QOTD: Are All These Turbocharged Cars Going to Last?

If there is one recent trend in the automotive industry today, it’s turbocharging.
Of course, there are a lot of other trends, too. That whole SUV coupe thing is bizarrely catching on. And I think we can all agree that it’s only a matter of time before someone sees the Subaru Outback’s 20 years of unrivaled success and finally decides to re-enter the wagon game.
But in the last few years, it’s turbocharging that has really managed to beat out everything else for today’s most popular automotive trend.

These days, everything is turbocharged. And I mean everything. Years ago, it was just Volvos and Saabs and maybe the occasional Audi or so. It was an unusual thing, turbocharging, and we weren’t exactly sure what to make of it. “That car is TURBOCHARGED,” people would say. “Oooooh.”
It was so much of a unique thing back in the day that companies would advertise products that were turbocharged when it couldn’t possibly be so. There were turbocharged shavers. Turbocharged medicines. Turbocharged toys. All used roughly the same level of forced induction as a grapefruit.
It’s not so unique anymore.
In modern times, everything is turbocharged. Family cars. Subcompacts. Luxury sedans. Ford has not one but two different turbocharged F-150s: a 2.7-liter and a 3.5-liter. They’re widely agreed to be better than the naturally aspirated engines they’re sold alongside. BMW turbocharges. Mercedes turbocharges. General Motors turbocharges. Everything from the Chevy Sonic to the BMW M5 now uses turbochargers to force air into the engine and bring us MORE POWAH. This concept is no longer unique to weird European cars that your dentist friend drives.
The reason for all this turbocharging is obvious: we’re all trying to improve our fuel economy. This is in order to meet CAFE standards, which say that every vehicle must return 87 miles per gallon by next week. Automakers have deemed this a hard goal to meet, so they have turned to turbocharging to accomplish it. And thus, it was born. The turbocharged Ford Fusion. The turbocharged Lexus NX. The turbocharged Buick Encore.
Naturally, I don’t blame automakers for this. There were really only two ways to achieve the goal of better fuel economy: dropping horsepower, or going turbocharged. As much as people say they want to “go green,” they don’t actually want to lose their horsepower, their acceleration, their beloved passing power. So instead we put up with a 1.4-liter engine in a midsize sedan that can deliver a lot of power when we need it, or a little when we don’t.
But there’s one obvious problem with all this turbocharging: How long will these engines really last?
I say this as the former owner of a 1990s turbocharged Volvo, and then the owner of a non-turbocharged 1990s Audi. When it comes to turbocharging, here’s what I learned: Turbos add complication. They often bring more stress to the engine. They leak. They fail. They suffer from serious longevity problems. And this was a turbocharged Volvo, a forced-induction car from an automaker who had known about this technology for years. How do you think it’ll last in a brand-new pickup?
When it came time to replace my Volvo back in 2006, I didn’t want to find out. Knowing that the Audi A4 1.8T had a problem where the turbochargers would leak oil, I went with a 2.8-liter model. I’ve made it a point to generally staying away from turbocharged cars after that.
So what about this new crop of turbocharged cars? Will they last? I worry about that a lot. Many people out there buy cars to last five, ten, or fifteen years, and they’ll be severely disappointed that “turbocharger” now joins the list of expensive “one day” replacements, along with timing belt, transmission, fuel or water pumps, and — if you have a Subaru — head gaskets.
Admittedly, I might be totally wrong. These automakers may have turbocharging down; they may be totally capable of engineering a turbocharger that can last the life of the car, and then some. But if you were looking for a car that you hoped would last you a long time, would you end up with the high-pressure turbo? Or the tried-and-true naturally aspirated 4-cylinder?
I guess it depends how badly you want that additional fuel economy.
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