Are Turbocharged Engines Less Reliable?

Audi turbo-charged engine Photo: Audi

Turbocharging has become a common way for auto manufacturers to strike a balance between power and fuel economy. The concept is to allow a small engine to work like a bigger one when more power is needed. This is accomplished by forcing more air into the engine during acceleration, enabling it to burn more fuel. But with the increased stress caused by turbocharging, will these cars end up off the roads earlier than their naturally aspirated counterparts? Or will they go the distance due to improved research and development?

“Generally speaking, turbocharging is a great idea. It’s a smaller engine, but you’re still getting a decent amount of power,” says Mike Quincy, autos editor at Consumer Reports. “The idea with a smaller engine, especially a four-cylinder, is that you’re going to get decent fuel economy without giving up power. But it’s not so easy to generalize about reliability for turbocharged engines. You have to look at the powertrain and the model as a whole.”

How a Turbo Engine Works
Engines make power by burning a mixture of fuel and air. Turbochargers work by forcing more air into the engine when the driver wants more power. That lets the engine burn more fuel and generate more power. The turbo is essentially a fast-spinning fan driven by exhaust gases. The technology allows a smaller engine to generate the power of a bigger engine but only when it’s needed, without the bigger engine’s greater fuel consumption. The downside is that some turbocharged engines hesitate before the turbo spools up and delivers a surge of power.
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Air is pulled into the turbo from outside the car.

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The spinning fan blades compress the air and force it into the system.

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The air passes through an intercooler, which cools and further compresses the air.

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The now denser air mixes with fuel and ignites, producing more power than a same-sized conventional engine.

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The exhaust gases exit the engine, spinning the fan blades of the turbo.

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The spinning blades power the turbo to push more air into the engine.

How a Turbo Engine Works
Engines make power by burning a mixture of fuel and air. Turbochargers work by forcing more air into the engine when the driver wants more power. That lets the engine burn more fuel and generate more power. The turbo is essentially a fast-spinning fan driven by exhaust gases. The technology allows a smaller engine to generate the power of a bigger engine but only when it’s needed, without the bigger engine’s greater fuel consumption. The downside is that some turbocharged engines hesitate before the turbo spools up and delivers a surge of power.