The Truth Behind Turbos And Engine Technology

Turbo Engine

Turbo Engine

Unlike the old days where turbos were reserved for racers and muscle cars spewing fire and deafening noise, today’s engine technology has changed considerably. All types of cars across various segments, regardless of shape, size, brand or price points have implemented turbos in some shape or form.

While turbos have gone through numerous trials, tribulations and affirmations, there is still a stigma attached to their performance-enhancing abilities. Some still feel that they only belong in motorsports but today they are capable of so much more. Even with modern technology, nothing is guaranteed and there will still be pros and cons but we’re here to bust some of these myths once and for all.

How Old Is Turbocharging Technology Really?

The technology behind modern turbos can be traced back to more than a century but it has evolved much since then. Swiss engineer, Alfred Büchi invented the first turbocharger in the early 20th century and in 1905 he received a patent for his revolutionary technology.

Believe it or not but the first use of turbos based on Büchi’s design was not for cars. In fact, during World War I, French engineer, Auguste Rateau, fitted them to large marine engines such various French fighters powered by Renault engines.

In terms of turbochargers in the automotive sector, they’ve only really been a prominent feature in the last 3 decades. Racing cars of the ’80s and 90’s really put turbocharged cars on the map and then came the Gran Turismo gaming franchise which promoted turbos even further.

Suzuki had a huge influence as in 1999, Gran Turismo 2 was launched, and the best car you could buy in the game was the Suzuki Escudo Pikes Peak Version. It was a highly-tuned race version of a Suzuki Vitara which was specially built for the famous Pikes Peak hill climb race in America.

Turbocharged Cars Are Increasingly Popular

The simplest explanation of how turbos work is that engines mix fuel and air to run. A normal engine takes in a fair amount of air but turbos force more air into the cylinders and mixes that with more fuel resulting in additional power. Turbos use the energy from exhaust gasses to compress air into the engine which brings us to the first point.

A turbocharger enables spinning speed of up to 150 000 revolutions per minute (RPM) compared to most cars with a maximum of 6000 RPM. This makes turbos about 30 times faster than most non-turbo cars.

Turbos Make Small Engines Perform Better

Smaller engines often struggle to pull heavy loads, especially in places like Johannesburg at higher altitude. Here, the air is less dense than at lower altitudes and drains more power from the engine which affects the overall performance. Non-turbo cars can lose up to 20% power at higher altitudes but considering that turbos build up their own pressure, it cancels the effects of power loss at higher altitudes.

Turbos Provide Reliable Power

Many car manufacturers and aftermarket engine tuners agree that turbocharging is the most effective way to increase engine power. Even at low pressure, turbocharging can increase engine output by over 25%.

More Parts, More Problems

It’s true, a turbocharged system does add extra parts to an engine, including the turbo unit, extra piping and cooling to improve engine performance. That said, it can certainly make things slightly more complicated.

On the plus side, modern cars fitted with turbochargers are done in such a way that many people won’t even know there is a turbo. While regular car services are important in all cars, maintenance becomes even more essential for turbo cars. Considering all the extra moving parts, piping and vacuum lines that need inspection and servicing, today’s technology really does make check-ups much easier and faster.

Turbocharged Cars Are More Expensive

It’s an obvious statement but true nonetheless as the added tech results in a higher price. The margins do vary though according to vehicle class and type but they tend to be more expensive. Considering that all the benefits and engine complexity increase the price, the resale value on turbo cars generally remain quite high which helps you later on.

The price increase is not without reason as there are overwhelming benefits. Perhaps, if you’ve never driven a turbocharged car before, you may not know how incredibly invigorating and satisfying it is. As many will agree, once you’ve experienced the true power behind a turbocharged car, chances are you will never go back to a non-turbo car.

What About Turbo Lag And Durability?

While turbos did get a bad reputation in the ’80s and ’90s with reliability issues and blown engines, it’s not the same any more. Yes, turbos do add additional strain on an engine but the science and technology behind it all has come on in leaps and bounds.

Today’s turbocharged engines are built with forced induction which simply means that these engines are purpose-built to handle the extra air being pushed through. They now have stronger connecting rods, lower compression ratios and many advanced assembly techniques making them as more reliable.

Turbo lag still features in some cars where there is a delay in the power kicking in from when putting your foot down. This can be attributed to various factors, from the turbo size, available gear ratios and, of course, altitude. As technology advances, car manufacturers today know how to get the combinations right to minimise turbo lag and to make it almost unnoticeable.

Contrary to what many believe, turbocharged engines don’t have more problems but it does require regular maintenance. Just like any other car, if you don’t service it regularly and drive like a maniac, problems will occur.

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