Monday, May 13, 2013

Are consumers afraid of turbos?

A colleague of mine pointed something out recently that I'd not noticed. You rarely see "turbo" being advertised for vehicles over here (the U.S), even on engines that actually have them. Ford use the term "Ecoboost". Mazda use the term "SkyActiv". The VW group always use "TSi" and "TDi" but never really expand on the "T". Only Hyundai seem to be particular up front about, going so far as to use the 'Turbo' moniker on their Veloster.
This led me to wonder why this is. Back in the bad old days, turbos could be unreliable beasts, badly tuned with too much boost from the factory, they were heavy, would burn through oil and bearings fairly quickly and made a lovely / horrible noise depending on your point of view. They fell out of favour in the mid 80's in America with the market preferring displacement over aspiration. V6 and V8 engines became more commonplace along with the terrible gas mileage they provided. At the time, petrol was cheap and displacement was the easiest way to get increase power.
Over in Europe and Japan, turbo engines never really went out of favour. Hot hatches were frequently sold factory-fresh with turbos that did a great job of bringing a smile to the driver's faces as well as providing a modest increase in fuel economy. Every car had a boost gauge (Saab put theirs front and centre), the turbo whine, induction roar and dump valve sounds were all allowed to echo through the engine bay and passenger cabin and all was well. For whatever reason though, the average man-in-the-street in the US was somehow afraid of turbos.
Cut to today when people are now happily driving around in turbo-engined cars, and I wonder if it's because they don't realise it. As I said above, you don't often see 'turbo' in the literature for the car. Instead it's masked with phrases like 'advanced engine technology' (turbos aren't that advanced, or new). Induction roar is quieted with airboxes and noise-deadening. Turbo whine is suppressed by putting the turbo low down at the front of the engine, away from the driver, and dump valves are soft-opening, quiet little affairs designed to be as inoffensive as possible. That's if they're present at all. Most factory turbos are managed so they never produce enough pressure to require a dump valve.
Why? Why is this? Why aren't we celebrating amazing technology like variable vanes and nested twin turbo systems that spool up at different exhaust pressures? Porsche don't mind advertising variable-vane turbos but then they're not really targeting the average driver. I just think we should embrace things like this and not be afraid of it. Put boost gauges back in the cars, let the drivers hear their engines going about their business. There's really nothing to be afraid of.