Not Your Grandma’s Turbo: Tech That’s Back In A Big Way

Turbo Chargers
Turbo chargers should make you feel like this: Happy to be on road, and having fun in your car. Photo credit, Lia Griffith, via Instagram

Power + Efficiency + Durability: the new turbo reality.

The word ‘turbo’ has been used to mean a lot of things: Intel wants you to buy its TurboTax software for fast filing; DreamWorks wants your family to fall in love with a fast cartoon snail; Twin Turbo hair dryers promise to “enhance your blow drying experience.” I’m not kidding.

Turbo Chargers

You might remember cars like these for being turbo charged: the Buick Grand National. Photo: Gawker

Many of us first came to know the word ‘turbo’ when it applied to super fast cars. As long ago as 1925, engine designers learned that they could create super efficient engines by recycling engine exhaust to give more boost and less lag when the driver hits the gas. The technology was first used in trucks but soon became popular on the racetrack and then in muscle cars (think Porsche, Ferrari, Mustang, Toyota Supra).

But putting turbo engines into muscle cars in the ’70’s and ’80s nearly ruined the future for the technology. ‘Turbo’ quickly went out of style when turbo chargers wore out after about 50,000 miles and were expensive to fix.

Turbo: An easy way to make a car sound sexy?

Turbo Chargers

Modern day turbos are all over the place, including starring in DreamWorks movie about a snail

You’ve probably seen the word turbo a lot more lately, and it’s confusing; many of the cars that are advertised as ‘turbo’ are small and fuel efficient. Not the high end sports cars that we are used to picturing. But the good news is that turbo isn’t just a cheap word to make a car sound sexy. Turbos are back in a really good way.

Re-engineering turbo chargers for modern engines

Consumers may have given up on turbo, but engineers didn’t. Instead, they decided to solve the problem.

In breaking down the issues, it became clear that cooling the turbo when the engine shuts off would reduce damage, and building a turbo housing designed to withstand super high temperatures – that can climb to 1,850 degrees – would reduce the chance of the system breaking down, too.

The result? Turbo charged engines that are reliable and whole new class of turbo boosted engines in all price classes and types of of cars and trucks. So what does it all mean for you?

10 things to know about turbo chargers

I recently got to spend some time with Rick Balsley, Assistant Chief Engineer of Ecotec Engines for General Motors. Rick shared insight on what customers should know about turbo charged engines.

  1. First, we’re in the midst of a mega trend; many car companies are downsizing engines so cars are lighter and get better gas mileage. But not wanting to produce cars that are slow, they are putting turbo chargers in to boost engine performance.
  2. Turbo means more thrust; pair that with a small engine (a 1.4 liter, say) and you can get more power for less fuel usage. That’s why you might see small cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Trax or Sonic offered with a turbo engine.
  3. Just because the engine gets more boost from the turbo charger, don’t automatically count on getting high fuel economy. You still have to keep your right foot in ‘eco’ mode; if you take advantage of all that boost all the time, you’ll see it in reduced MPG.
  4. Advances in technology mean turbos will last a long time. They should last the life of the car.
  5. Turbo chargers don’t use a lot of oil, even though oil is a central component of turbo’s function (this was also a problem that was fixed).
  6. Boosting an engine—small or large— brings the fun back to driving. So that little Sonic? It will feel like driving a much more powerful and zippy car.
  7. Turbos are great in high altitudes and hot weather because the technology isn’t affected by the climate as much as other engine types.
  8. Turbos are also great for diesel engines. Diesel engines are known for their lagging performance but long life and power; paired with a turbo, a diesel can feel pretty peppy.
  9. Even though turbo chargers use the engine’s exhaust to increase power, they aren’t ‘green’ because they don’t reduce exhaust, they just cycle it through the turbo charger a second time.
  10. Most turbos use regular gas. Some manufacturers will specify premium fuel, but that is because of the engine, not the turbo, said Balsly. And if your car’s manual specifies premium, you can apply the the widely accepted idea of trying out a tank or two of regular and measuring performance (power, fuel economy, new engine noises). If it’s the same, then regular fuel is fine.

Look for the term ‘turbo charged’ to become even more common and popular. Small turbo engines are great for drivers who drive longer distances, especially highway miles; the small engine is very efficient at high speed but the turbo makes the car peppy and responsive when driving in city traffic.

Turbos will also show up in more diesel trucks, such as the Chevrolet Colorado, which need the hauling power of diesel but customers want them to drive more like a car. It’s the best of both worlds, and that’s what it’s all about, after all: having your MPG and your power, too.

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss