Reader Question: Turbo’d Longevity?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

M asks: Hi Eric, I enjoyed your article  on the Turbo Tax, regarding turbocharged engines.  I didn’t see where you addressed it directly in your article, but I have been wondering if these smaller turbocharged engines will have similar longevity to regularly aspirated V6 and V8 engines or will they be prone to wearing out earlier? I don’t like the whole concept for an everyday vehicle, but as you said it’s getting harder to avoid them.

I’d also like to see a really comprehensive article from you some day on vehicle safety. IIHS is helpful, but I find it hard to know if one vehicle that scores well on their test is safer than another that scores well.  Also, beyond the data they and NHTSA provide, how does one really assess what’s the safest vehicle?

My reply: The car companies do extensive durability testing to simulate wear and tear over many miles of driving, but simulating isn’t the same as real-world and we won’t really know how well this new-generation of turbocharged small engines will hold up over time until time has passed.

What we do know is that historically, turbocharged engines were less durable over time than non-turbocharged engines and more expensive to maintain and repair. Part of the reason for this could be that – historically – turbos were found mostly in performance cars and these were likely subjected to harder use. But it is also probably a function of the higher stress a turbocharged engine is subjected to, even in normal use. There are also more parts, which regardless of other factors increases the chances of something breaking or wearing out.

My main concern, though, relates to the way turbochargers are being used today – not as power adders but as displacement replacers (as discussed in my article). Put another way, these engines will be “on boost” almost all the time – or at least, whenever the car is moving – just to get it moving and keep it moving.

In the past, turbo’d engines were already powerful; the turbo was there for when the driver wanted even more power. So the car could be driven normally without having to rely on boost to get it going decently.

The situation’s analogous to using steroids to help a skinny guy get big. The steroids exact a heavy toll on the skinny guy’s body. A naturally big guy can achieve the same size/strength without abusing his body – and he will usually not have to work as hard to get there, either.

On the safety thing:

The key thing to know – in my opinion – is that the federal government does not – via its mandates and regs – make cars “safer.” It makes them more crashworthy, but that is another thing.

And, arguably, some of the federal mandates and regs make cars more likely to be crashed. For example, federal regs and mandates decreeing roof crush strength and anti-whiplash headrests have markedly reduced rearward and to the side visibility in most new cars. This makes it more likely you won’t see another car coming up from behind or from the side  when you’re attempting to merge/pull onto a main road from a side road.

The main thing to know about crash test rankings is that they are based on how a given car does in crash testing vs. other cars in the same class. Not generally. A subcompact car with a 5 star rating is not as crashworthy as a full-sized truck with a 3 Star rating.

Size does matter.

Final thought: The most important safety device is . . . you. An attentive, skilled driver is the single most important factor on the road. Such a driver is safer even in a ’73 Beetle with no “safety” technology at all than a poor/inattentive driver in a brand-new Volvo.  Government “safety” mandates are reactive – Band Aids meant to deal with the consequences of poor driving.

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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