You might be hearing some new terminology when you are buying a vehicle, such as turbocharged or Ecoboost engines. To understand what those terms mean, we need to start with a basic look at how engines work.
A typical engine takes in a mixture of gas and outside air, compresses it with a piston inside of a cylinder and then ignites it with a spark plug. The expansion of the gases inside of the cylinder forces the piston in motion, creating the power needed to move the vehicle.
Engines have multiple cylinders with pistons inside of them and all of those pistons are connected to a common shaft that sends the power to the transmission. Each cylinder is sucking in outside air as the pistons move, which gets mixed with fuel inside of the cylinder.
In fact, there is a lot more air than gas going into the cylinders and that mixture has to be just right. There can’t be too much air mixed with the gas or vice versa. Of course bigger engines produce more power, but automakers are trying to meet strict new standards for fuel economy and emissions, so they need to squeeze every bit of power out of smaller engines. But that is not easy.
So you might wonder, why don’t they just spray more gas into smaller engines to create more power? Well, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Remember that for every little bit of gas that gets added into the cylinder, a lot of air has to be mixed with it to get it to ignite properly. As an engine runs it will naturally draw outside air in to mix with the gas, but at some point it just can’t draw anymore air in on its own. Something has to force more air into the engine to mix with the additional gas.
That’s where turbochargers come into play. A turbocharger is the part that forces extra air into the cylinders of the engine. Here is how it does it: A turbocharger is basically an air compressor that uses exhaust gases coming out of the engine to turn a set of blades. Those blades are connected by a shaft to another set of blades where the air intake comes into the engine. Those spinning blades on the intake side force the additional air that’s needed to mix with the gas inside the engine to try to create more power, lower emissions and improve fuel economy.
In the past, turbochargers were used mostly on performance engines, but automakers will be using them a lot over the next few years to meet the government’s standards for fuel economy and lower emissions.
I don’t want to scare you away from buying a vehicle with a turbocharger, but do some homework before you buy one. You might have to pay extra to get it and some new studies are showing that the promises of better fuel economy might be a little “overblown."