A blue ford model hatchback is shown in a warehouse.

The Pros and Cons of a Turbocharger

Thinking about turbocharging your car’s engine? Not a bad idea. Turbocharged engines are faster, and actually offer more in the way of benefits besides increased speed. Several of the Chevy, Kia, Dodge, and Ford models (just to name a few) on the market today have turbo options available along with the higher end sports cars. But, where there are benefits there are drawbacks.

Plenty of automakers are creating cars with the turbocharged option. Lexus of Pennsylvania is no exception. In fact, the manufacturer has big plans to upgrade more of its models with turbocharged engines.

Could one of those be right for you? Read on to discover the pros and cons of a turbocharged engine…

To Turbocharge or Not? That is the Question…

A turbo is shown in black and white.

When it comes to getting more bang for your buck in the speed department, a turbocharged engine is the way to go.

For as racy as they sound, they were actually created as a very practical solution to an energy problem, specifically, the energy crisis of the 1970s. With oil in high demand, but short supply, automakers had to create cars that could offer better fuel economy for the consumer. So, engines decreased in size and more and more consumers wanted to purchase turbocharged vehicles or had turbochargers installed. What they got was a smaller engine with greater fuel efficiency and more power.

However, like all burgeoning technology, the turbocharged trend wasn’t without its setbacks. Some of the engines produced were unreliable and so, after their hey-day in 1980s, turbochargers faded away under the growing shadow of larger, more fuel-efficient engines.

But, as Carol Ann famously said in Poltergeist, “they’re back.”

We are once again in an era of uncertainty when it comes to energy sources. Ford is leading the charge and intends to opt for twin-turbo V6 engines in lieu of the larger V8s. This is the brand that coined the term, “Ecoboost” that you so often see on spec sheets. You can find just about all Ford models have an Ecoboost engine option these days.

Getting back to Lexus…the manufacturer announced at this year’s auto show in Detroit that it will equip more of its models with the turbocharged four-cylinder 2.0-liter engine featured in the NX200t, which generates 235 horsepower. While exact details are being kept under wraps, this news would make more Lexus way more competitive with its European rivals, like Audi, Mercedes, and BMW, all of whom utilize turbocharged technology.

It’s like the pony wars of the luxury line!

How Does a Turbocharger Work?

The interior of how a turbo works is illustrated.

Simply put, a turbocharger is a pump, a type of gas compressor, that pushes air into the engine’s cylinder. Once combined with fuel, the engine gets increased combustion pressure, making it more powerful and able to burn more fuel.

Since the turbochargers get their power from the energy coming out of the exhaust pipe, which would usually just go to waste, the turbocharger actually makes the engine more efficient.

Some estimates put that increased efficiency up to twenty percent greater than regular, naturally-aspirated engines, but even with more modest figures of five to ten percent, the saving is still significant.

In addition to increased efficiency, turbochargers are attractive options for those of us concerned with our carbon footprint. Because turbochargers don’t burn as much fuel as naturally-aspirated engines, they don’t create as much carbon dioxide. So, with a turbocharger you’re actually driving with reduced emissions.

Small, Silent, and Svelte…

Turbocharged engines are much smaller than naturally-aspirated engines because they have fewer cylinders; therefore, they weigh less as well.

An upcoming Ecoboost from Ford, for example, is reportedly thirty pounds lighter than the V8 engine. This is a big deal because the car will weigh less overall and so should deliver enhanced efficiency.

In addition to being smaller, turbochargers are quieter than regular engines, acting almost like a silencer, improving the overall quality of the ride.

So, what’s the problem?

A Few Turbocharger Troubles

A mechanic is fixing a turbo.

Things get a little tricky when it comes to installing the turbocharger. Now, if you purchase an engine already turbocharged, disregard this warning. However, if you are interesting in adding horsepower by installing a turbocharger, you will want to be very selective when it comes to finding the right mechanic to perform the service.

Even the teeniest mistakes during the installation process will render the turbocharger useless and might, in fact, damage the entire engine. A mismatched system, one that is unable to handle a turbocharger, might result in engine failure. Your mechanic needs to evaluate the fuel-to-oxygen ratio in your engine and modify the engine accordingly.

To be more specific, turbochargers are evaluated by the amount of air they are able to deliver in pounds per square inch, or PSI. When it comes to the majority of vehicles, tuning between five and seven PSI allows them to work properly with the additional power. If you tune anywhere between eight and twelve PSI, your engine will need to be supported by a heavy-duty valve train and customized pistons. Any turbochargers exceeding 12 PSI will need to be completely modified in order to avoid any damages to the block or other engine components.

In some cases, the functionality of the turbocharger can wear down the engine, requiring that it be replaced sooner than later. This is especially true if the turbocharger was installed properly, but the driver disregards how to operate it safely.

Just in case the prospect of replacing your engine wasn’t pricey enough, consider the cost of a turbocharger on its own. Turbochargers cost thousands of dollars, not to mention what you’ll have to pay your mechanic for the actual install.

Additionally, you’ll want to decrease the amount of heat created by the turbocharger, which can damage your engine, by installing an intercooler. This is another expensive endeavor.

There is one near-inevitable drawback of turbochargers and that is referred to as “turbo lag.” What this means is the amount of time the turbocharger takes to build enough pressure in the combustion chamber before the added power actually kicks in. While this just sounds like the gripe of the eternally impatient, turbo lag can actually be quite dangerous, especially when maneuvering tight turns, around which your tires are already being tested.

And of course safety is always something to think about. By design, turbochargers are meant to increase a vehicle’s power, allowing it to travel a higher speeds. High speeds plus potential malfunction make for a dangerous combination. Depending on the type of driving you do, for example, if you have to traverse hilly terrain on a regular basis, a turbocharger might be just what you need to do the drive more efficiently. But, if you’re just interested in crushing the commute, a turbocharger might not be in your best interest, with respect to overall cost and safety.

Other things to consider are the warranty on your vehicle and the cost of your insurance. Depending on your warranty, if you install a turbocharger after you’ve purchased or leased the vehicle, you might compromise your coverage.

Even though we are seeing an increase in their popularity and presence in the automotive market, if you do an after purchase install, you might cancel your warranty terms outright. On their own, turbochargers are categorized as racing equipment and so will not be considered a proper match to your engine.

Between turbocharged and non-turbocharged vehicles, turbocharged engines are considerably more expensive to insure. This is especially true for teenaged drivers, who might face up to double the price of insurance premiums to cover a turbocharged car.

As you can see, the decision to purchase a car with a turbocharged engine or pay to have one installed after the fact really just comes down to your own personal driving needs and desires.

If you need and can afford the extra horses, then giddy up and go for it! Just make sure you trust an expert to do the work and be mindful of the extra power at your feet. Put the pedal to the metal responsibly!

Update 5/10/19

Having been a few years since we weighed the pros and cons of turbochargers, it got us thinking. There’s been a whole hell of a lot of performance vehicles being churned out since 2015. At the time this piece was written, in fact, some of those rides were little more than concepts, rumors or a gleam in the mixed bloodshot eye of some FCA engineer looking for his next big break. That said, we thought we’d take some time to explore, and maybe even share our picks for some of the best examples of both turbo and supercharged offerings.

What’s the Difference?

If we were to offer a Cliff Notes breakdown of the differences between turbochargers and supercharges, it comes down to placement in regard to the engine, power source, and spinning rate.

A turbocharger (as mentioned above) uses the exhaust steam as its energy source, running it through a turbine to spin the compressor. There is no direct connection to the engine, and the turbocharger is equipped to reduce carbon emissions. In terms of spin rate, it peaks at about 15,000 RPM.

On the other hand, a supercharger generates its power from the crankshaft and directs that power to the engine, to which it is connected. There is no , and its spin rate runs as high as 50,000 RPM.

There are, of course, arguments in favor of both – but performance is performance, and we prefer to see the appeal in both options. That said, here are our picks for the best of both. Some economical, and some aspirational we’re not listing them in any discernible order of preference. Hell, we’re not even going to go into the design – we’re just going to list them alphabetically, throw out some numbers and let you choose for yourself!

Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

Equipped with a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V6, the Quadrifoglio sits atop the lineup of Alfa Romeo’s resurrected Giulia and serves up 505 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. Boasting the most powerful powertrain in Alfa Romeo history, this proved a global game-changer for the Italian automaker.

Aston Martin Vantage

The Aston Martin Vantage comes equipped with a 4.0-liter turbocharged V8 capable of channeling 503 hp and 505 lb-ft of torque. Paired with an eight speed automatic the sleek 3400LB two-seater ranks as one of our favorites.

Audi RS3

Ah, the five-cylinder. Sure Audi could have taken their 2.0-liter four-cylinder and re-engineered it into something even greater, but no. They opted to equip the RS3 with a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine capable, pairing it with a 7-speed automatic transmission to deliver ratings of 394 hp and 354 lb-ft of torque.

A red Audi RS3 is going around a track.

BMW M8501

Open the hood and you’ll find a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 delivering an inarguable 523 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque. As opposed to some engines that might be fed from a single bank, BMW assigns two cylinders to each turbo creating an audible tempo for each exhaust pulse. This only serves to make it as enjoyable to listen to as it is to drive.

Cadillac CTS-V

Wrangling 640 hp and 551 lb-ft of torque, the CTS-V comes powered by a 6.2-liter V8 mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. We might not be the biggest Caddy fans, in general, but it’s really hard to argue the performance appeal of this one.

Corvette Z06

Stateside, the Corvette Z06 was only recently unseated by the swarm of hi-po’d production cars flooding the market. Featuring a supercharged 6.2-liter V8, this Vette channels 650 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. Sure, some of FCA’s offerings have stolen a bit of the spotlight, but the Z06 throws up some serious numbers.

Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat

Which segues seamlessly into the supercharged 6.2-liter V8 that serves up to 797 hp and 707 lb-ft of torque. I know that I promised no hardcore bias but no-one does classic American muscle like Dodge, and this configuration might just be the ideal testament to the enduring appeal of domestic performance.

Ferrari 488 Pista

Powered by a 3.9-liter twin-turbocharged V8, the 488 Pista enjoys the most powerful V8 powertrain to-date within its family. Smaller in size, but generating a more substantial power output the 488 Pista is a true supercar cranking out 710 hp and 568 lb-ft of torque.

Fiat 124 Spider

Today, mention of a 1.4-liter four-cylinder might not blow any minds off the bat, but the Fiat 124 Spider’s turbocharged powertrain ranks as one of the most powerful four-cylinders in its class. Equipped with twin intercooler and fresh-air induction system, the 160 hp/184 lb-ft of torque Spider provides a hell of an open-air driving experience.

Honda Civic Si Coupe

The Civic Si boasts a similarly unassuming 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, but there’s nothing unassuming about its 205 hp output, paired to 192 lb-ft of torque.

Hyundai Kona

The Kona has been everywhere of late, and the option of a 1.0-liter turbocharged DI engine to jack the power output from 147 to 175 hp is just enough to compliment the unorthodox design and pique our curiosity. And starting at under $20G the Kona offers a timely and affordable option for those in search of confident performance. 32 MPG on the highway is pretty nice as well.

Hyundai Veloster

Which makes us all-but-required to mention the Veloster, whose optional 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder boosts its power from 147-201hp and jacks its torque rating up from 132-195 lb-ft.

Jaguar F-Type

A supercharged 5.0-liter V8 offers up 550 hp and a top speed of 186 mph. And that’s when we realized there was nothing left to say…

A white 2019 Jaguar F-Typer is speeding along the highway.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk

One of the most satisfying exhaust notes we’ve heard from a stateside offering comes from the Trackhawk, whose supercharged 6.2-liter Hemi offers a 3.5-second sprint to 60 mph, 707 hp and 645 lb-ft of torque.

Kia Stinger GT

We’ll never stop being surprised by our love of the Stinger. Yep. We love a Kia (who’da thunk it). But with the choice of either a turbocharged 2.0-liter I4 or 3.3-liter V6, they even gave us a few reasons to sit up and take notice. Up to 365 hp didn’t exactly hurt their arguments either.

Mercedes-AMG CLS63 S 4Matic

Powered by a 5.5-liter bi-turbo V8, the 4Matic churns out a damning 577 hp which – combined with its sleek demeanor – makes it look (and feel) even faster. Truth be told, we might have fallen in a love a little.

Porsche 911 Turbo S

Where would this conversation be if Porsche didn’t make an appearance? Well, the 911 Turbo S delivers 580 hp and 553 lb-ft of torque from its diminutive frame. And while we can’t help but be captivated by its 700hp sibling (the 911 GT2 RS) the 911 Turbo S feels slightly more balanced.

Subaru WRX

The WRX is one of those picks that may not be our cup of tea (don’t tell my boss), but I have to give credit where its due. Choosing from either the 2.0 or 2.5-liter option you have the inarguable appeal of up to 316 hp. Stylistically, the WRX has always spoken to a loyal, enthusiastic – if not niche – audience, but it’s one that we just happen to stand outside of.

Volkswagen Golf R

A turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder provides the Golf R with its 288 hp making it a capable performer with track-inspired road manners. Another option that may not be ‘our thing’ but it certainly earns a spot on our list.

Volvo XC90

And rounding out our list is the elegant XC90 which offers your choice of either (i) a turbocharged T5 engine capable of 250 hp or (ii) the T6 upgrade that churns out 316 hp. And in case you’re interested, there’s also a surprisingly capable 400 hp plug-in hybrid variant that is hard to deny.

Does This Look Anything Like Your List?

With taste being as subjective, few would argue that automotive preferences rank amongst the most subjective. That said, your list of picks for the best turbo and supercharged cars might look drastically different than ours. But we’d love to know some of your picks, and if there’s any overlap between your list and ours.

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