What Does a Turbo Do In a Car?

If you’re looking for a powerboost without boosting fuel consumption, turbo may be just the ticket.
Written by Sarah Gray
Reviewed by Amy Bobinger
A turbo, or turbocharger, uses your vehicle’s exhaust to add more horsepower to your engine. And unlike a supercharger, it does it without sacrificing fuel efficiency.
If you’re shopping for a used
or a new
or just looking to add a little oomph to your old
, you’ve probably heard a lot about turbos, also called turbochargers. But just because they’re showing up on a list of vehicle specs doesn’t mean you know what they are or how they work. 
Here to help you navigate the high-performance world of turbocharged engines is
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What is a turbo engine and what does it do?

If your vehicle features a turbo engine, it means it’s fitted with a turbocharger, which increases your engine’s efficiency and performance. Fuel needs air to burn, so your combustion-engine vehicle needs air to run. A turbocharger uses your vehicle’s exhaust gases to power a compressor that forces more air into your engine’s combustion chamber. The increased airflow means increased engine power.

Is a turbo the same as a supercharger?

Yes, and no. Both turbochargers and superchargers are air compressors that use forced induction to stuff more oxygen into your engine’s combustion chamber. The difference is that a turbo system is powered by your vehicle’s exhaust, while a supercharger is powered by the engine itself via a belt attached to the crankshaft or an electric motor.
The most obvious difference between these two systems is response time. Because it relies on your engine’s exhaust heat, a turbo takes a moment to “spool up,” creating the infamous “turbo lag” that often forces those with the need for speed into the lag-less supercharger camp. The instant power boost from a supercharger comes at the cost of fuel efficiency, though—which is why most modern car manufacturers gravitate toward turbochargers and save the superchargers for the supercars.
Key Takeaway Superchargers offer faster response than turbochargers, but at the expense of fuel efficiency.
MORE: Pump up your drive with the best turbocharged cars

How a turbocharger works

The amount of power an engine can produce has a lot to do with how much, how fast, and how hot it can burn fuel. A naturally aspirated engine (NA), or “breathing” engine, works by taking in air at normal atmospheric pressure. A turbocharger uses your vehicle’s exhaust gases to power a turbine that forces compressed air into the combustion chamber. Let’s look at that in a bit more detail.
A turbocharger increases the oxygen in your engine’s combustion chamber by directing your vehicle’s exhaust gases into a turbine housing. Those gases then spin a turbine that sucks air from outside and compresses it into your engine. With more air in the combustion chamber, your car can burn fuel faster and hotter, which translates directly into increased power output.

Pros and cons of a turbo engine

Let’s start with the pros: 
  • “Free power”—Obviously, extra power is a big pro with a turbocharger, but an even bigger pro is that it’s essentially “free power.” Your engine doesn’t have to work any harder to achieve this power boost, so you won’t sacrifice fuel economy.
  • No effects from altitude—The higher you climb with an NA engine, the harder it gets for it to “breathe” enough air to run.
  • Improved fuel efficiency—Turbochargers allow automakers to equip cars, trucks, and SUVs with smaller engines that burn less fuel without sacrificing performance or increasing emissions.
And now, for the cons:
  • Heat—Turbochargers run off exhaust. Exhaust is hot. This means turbochargers get very hot, especially when pushed to maximum performance. Without proper ventilation, which often includes larger air intakes and/or an intercooler, a turbocharger can overheat if it’s pushed too hard, which could result in major engine damage and even engine fires.
  • Turbo lag—Because it relies on a build-up of exhaust for power, if you floor a turbocharged car, it’s going to take a hot second for it to respond. If your vehicle is equipped with a manual transmission, you can get around this by downshifting, but you may still feel a split-second delay.

How much does it cost to get a turbocharged engine?

How much you’ll pay for a turbocharged engine depends on a variety of factors. If you’re looking at aftermarket installation, you’ll probably spend anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000. If you’re looking at powertrain options on used cars or a new car purchase, though, a turbocharged engine could increase your MSRP by $400 to as much as $5,000

How to find cheap car insurance for your vehicle

When you’re looking to optimize your vehicle’s performance without sacrificing fuel efficiency, a turbo engine is the way to go. When you’re looking to optimize your vehicle’s
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Yes. A turbocharger increases airflow to your engine’s combustion chamber, increasing both horsepower and torque.
When a turbo engine kicks in has less to do with engine speed than RPMs. No matter how fast you’re traveling, most turbochargers kick in around 2,000 RPM.
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