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DRIVE TAB -- Turbos finally become popular in U.S.

Newer versions have solved problems with reliability

By Ann M. Job

For AP Special Edition

Nearly a decade ago, officials at Volkswagen of America Inc. discussed whether to downplay the fact some of their engines in the United States were turbocharged.

"There was concern about the negative image of turbos," company spokesman Tony Fouladpour said. "It was a time when it wasn't a great terminology to use for an engine."

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Today, however, there are signs turbos -- maligned after durability problems with turbo engines in the 1970s and 1980s -- are gaining more acceptance in an American auto market where naturally aspirated V-6s and V-8s have long been the preferred performance engines.

Fouladpour said buyers now come to VW showrooms asking to get a turbo engine in their New Beetle.

And most buyers of VW's Passat sedan and wagon get the 1.8-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder.

"It's the engine we sell the most Passats in," Fouldadpour said. "The 1.8 Turbo gas engine has been extremely important to the brand. It also has breathed new life into the GTI."

Overseas-based automakers such as VW, Saab, Audi and Volvo account for the bulk of vehicles with turbos sold these days in the United States. All Saabs sold in the U.S. come with turbocharged engines.

But turbo models still account for only 4 percent or 5 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales, according to Paolo Carmassi, vice president of strategy and product management for Garrett Engine Boosting Systems, a unit of Honeywell and a leading worldwide turbo manufacturer.

"Americans love large-displacement, high-torque engines, but that doesn't play in other markets," said Marc Trahan, product management leader at Audi of America Inc.

Carmassi said turbo vehicle sales in the United States peaked around 1982-83 after oil crises in the 1970s pushed Americans into fuel-efficient, smaller cars. These cars didn't have a lot of performance, so turbos drew interest as alternatives.

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But U.S. consumers became disenchanted with turbo durability.

In some instances, turbo installations were not done correctly. In many cases, durability problems arose because of cooling issues.

"We have introduced water jackets where the water is naturally circulating so the turbo is taken care of," Carmassi said. "We have moved a long way from the 1970s."

He noted that Audi has won the grueling 24 Hours of LeMans race for three years now. The winning cars were turbocharged, with no engine failures even in a racing environment, he said.

Still, he sees Americans lagging behind car buyers in Europe in embracing turbos.

There are modest signs of change, however.

The 2003 model year will be the first since the early 1990s that a Chrysler-branded vehicle comes with a turbo. The newest version of PT Cruiser -- the 2003 PT Cruiser Turbo -- has a 2.4-liter four-cylinder turbo under the hood. It joins the PT Cruiser's only engine thus far -- a naturally aspirated, 2.4-liter four-cylinder.

Why a turbo? Jim Schroer, executive vice president of global sales and marketing for the Chrysler Group, acknowledged company officials had looked at installing a six-cylinder engine to provide greater performance. But they found it would require unacceptable design and engineering changes to the PT Cruiser's stylized front end. Fitting a six-cylinder under the PT Cruiser hood to meet crash standards required extending the nose to where it was not attractive, he said.

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The high-output, turbocharged four that wound up in the PT Cruiser is actually more powerful than the six that was under consideration, Schroer said.

Developed in 1924, turbochargers use an engine's exhaust gases to power a turbine. The turbine drives a compressor that pushes extra air into the engine. The result is more power coming out of the engine without any increase in engine size.

"We use turbos for two developmental goals," said Audi's Trahan. "To take a small displacement engine without associated fuel economy penalties and to take larger displacement engines and give them exceptional power."

For example, the PT Cruiser's turbo four-cylinder is rated at 215 horsepower, a 65-horsepower boost from what has been available in PT Cruisers with the regular four-cylinder.

The turbo's torque also is impressive at 245 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm. This compares with 162 foot-pounds at 4,000 rpm in the PT Cruiser's base engine.

Schroer added that the turbo is efficient with its fuel.

The same 215-horsepower, 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that's going into the PT Cruiser goes into another company vehicle this year. The Dodge SRT-4, a high-performance version of Neon, debuts in December and will be the second-fastest vehicle in the Dodge fleet, after the Viper.

Mazda also has a turbocharged model for 2003. The Mazdaspeed Protege has a turbocharged, 2-liter four-cylinder engine capable of producing an estimated 170 horsepower.

This compares with 130 horses in a Protege with a regular, naturally aspirated, 2-liter four-cylinder.

The turbo Mazdaspeed Protege, with production limited to 2,000, is the first street-legal Mazda in the United States to use the Mazdaspeed name. It dates back to 1967 when Japan's largest Mazda dealer began efforts to establish a Mazda presence at major motorsports events worldwide.

Mazdaspeed has certain performance expectations, said Charlie Hughes, president and chief executive officer at Mazda North American operations. This maximum performance Protege is the first road-going Mazda in the U.S. deemed worthy of the Mazdaspeed nameplate.

The turbo is only part of the package. The Mazdaspeed Protege includes appearance, audio and suspension enhancements that are often sought after by today's young car customizers.

Andrew Nunn, director of independent aftermarket in North America for Garrett Turbos, said Mazda and other automakers are very keen to capture young buyers.

This market has been dominated by young drivers who like to customize their cars but only have the money for lower-priced, very reliable small cars, plus enough to spend in this aftermarket to boost performance, he said.

"They're able to compete with the higher displacement engines after modifications are made," he added.

The trend is spreading, even to the Midwest, Nunn said.

"I was in Chicago at a show, and there were Midwest boys there with Civics and Preludes. They're moving away from Mustang V-8s."

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