Article and photos by Justin Pritchard
A turbocharger adds a ‘power boost’ to a vehicle’s engine, and is a common part of the powertrain of many sporty models. Lately, turbochargers are becoming more and more common in mainstream vehicles, too, since engineers can use them to turn up the output of a small engine, rather than fitting a larger, thirstier one instead. This saves fuel when the engine is not working hard, which is why automakers like Hyundai, Ford, Chevrolet and others are bringing turbocharged engines into the mainstream in a big way.
Used Turbo Cars 101. Click image to enlarge
In simple terms, a turbocharger is an air compressor driven by exhaust gas that’s mounted close to the engine, in its exhaust system. Inside of a turbo, two turbines are attached to one another by a metal shaft that’s surrounded by a flow of engine oil. Each turbine sits within its own housing, and the two housings are sealed from one another.
Hot and expanding exhaust gases flow through the housing on one side of the turbo, forcing the exhaust-side turbine to spin rapidly. In turn, this spins the shaft, as well as the turbine connected to the other end of it.
Said turbine on the other end of the shaft is called an ‘impeller’. It’s exposed to the engine’s fresh air supply, and compresses incoming air as it spins. This compressed air is forced first through an ‘intercooler’ to reduce its temperature, and then into the engine itself. The extra air crammed into the cylinders is matched with more fuel for a bigger explosion.
Voila – that’s how a turbocharger makes a little engine perform like a bigger one. And whether it’s called ‘Turbo’, ‘EcoBoost’, ‘Boxer Turbo’, ‘TwinPower Turbo’, ‘Turbo Power Turbo’, or any other marketing name, the principle is the same.
Because of the delightful premise of adding ‘boost’, turbo cars are popular with performance buffs and tuners – but in the used market, and especially without the protection of a factory warranty, some folks actually avoid turbocharged engines because of unfamiliarity or worries about the long-term reliability of the turbocharger system.
Partly, that’s because in doing its job, the turbocharger spins at incredible speeds and gets very, very hot.
High-speed moving parts and extreme heat are good ingredients for wear – which is just why modern turbochargers have coolant and oil pumping through them to keep temperatures in check. Because of this, most turbochargers last the life of the vehicle if they’re not abused, and if regular maintenance procedures are followed.
Key word above is ‘if’.
Neglect and modifications can burn a turbocharger up faster than a Russian meteorite, and changing a turbo isn’t typically cheap business for the average owner. As such, those looking at a turbocharged car with an unknown history are advised to perform a few checks for signs of turbo trouble, and then follow a few tips for long-term turbocharger life.
While you’re considering our tips below as a shopper or owner, remember that most automakers don’t make their own turbochargers. Several industry experts like Garret, IHI and Continental build turbochargers to automaker specifications, leveraging years of experience to ensure durability and quality.
Also, remember that turbochargers aren’t an unproven or strange new technology. Turbocharged cars have been around for decades, and advanced considerably over the years. Newer, unmodified, and well-maintained turbo cars leave shoppers little to worry about.