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Michael's Speed Zone

4th December 2001

By Michael Knowling

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I am one of the most avid fans of turbocharging you could ever hope (dread?) to meet. But, I have to admit, I've been questioning the merits of a few of the current factory turbo machines. And it appears that I'm not the only one - looking at the number of contemporary turbocars now left on the Australian market, it seems their centre-stage spotlight is gradually starting to dim...

Before I jump right straight in, I suppose I'd better put the Australian turbocharging era into context. You see, back in the days when leaded fuel'd Ford and Holden V8s used to throb supreme on our roads, there were very few vehicles that could come close to matching their straight-line performance. Factory high-performance revolved almost universally around a monster engine and the biggest carb that would fit under the bonnet. And, in some cases, not even the bonnet line posed any real restriction...

Then - during the early 1980s - along came a few techo up-starts from Japan.

The first vehicle to really push the established 5-plus litre big-bangers was the Mitsubishi Starion. Producing 125kW from just 2 litres, its specific power output was m-i-l-e-s ahead of the contemporary average 2-litre four. Looking back, the Starion - more than any other turbocar - can be congratulated for establishing the niche for the serving of turbo 'rice burners' that were to follow. Hot on the heels of the Starion in slipped the Cordia, ET/Pulsar, 300ZX, Supra, Piazza and more turbocharged cars than you could poke a stick at. The turbo craze had certainly begun, and every pushrod V8 in the country was up against the hard - and somewhat disgraceful - challenge of a boosted four pot (and, of course, the formidable 3-cylinder 17-second Daihatsu Charade!).

At the height of it all, the pressure(!) of the turbocharged vehicles saw Australia's own car manufacturer - Holden - adopt the services of a Nissan-designed 3-litre turbo six for the VL Commodore. Their thirsty carburetted V8 model was shuffled back to merely 'tow vehicle' status, and it was left up to the Group A hotties to keep some wind ripping through the V8 lover's flag.

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Inevitably, by - say - the mid-to-late '80s, the word of turbocharged cars spread. There were some hard truths for many high-performance drivers to face; these cars offered immense V8-rivalling performance while running on the smell of an oily rag (relatively speaking) and they handled exceptionally well (largely thanks to dramatically less mass). And - as a final clincher - many of the turbocars were also screaming bargains to purchase and insure. Judging by the number of vehicles sold, the biggest perceived drawbacks of a turbo engine - lag and off-boost torque - weren't enough to keep buyers away.

As many of us can vividly recall, the status of turbocharged cars continued to snowball during the 1990s; there were Lancer GSRs, WRXs and 200SXs hosing off poor ol' Holden and Ford V8s left, right and centre. With Japanese engine development now taking onboard double overhead cams, multi-valves and intercoolers, we were seeing 2-litre turbo engines push out an amazing 150-odd kW. For the first time, the small turbo engines were thumping out nearly as much power as an everyday Aussie V8 (which had seen little development other than the fitment of EFI). And, to make matters worse for the cash-strapped locals, all of the major benefits of turbo engines still applied - namely fuel economy, weight and cost (let alone exhaust emissions). The writing was on the wall - the future of Aussie performance cars was gonna be grim without something of a 'rescue mission'...

But now, my friends, we're in the fantastic situation of having buyer options again...

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Holden has released their Chev-designed 5.7-litre V8 (capable of a massive 225-300kW out-of-the-box) and Ford Australia - while still playing a fair bit of catch-up - are getting things rolling along with their V8 Tickford models. These vehicles are producing levels of power that we could have only dreamt of a few years back - today's SS Commodore, for example, has the same sort of power as the previous Group A models! And even more importantly, it's not just the 'pretend' power of old - these cars go hard!

And don't forget some of the other performance players that can sneak up and bite you on the backside - even a 3.5-litre 5-speed Magna Sport whips up 163kW and can rip to 100 clicks in a shade over 7 seconds. When there's a V6 Magna pulling those sorts of figures, it's no wonder there's quite a few Subaru WRX owners losing face.

Without question, there have been some big advancement in engine technology over the past few years. But for some reason, none of the affordable turbocharged vehicles on the Australian market seem to reflect that. Many of the bigger engine'd atmo cars have taken to the latest low-friction designs, variable valve timing and tuned intake systems. The result - for them - is a dramatically improved combination of power and economy. All-alloy construction has also solved a lot of the 'heavy V8' syndrome - just look at the Chev 5.7 LS1.

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So - with no major engine design changes in nearly 10 years - cars like the Subaru WRX (which is probably one of the biggest cult cars in Australian history) now appear to be fighting to keep above water. Drive one and you'll realise they've still got a similar lack of low-down torque to that which afflicted the 1992 Liberty RS. It's quite disappointing. And it's not only the turbocar's relative lack of engine development that's causing them to lose ground...

There are some unavoidable nasties associated with a turbo engine. For starters there's added complexity and weight (just add up the mass of a turbo, wastegate, intercooler and its plumbing). Then start talking about under-bonnet heat soak and its dramatic effect on a turbo engine's output - and who could forget their propensity-for-detonation need for high-octane fuel? And then there's the cost factor - if you've got any cash left over after purchasing a current turbocar, I assure you that your insurance premium will gobble up the rest.

So now you know why my dedication toward turbocars is looking a little fragile.

My, how times have slowly but surely changed...

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