Is Turbocharging the Future of Cars?

The world is growing ever more populated with turbocharged engines, but is this good for drivers?


Back in the day of parachute pants, Milli Vanilli and Miami Vice, turbocharged cars weren’t exactly mainstream, and these outsiders definitely weren’t subtle. If you happened to be a dude with a turbo sports car, manufacturers made sure your friends, family members and innocent bystanders knew about it. The cars were loud and fast, and they had “turbo” lettering on the rocker panels, hood and tail (or all of the above). Fierceness abounded, but the cars themselves were sparse. There was no serious attempt to bring forced induction to the masses — and, frankly, no drivers were calling for it other than the die-hards. Turbos were for enthusiasts, drag racing and gearheads.

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Back in the day, turbocharging was about adding power. Today, that thinking has evolved.

In the past quarter-century, though, turbo has risen to the mainstream. In 2014, 21 percent of gasoline engines were turbocharged, and that number is expected to rise to 38 percent in 2019, according to Honeywell, the world leader in turbo manufacturing. Manufacturers have taken hold of the concept that you can have more power, while also bumping up fuel efficiency and reducing emissions. Small four-cylinder-engine cars post respectable 0-60 mph speeds, and horrendous turbo lag is mostly a thing of the past. Turbo has also reached out to family sedans, SUVs and entry-level hatchbacks, so drivers now have a slew of vehicles across all segments to find a turbo that turns them on.

A Few Turbos of 2015

Ford Fiesta
Engine: 1.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder
Horsepower: 123
Torque: 125 lb-ft
Mileage: 31 city / 43 highway

Dodge Dart
Engine: 1.4-liter four-cylinder turbo
Horsepower: 160
Torque: 184 lb-ft
Mileage: 28 city / 41 highway

Volkswagen CC
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo
Horsepower: 200
Torque: 207 lb-ft
Mileage: 21 city / 32 highway

Ford F-150 V6
Engine: 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6
Horsepower: 365
Torque: 420 lb-ft
Mileage: 17 city / 23 highway

Mercedes-Benz CLA250
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo
Horsepower: 208
Torque: 258 lb-ft
Mileage: 23 city / 32 highway

Ferrari 488 GTB
Engine: 3.9-liter turbocharged V8
Horsepower: 661
Torque: 561 lb-ft
Mileage: n/a

The turbo mindset has also shifted, potentially for the worse. Back in the day, turbocharging was about adding power. Today, that thinking has evolved — and now the focus sits more on efforts toward efficiency and environmental consciousness. The primary impetus for this shift is the US government’s mileage standard, asking 54.5 MPG for cars and light trucks by the year 2025. And it’s not just the US government that’s putting on the mileage thumbscrews, after all. The European Union actually wants 60.6 MPG by 2020, making fuel efficiency even more a priority there than here (and with less time to do it). So, manufacturers adapt — including Ferrari, who, if they had their druthers, would probably go on making big, voluminous V12s. Instead, we see the new Ferrari 488 GTB with a turbocharged engine, as we’ll likely see in most of Ferrari’s lineup moving forward. Ferrari engineers think it’s anathema to what Ferrari is about, but they see that times are changing.

Support for the turbo argument came from the EPA who cited, in 2012, that turbocharging was one technology that aided in “the improvements in CO2 and fuel economy during the last seven years”. That claim helped boost the already trending move toward turbo, but seeing whether the measurements actually represent real-world driving requires deeper thought. Measuring fuel economy is tricky, since turbocharging an engine doesn’t necessarily mean better fuel efficiency. The government measures fuel consumption based on conservative driving habits, whereas a smaller, turbocharged gas engine under mild driving habits easily beats the MPG of a bigger-displacement, naturally aspirated engine. But, when a turbo boost kicks in under more spirited driving habits, more fuel is consumed (in order to reduce the heat an engine produces) and tailpipe emissions increase. You won’t get 54.5 MPG by measuring guys who want to drive their turbocharged BMW M3s hard.

The slow but sure decline of the naturally aspirated engine is a forgone conclusion, whether in the world of economical passenger cars or high-end exotics. Turbo is creeping to the center stage, supported by government mandates and the assumption that if we all drive slow enough, we’ll reach high MPGs and low emissions. And maybe we will. When all is said and done, perhaps in a couple of decades, collectors will be scouring the auction lots for rare, vintage non-turbo cars, the future dinosaurs of autodom.

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