How does a turbo work? CAR explains

Published: 21 April 2020

► What is a turbo, exactly?
► And how do turbos work? 
► CAR explains for beginners

The word 'turbo' is a common one surrounding cars (and in their marketing) and most of us understand that it's a positive thing, but what is it and how does it help?

Turbochargers increase the efficiency and power of an engine by forcing more air (and fuel) into the engine which causes a bigger explosion. Bigger bangs mean more power.

In turn, this means we can fit turbochargers to smaller capacity engines and still get the same power and torque, or even more, than a conventional naturally-aspirated larger capacity engine. Smaller engines typically use less fuel than larger ones, too. 

Allow us to get a little technical to explain how that works. Essentially a turbocharger is made up of a turbine and a compressor. The turbine's housing accepts exhaust gases that would ordinarily be wasted and spins the turbine at speeds of up to 250,000 rpm. This then gets the compressor spinning which draws in air and compresses it before feeding it into an engine's combustion chamber.

History will tell you that the downside of turbos are that there was usually a delay between when you floored the throttle and the exhaust gas started rushing by and spinning the turbocharger. But modern engine management and smaller, lighter turbochargers have reduced that delay (called lag) and now turbo engines – especially those used in F1 – are hugely responsive.

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