The first turbo cars were hairy-armed things that were all about performance. They had wicked “turbo lag,” and were prone to breakage. A turbocharger coming apart at speed was not a pretty sight.
But that’s done a 360-degree spin. Today, carmakers—almost all of them—put in turbochargers when they want better fuel-economy numbers. As the EPA explains, turbochargers “allow more compressed air and fuel to be injected into the cylinders, generating extra power from each explosion. This allows manufacturers to user smaller engines without sacrificing performance.”
Mike Stoller of turbocharging experts Honeywell Transportation Systems tells me, “It’s no longer a question for automakers if they should turbocharge, but how, and that applies to gas, diesel, hybrid and electric applications. In fact, the EPA estimates 90 percent turbo penetration by 2025.”
Really, 90 percent? That’s the key, getting a lot of power out of tiny engines. We’ve seen turbo motors with less than one liter of displacement powering economy cars, and there’s way more of that coming.
“We think turbocharging is a key enabler to reach the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy goals (54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025), and satisfy consumer demand,” Stoller said. “With a turbo you can get roughly 35 percent better fuel economy compared to a similar normally aspirated engine. Turbocharging goes along with other technology that automakers are using for the same reason, such as variable valve timing, nine-speed transmissions and lightweighting.”
And that leads me to the turbocharged 2014 Chevrolet Sonic LT hatchback I’m driving now. The turbocharged motor is a $700 option, and from 1.4 liters GM manages to produce 138 horsepower and 148 pound feet of torque. With the six-speed manual in my tester, it manages a stellar 29/40 mpg (33 combined). Yes, you get your cake and are free to eat it as well.
My tester also features a Borla performance exhaust, which should help with the zero to 60 time, black wheels and a “color flash package” (grille surround, spoiler, mirror caps) that just make it look a lot cooler. Is this Sonic fun to drive? You bet! It leaps off the line like a hungry wolf encountering an unguarded chicken coop, and purrs some beautiful music out of that huge chromed exhaust pipe. People will laugh when they hear it's 1.4 liters, but they'll stop laughing when they drive it. Here's a brief test drive on video:
Incidentally, Sonic buyers also have the choice of the beefy RS model, which comes with many of the same features, including the turbo engine and six-speed, plus lowered and stiffened suspension and a sport exhaust. The RS is $20,995, and the loaded 2014 LT Hatchback as tested $21,345 plus a few miscellaneous fees. Leave off some of the bells and whistles (our car had $2,745 in options), and the bottom line is $18,700.