Turbochargers are nothing new. Passenger cars have had them since the early 1960s, and trucks have had them since the late 1930s.
But thanks to "evolutionary refinement" – and the emergence of complementary systems such as direct fuel injection – turbocharging has become a go-to technology for the automotive industry as it pushes to meet President Obama's stringent CAFE standards.
"The backdrop of a tougher regulatory environment puts a new spotlight on turbocharging," says Mike Fuller, director of communications for Honeywell Turbo Technologies. "It really is in the sweet spot of technologies that can deliver improved fuel economy and emissions reductions with known performance characteristics."
But this isn't your grandfather's turbocharger. Once considered a high-performance option, today's leaner, meaner and greener turbocharger offers improved fuel efficiency without sacrificing power.
That's why the turbocharged engine is a standard offering on a growing number of popular passenger cars.
"We tout turbocharging as a no-compromise solution," Fuller tells New Equipment Digest. "You have the best of all worlds in terms of fuel economy, power, performance and drivability. When people experience these vehicles with this technology in them, they are going to be wowed."
And they aren't going to be disappointed by turbo lag, General Motors claims.
GM says its new Twin-Turbo V-6 – available on two new Cadillac models – tackles the turbo's notorious delay in power delivery by combining smaller turbochargers, top-mounted throttle body and shorter air pathways.
"By creating a very short path from the turbos to the throttle body, the compressors are able to draw air directly from the inlet box and send pressurized air through the intercooler immediately," says Richard Bartlett, Cadillac's assistant chief engineer for the 3.6-liter engine. "This gives the driver a more immediate feeling of power on demand."
Using two smaller turbochargers in lieu of a single, larger turbo "also helps ensure immediate performance because smaller turbochargers spool up quicker to generate horsepower-building air pressure that is fed into the engine," according to GM.
It's not just the turbocharger that's getting smaller. The engine is getting smaller too, thanks to the boost in power density from turbocharging and other technologies.
"Variable-cam timing, direct injection and turbocharging are the three complementary technologies that are really enabling this downsizing and boosting trend," explains Chris Thomas, vice president and chief technology officer for BorgWarner Inc.
As part of the downsizing trend, the four-cylinder engine has supplanted the V-6 as the dominant engine in the auto industry – a trend that likely won't ever reverse.
From 2011 to 2012, the auto industry boosted its production of four-cylinder engines by nearly 8 percent, bringing it to 54 percent of total engine production, according to the EPA's latest data.
Meanwhile, production of six-cylinder engines hit a 15-year low, dropping to 31.9 percent of total engine production.
And once-mighty eight-cylinder engines represented just 12.1 percent of total engine production – their lowest share since the EPA began collecting fuel-economy and emissions data in 1975.
The global push to develop smaller, more fuel-efficient engines has been a boon to turbo manufacturers BorgWarner and Honeywell Turbo Technologies.
"We have over 500 different projects in the pipeline globally, and we launch about 100 new applications every year," says Steve McKinley, Honeywell Turbo's vice president for engineering-Americas. "Anywhere there's an engine with any development aimed at better power density or fuel efficiency, we're probably involved."
That applies to gasoline- and diesel-burning engines. Honeywell turbocharging technology helps power the 2014 Chevy Cruze Turbo Diesel, which features a 2-liter turbocharged diesel engine rated at 151 horsepower. The diesel sedan gets an estimated 46 mpg on the highway.
Honeywell Turbo cites industry projections that U.S. sales of passenger cars with turbocharged diesel engines will jump 22 percent in the next five years, rising to more than 1 million cars per year by 2017.
However, McKinley adds, "that's going to be small relative to the growth that we're experiencing in gasoline turbocharging."
"We have some things that are keeping us busy here: one is gasoline turbos, the other is diesel right behind it," McKinley tells New Equipment Digest.
Downsized and turbocharged gasoline engines and turbodiesel engines account for more than 75 percent of the vehicles in Europe, according to Honeywell Turbo Technologies. But here in the United States, it's about 15 percent.
"There's a lot of runway for [turbocharging] here in the U.S.," McKinley says.