F-150 pickup features an optional 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 that outperforms its huge 5.0-liter V8, offering more horsepower and torque, plus better fuel economy.

Check out our Techsplanation article on Direct Injection.

More stringent fuel economy regulations have resulted in many more turbocharged vehicles being introduced in recent years. Other manufacturers that offer turbocharged models include BMW, GM (in its Chevrolet Sonic and Cruze, among others), Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Volvo.

Bottom line

Turbocharged engines are a winning proposition for consumers. Providing greater efficiency and more power, turbocharing translates to smaller engines with better mileage with no sacrifice in performance.

I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.

    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      I put one in my grandmas vibrator ..She seems very happy now.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yeah, just like we need Heated Seats , Those Alloy 17" Wheels and Tires that cost 4x more and My Favorite Power Seats and Mirrors , we set once and Never need it again..Just more Crapola To Boost the Price of the car and Profits! We got a Lincoln MKZ Hybrid- We spend 90% of our driving Under 40 mph and Using Just the Electric ave 50 MPG!..ALL Small Cars should be like this.. For Hwy /Vacation Use? You just Rent a SUV.. and seeing as over 75% of Drivers are like Us? That's all we need.. So Go Ahead and Raise the Price of Gas! It should be over $5 gal. anyway with Inflation.. BMW makes a hybrid but they won't allow it in the USA.. Nor a Ford 4 cycl. Diesel Car that gets 35/55 and a NG Car, but The Big Oil Co.'s made sure No Gas Stations Carry NG..You can't buy it anywhere..
      • 3 Years Ago
      Well! The way that I get better mileage and power in my (Cape Cod Pirate Truck)-as seen on You Tube- is I take the radiator overflow hose leading to the overflow container, disconnect it, and run it into the fuel intake, to mix hot steam H2O, with the fuel. It"s an olde Pirate trick I use on my 1994 DODGE DAKOTA CAPE COD PIRATE TRUCK. Capt. BlackStrapp Molasses
        • 3 Years Ago
        LOL, tell people you're kidding or someone will try this! How does the antifreeze work with the mixture?
      • 3 Years Ago
      Cars with turbochargers used to cost more on insurance. Not sure if they still do.
      • 3 Years Ago
      My father-in-law put a turbo-charger his 1986 Chrysler Woody wagon. It was great. It got better gas mileage than the 2003 Malibu we have today. The pickup was terrific. The car came to me in the late '90s. Once, in about 2005, some kids were goofing with me on the highway. Mind you, in most cars I can't be seen because I'm so short, my hair is grey, and my plates are handicapped. When the coast was clear, and I'd had enough, I kicked in the turbo and left them in my dust. I hadn't done that in years. It was so much fun. After I slowed back down, the kids caught up to me and gave me thumbs up. It made my day.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I cover my gray and don't have the handicap plates, but when I finally decided I was bored with my Z06 afer 3 years last summer, a hottie 22 yo kid tried to get me to drag race then a month later a gang banger wouldn't leave me alone for an hour until a dragged him. Needless to say I still got the C5 and the 22 yo has not given up getting me to race him lol.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Kia offers turbo vehicles too. I have one ! Awesome perforamance ! As for the warranty? Can't beat 10 year 100k!
      • 3 Years Ago
      Hard use of the turbo or superchagger will shorten the life of the engine drastically. The repair of one of these hi-tech engines is either impossible or very expensive. This is no answer. As the American car turns into a mini-euro death trap, the cost of ownership will become stratospheric. One engine repair will wipe out all that fancy "fuel saving" Also running these small engines with the turbo engaged will cut the fuel moleage by 75%.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Hard use of any engine shortens its life
        • 3 Years Ago
        Interesting thought but Turbo units have been in use on many other applications for over 40 years "without" any of the problems you stated. Unless you have a manual "Wastegate" or you mess with the one on the car you can not "hard" use the turbo. The Turbocharger on every engine is always engaged as you put it but rather it starts running when the engine is started and does not stop until you turn off the engine. As for a "Supercharger" that is a whole different animal which you have lumped together here.
        • 3 Years Ago
        you know nothing proper maintainance will help with longevity,,,and the basic engine components are very smuch the same as none turbos,,,the turbos are expensive to repair but the engine is still about the same cost
      Richard A. Strong
      • 3 Years Ago
      You are cordially invited to see my StrongMobile Flying Car Project at http://www.strongware.com/dragon
      • 3 Years Ago
      I own a 1987 turbo Thunderbird. I love the turbo once you get it reved up you would think you had a race car.I bought the car new and it will be part of my will. I won't trade it.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Turbo takes my 55 horse snowmobile and creates 110 horse.. Arctic cat 660 4 stroke
      • 1 Year Ago
      what about mitsubishi Evolutions? and Subaru WRX STi so many models missing on this
      • 3 Years Ago
      buy a motorcycle and save save save
    • Load More Comments