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Why Your Next High-Mileage Car May Be... Turbocharged (and Not a Hybrid)

Although turbochargers are only on 10 percent of American cars now, they've made much bigger inroads in Europe, where fully 60 percent of road vehicles, from tiny cars to big trucks, are rolling off assembly lines equipped with them. Have European drivers gone performance crazy?

A fuel economy -- and emissions -- move
No, these turbos are a fuel economy move, and stringent European fuel economy and emissions regulations are what put them there. That's why European cars average 40 mpg, compared to 25 mpg in the U.S. But the U.S. has pending regs that are similar to Europe's, and that's why market leader Honeywell (HON) predicts huge growth in the American market -- to fully 70 percent of new vehicles by 2025. It's part of a growing move to smaller engines that is seeing V6s and V8s replaced with four-cylinder alternatives without any significant loss of power.

For gearheads raised on performance tuning, the idea of using turbocharging to improve fuel economy seems contrary to logic. Early turbos were strictly power boosters, exacting an economy penalty but improving the zero to 60 time (at a cost of notable "turbo lag"). But that's now only one part of the market. Today's turbos offer the same benefit as hybridization -- allowing the use of smaller-displacement engines with no performance sacrifice, and improving bottom-line economy.

Honeywell's penetration numbers for the U.S. are probably too high. The most optimistic EV supporters claim that 20 to 30 percent of the market will be electric by then, and those cars won't have plugs. But Ford has committed to a turbo economy strategy with its EcoBoost engines, and it's a cheaper way to get better numbers without going the hybrid route. Turbocharging can also be added to hybrid drivetrains that opt for very small engines.

Ford's better idea
Ford's approach is a smart one. In 2009, it introduced EcoBoost on a range of four-cylinder engines with V6-like performance. Turbocharging combines with direct injection for 130 to 200 horsepower with 20 percent emissions reductions. Ford also got $5.9 billion from the Department of Energy that year to further a plan for 25 percent fuel economy benefits. EcoBoost is a big part of it, and it's gradually expanding across Ford's product line.

Turbocharging offers "magic value," Alex Ismail, president and CEO of Honeywell transportation systems, told me in an interview. He claims that turbocharging can provide a 20 to 40 percent fuel economy benefit, with similar gains in emissions. That's certainly possible, but you have to actually downsize the engine. The BMW X6 hybrid uses a Honeywell turbocharger (sold under the fairly well-known Garrett brand name), but because the engine is a big bruiser of a V8, the fuel economy gain is minor and the car simply ends up being very expensive.

Tiny turbos from Tata
An example of how turbocharging can work efficiently with very small engines is the forthcoming diesel version of the $2,500 Tata Nano, which uses a turbo to squeeze more power out of a tiny two-cylinder 750-cc engine while yielding incredible fuel economy (the numbers aren't finalized yet). Ismail said that turbos don't have to be expensive. Honeywell will make the turbochargers for the Nano in a factory in India at an approximate cost to Tata of $100 per unit, he said. According to Ismail, turbocharging per unit costs only about a third as much as hybridization.

Turbocharging may not really be "magic" -- it's 100-year-old technology, after all, developed for the aerospace industry -- but it's proving quite effective to save gas and emissions in modern engines, something those gearheads would never have imagined.

Honeywell's Ismail talked about turbocharger penetration in this video:


Graphics: Honeywell
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