We look at the first, the fastest and some great ones in-between.
Turbocharged cars have gradually been taking over the motoring landscape as manufacturers attempt to get the best power and efficiency possible out of their vehicles. But turbos aren’t necessarily a magic bullet that cures all evils. The fact is that many turbocharged cars, especially small capacity ones, tend to fall well short of their claimed consumption figures when driven in real-world condition.
But done right, and generally, for the sake of additional performance, they can make for an exhilarating driving experience. So to celebrate this little metallic snail, we look at some of the first turbo pioneers some memorable modern classics and then move on to the latest and greatest current generation of turbocharged supercars.
The very first turbocharged production car was built right here in the US. The 1962 Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire not only had an awesome name but also used a water/alcohol mix injection system called ‘turbo rocket fluid’. GM marketers clearly wanted customers to focus on the additional power that the turbo gave the 3.5-liter aluminum block V8.
Its 215 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque could launch the heavy F-85 to 60 mph in a little over 9 seconds, pretty impressive for the time. It was perhaps a little predictably not the most reliable car in GM’s fleet and lasted only two years before it pulled the plug. The die had been cast though and it took the rest of the world 11 years to catch up.
The 02 series sedans were the start of BMW’s dominance in the sport sedan sector and put it in a strong financial position for the coming decades. The top Turbo model of 1973 took the 2-liter fuel-injected motor from the already quick 2002tii and bolted a turbocharger to it which pushed power levels up to 170 hp and torque swelled to an impressive (for the day) 180 lb-ft. It was seriously quick, with a 0-60-mph time of just over 7 seconds but had massive turbo-lag. Fewer than 1,700 examples were eventually built, and surviving examples are now highly collectible.
Aside from the GT3, every modern Porsche is currently turbocharged. Things looked rather different back in 1975. The 911 was still powered by a flat-six hung out the rear but the range was comprised of basically one car, the 200-hp 3.0-liter Carrera. The only other Porsche you could buy was the odd little mid-engined 914. Then the 930 Turbo was released. The first cars made 260 hp and enough torque to scare the big V12 supercars of the time.
In 1978 the engine was increased to 3.3-liters and an intercooler and five-speed gearbox were added. The resultant 300 hp was now delivered with a touch less turbo lag although the wayward rear end was still a problem. An odd slantnose variant was also produced in limited numbers and this one made 330 hp courtesy of a factory fitted performance kit. The quickest 911 models have been turbocharged ever since and big leaps in suspension technology and the adoption of AWD have made the latest 911 Turbo far tamer in the corners.
There were several significant turbo cars like the Saab 900 and Lotus Esprit that came along before the Quattro, but none rewrote the history books quite so comprehensively as this little AWD Audi did in 1980. When the rally variant proved so dominant in competition, a road-going version was released to capitalize on its success. It was a bit nose heavy and the 197-hp 2.1-liter motor was not massively powerful, but it performed well above expectations. The combination of turbo power and all-wheel-drive traction gave this two-door Quattro a serious advantage against its rivals on slippery surfaces and it set the stage for dozens of over-achieving AWD Audis over the following decades.
The 930 may have started the path to turbocharged dominance but it was the technologically advanced 959 that showed us what future supercars would be like. Released in 1986, it offered much the same package back then that is seen in the latest generation of fast road cars today. It came equipped with a twin-turbo 444-hp 2.85-liter flat-six that put its power down to all four wheels but even more impressive was the aluminum and Kevlar chassis and run-flat tire technology. The heads were water-cooled and its 197-mph top speed made it the fastest production car of its day, even if it was only for a short while.
Ferrari’s response to all this German technology was to produce a stripped-out racing car based on the already fearsome 288 GTO and hope that no one would notice that it really should not be registered for road use. The result was the stunning rear-wheel-drive F40, released in 1987. It too had a twin-turbo engine of a similar capacity to the 959 but this one was a V8 and it made 478 hp. It wasn’t all about brute force either as the Kevlar, aluminum and carbon fiber construction was cutting-edge and thanks to a lack of just about any creature comforts, it could manage 199 mph, which meant the 959 was no longer the fastest thing on the road.
Moving on to more recent turbocharged offerings, the latest Nissan R35 GT-R has been a budget supercar slayer ever since it first saw the light of day in 2007. It follows on from its iconic predecessors of which the R32 of 1989 was the first to offer turbocharging as a means of boosting performance levels. Those cars made an official 276 hp from the factory but in reality, were closer to 320 hp. Modified examples were renowned for their ability to cope with massive boost levels, something that the current cars are also very adept at.
Despite that superb F40, most Ferrari fans were shocked to learn that the 4.5-liter naturally aspirated V8 in the 458 was to be replaced by a turbocharged version in the 488. With the benefit of hindsight, the concerns were totally unfounded, the 661-hp 3.9-liter twin-turbo V8 added massive mid-range grunt while retaining most of that high-rev energy of the old engine.
The latest 710-hp 488 Pista is even more intense, improving in every area over the standard car while still offering a characterful power delivery. The Piloti variant is even more exclusive still, available only to customers who currently compete in one of Ferrari’s racing programs.
McLaren started its supercar onslaught back in 2011 with the brilliant MP4-12C. That car went through some intense development over the years and its 3.8-liter twin-turbo motor also made it into the P1 hypercar albeit with a lot of modifications.
The latest 720S uses a new 4.0-liter motor which puts out a strong 710 hp and makes this super series car at least a match for anything in its class. The original F1 supercar may have had a sublime non-turbo V12 powerplant but even its upcoming replacement is sure to feature a pair of turbos to ensure that it can deliver the kind of performance we have come to expect of the brand.
There are many contenders for the hypercar throne and it would be unfair to ignore the achievements of cars like the Koenigsegg Agera and Hennessey Venom GT but when it comes to the complete package of power, luxury and usability, the 1479-hp Chiron still reigns supreme. It makes twice the power of more ‘conventional’ supercars like the 720S and 488GTB but then again it has twice the engine.
The top speed of this 8-liter W16 quad-turbo Chiron is currently limited to 261 mph due to the limitations of current tire technology but you do not need to be travelling at those velocities to appreciate the benefits a few turbos have to its accelerative abilities.