Turbochargers: Spinning Under Control

         Imagine running up five flights of stairs or just finishing one of those cross-country running tests in a high school physical education class … you find yourself gasping for air. That is what your engine experiences when you’re driving up those winding mountain roads or just getting on to the freeway.

        More and more of today’s automobiles are getting a boost of extra air and delivering increased performance due to turbochargers. Though turbochargers have been used in automobile, airplane and other engines for most of this century, only a decade ago “turbos” were considered more suited for “exotic” or strictly “high-performance” cars.        

        Yet, with growing interest in more economical performance from today’s cars turbo chargers have proven increasingly practical. Along with the low, sleek and aerodynamic body designs of contemporary automobiles, engines have become smaller and emphasis has been on fuel efficiency.

        A turbocharger can increase the power of an engine from 20 percent, to as much as 50 percent in some cases. Consequently, with the addition of a turbocharger a four-cylinder engine can deliver the driving performance of a non-turbocharged V-6 or V-8, and still deliver excellent fuel economy.

        Since you may own a turbocharged car, or possibly be wondering about the possibility of purchasing a car equipped with a turbocharger, today I will address two popular questions about “turbos.”


A.     A turbocharger is essentially an exhaust-driven air compressor. And since an engine’s performance is directly related to how much air (mixed with fuel) it can pump, a turbocharger helps it breathe better. Here’s a somewhat simplified example of the turbocharger function: A turbocharger uses two fans (“turbines”) mounted on a single shaft.

        Each of the fans operate inside a separate hallway and are spun using the same principle as a typical water wheel. The first fan is spun by used exhaust gasses blowing out of the engine. This first fan drives a second fan operating in the other hallway, where incoming air is being channeled into the engine — thereby pressurizing (pushing) fresh air into the engine.

    One fan spins from exhaust going out and the other fan pushes fresh air coming in. The more you mash down on the gas pedal, the more the exhaust gasses drive the boost of incoming air into your engine. More air helps the engine produce more power, and zoom you go!


A.    Good question! What good would all that power be if you don’t get reliability, too? In one survey, a company found that only 30 percent of turbocharged car owners follow the special factory maintenance tips from car manufacturers. The survey also found that only 10 percent of the owners followed the important driving technique prescriptions. With those figures is easy to see that most of the turbocharger failures probably occur due owner neglect or abuse.

        While your car’s engine spins at between 2,000 and 3,000 revolutions per minute (rpm) at highway speeds, a turbocharger spins at as much as 100,000 rpm. That high speed performance, along with the fact that hot engine exhaust gasses flow through the turbocharger, make a strong case for tough work.

        Getting maximum turbocharger life is really pretty simple. Since the turbocharger is lubricated and cooled by your car’s engine oil, if you own a “turbo” car, follow these three main tips:

  • When you first start your car, drive at moderate speeds for the first five minutes to allow oil to adequately lubricate the turbocharger. 
  • Keep the engine on and idling for at least one minute before turning it off after a hard run — such as mountain driving or traveling on the freeway. 
  • Pay particularly close attention to frequent and regular oil and filter changes, since the extra heat generated from the turbocharger places an added burden on oil life. Additionally, be sure to use a heavy-duty oil that is specified for use in turbocharged engines (if in doubt, consult your owner’s manual or dealer).

        Keeping these tips in mind will keep your turbocharger from early failure or interrupted performance. Remember to follow your car’s regular maintenance schedule: “Prevention is the cure!”

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