Commentary: Ode to The Turbocharger

Dodge Dart Presentation 9
Photo by Randy Stern

Ah, yes, the turbocharger…

It is a wondrous device, as it takes a low-producing engine and makes it into a ball of fury. It was a simple device – two turbines on each end of a stick. It took air – both intake and exhaust – to make those two turbines whirl inside each chamber. The result is boost – a simple phrase that said a lot more than it really means. A turbocharger could be seen as an auxiliary motor adding to the power of an internal combustion engine.

They did come in various sizes. That depended on how much air you wanted to dance around those turbines in each chamber. A simple rule took place: The bigger the turbocharger, the more air you let swirl in it, therefore producing the most boost.

In the past, you had to wait for that extra power to come on – that dreaded lag! Plus, turbochargers usually ran hot allowing some to disintegrate after 60,000 miles. After installing an intercooler, the latter problem was resolved. Additional work on the engine management system, better plumbing and transmission gearing helped to remove the lag over time. Modern turbocharged engines – both fueled by regular gas or diesel – have become the symbol of efficiency yielding better fuel consumption than some of its older counterparts.

Why an ode to the turbocharger? It came across my screen that Volkswagen will supplant the naturally aspirated engine with turbocharged replacements. They would be smaller in displacement, with the addition of that little turbine to fill the power void.

This did not surprise me. Things have been heading that way with many manufacturers. Plenty of recently reviewed vehicles revealed that little turbine being a part of the performance package. Some were turned for power, while others were tuned for economy. You might say that the turbocharger has become mainstream.

It was never that way, however. I always thought that turbochargers were cool. In North America, that meant performance. If you remember the original Saab 99 Turbo or the Buick Regal T-Type, the purpose of a turbocharger was to increase performance above normal ranges. Only a few took the bait on boost early on. The Isuzu Impulse was made more graceful beyond its Giorgetto Giugiaro design with a turbocharged four-pot. Ford jumped into the boosted fray thanks to its Special Vehicle Operations division by slapping the turbine onto a 2.3litre four-cylinder. It was not just the Mustang SVO, but regular turbo versions of the Thunderbird and the North American edition of the Sierra XR4 – i.e. the Merkur XR4Ti.

Even so, the turbocharger had an important role in the development of diesel engines. Peugeot and Mercedes-Benz brought out turbocharged diesels stateside in the early 1980s. It made sense, since diesels were known to be slow and dirty. Turbochargers were key to the expansion of the diesel engine outside of this continent, as today you cannot make an oil burner without one.

Nowadays, the turbocharged engine can be found with almost every manufacturer – Volkswagen included. There are some great ones out there. Ford's EcoBoost line proved that a turbo could be versatile, too. For the multiple applications the turbocharger is used for – providing torque for pickups, high performance for a crossover and optimal efficiency in a mid-sized sedan – Ford has those whole boost business down.

So does General Motors, Fiat, Chrysler, Volkswagen, Audi, Porsche, BMW, MINI, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo…shall I go on?

Because the turbocharger is becoming mainstream, will it lose its coolness factor? I certainly hope not. If it has to be, we may need to create distinctions between turbocharged cars designed for efficiency and those that are turbocharged for performance. That way, you indentify the cool turbocharged vehicles above the rest.

It also creates even more opportunities to subdivide, specialize and carve niches out of turbocharged models. Do you think that a Porsche 911 Turbo would want to be lumped in with the Subaru WRZ and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution? It seems silly, but consider the potential for such niche marketing and carving out sub-phylums of enthusiast groups. It would be enough to spin as fast…as a turbocharger!

All of this madness simply comes back to a twin-turbine power booster that swirls air in and out of an engine.

We simply do not need more madness as the automotive community has to offer every day. If you have a turbo, enjoy it. Embrace it! Love it!

Because, simply, boost is a beautiful thing.

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