Turbo engines flourish despite fuel economy questions
BY BRIAN THEVENOT, McClatchy-Tribune
While electric vehicles continue to grab the green-car spotlight, an older technology has quietly emerged as a player in the fuel economy wars: turbocharging.
Once the province of performance cars, turbochargers now power economy cars, family sedans and even full-sized trucks. Turbos now account for an estimated 13 percent of U.S. auto sales, according to Honeywell International Inc., a leading turbo supplier. That's double what it was in 2010.
The increase is driven by ever-stricter federal fuel economy standards. Turbochargers, which inject compressed air into engine cylinders, enable automakers to squeeze more oomph out of smaller motors.
But not everyone is sold on turbos. Toyota and Honda continue to avoid the technology. And critics including Consumer Reports question its efficiency and performance advantages.
In a report this week, the product-testing organization found that most turbos failed to deliver on advertised fuel economy or to outperform non-turbo rivals with bigger engines.
"There are better ways to save fuel, including hybrids, diesels and other advanced technologies," the magazine said.
Still, automakers including Ford, Volkswagen and BMW are bullish on turbos. Some predict the U.S. car market soon will look more like Europe, where more than half the cars are turbocharged.
"We're going 100 percent into turbo technology," said Rainer Michel, vice president of product strategy for Volkswagen of America. "From a physics standpoint, nobody will get around it."
Ford shocked the industry two years ago when it introduced a turbocharged six-cylinder version of its hefty F-Series truck, the bestselling vehicle in the United States. Noting that truck buyers favored the traditional V-8, Car and Driver magazine said the engine "might as well be a hood-mounted tofu dispenser."
Today, the twin-turbo V-6 sells better than any other option -- including two V-8s -- at 42 percent of all F-150 sales. "It's surprised even us at how well it's done," said Ford spokesman Richard Truett.
But Consumer Reports found that the EcoBoost truck achieved 15 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving, less than its 17 mpg combined rating from the Environmental Protection Agency -- and about the same as Ford's 5.0-liter V-8.