Turbocharger vs Supercharger: What’s the Difference?

New cars and trucks are now being equipped with turbocharged engines. Automakers are increasingly turning to turbochargers to answer the demands of passionate sports and luxury car owners for a technology that boosts its engine’s performance. As a diesel performance parts upgrade, turbos run at immense speeds—which means they operate under enormous pressures and temperatures. 

Today, most car manufacturers already offer vehicles equipped with a turbo engine, so they’re not anymore exclusive to performance vehicles. Turbocharging has also become increasingly popular as part of the global push for automotive efficiency. What does a turbo-powered engine really do, and how does it benefit both car owners and manufacturers? 

The History of Turbo 

The turbo has been around for almost as long as the internal combustion engine, but it would take decades for anyone to install one in a passenger car engine actually. The first patent for a turbocharger was made in the 1900s by a Swiss engineer named Alfred Büchi. He invented a practical turbocharger—a supercharger driven by exhaust gas pulses. 

Turbo technology developed rapidly during the war years, particularly in the aviation sector. Pilots utilized turbo-powered engines to combat the lower oxygen density experienced at higher altitudes. Turbos compressed the air, and this allowed the engines to perform with much more ease at high altitudes. 

The first passenger cars to ever get turbo boosts were the Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the Oldsmobile Jetfire back in the 1960s. But, putting a turbocharger in a mass-market automobile presented enormous challenges. The high price, unreliability, impracticality, and complexity of the turbo, at that time, took it out of the market favor.  

The engine went through a lot of reinventions until it became a hit in the 1970s again when it changed the speed game for Formula One cars. Turbo engines propelled Formula Cars to new heights, making race cars go faster than ever before. 

It was in 1978 when the turbo had a breakthrough year as it had a more profound effect on the diesel engine. That year, Mercedes-Benz released the 300SD—a Garrett turbocharger—that changed the diesel engine game in the years to come. 

Since then, turbochargers have undergone a considerable transformation—from maximum power to greater efficiency. Many of the notable early turbocharged cars were European, which were cars such as the Porsche 930, Saab 99 Turbo and the BMW 2002 Turbo. Today, turbocharged vehicles are ubiquitous because of the downsizing trend, and turbos are sought after because of their efficiency, drivability, and reduced emissions.

What is forced induction? 

A turbo works through forced induction. It is basically an air pump, pushing extra oxygen into the engine as needed, so it can burn more fuel to produce more power. Besides the turbo, the supercharger is also another device that functions through forced induction. Both are designed to push as much air into your engine’s cylinders as possible.  The difference lies in how each is powered. Turbochargers rely on the pressure of exhaust gasses to spin a turbine that is connected to an air compressor. Superchargers, meanwhile, are mechanically driven by the engine crankshaft. It turns two screws along the intake port using the shaft or a belt or chain. Here’s a more detailed look at the benefits and downsides of turbochargers and superchargers.

Superchargers and turbochargers both produce plenty of power, giving your vehicle the extra acceleration and performance it needs. Turbochargers, however, improve your fuel economy by as much as 40%. Turbo-powered engines can make the same power as a normally-aspirated engine while using less fuel. The turbocharger satisfies the need for fuel efficiency, therefore helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Superchargers have the edge when it comes to immediate power delivery. There is no lag involved with a supercharger since the power delivery is quick due to its direct connection to the crankshaft. With turbochargers, however, there’s turbo lag—a brief delay between pressing the throttle and the engine delivering power. The larger the turbo, the longer the slowdown, and you’ll have to wait for it to spool up before the boost arrives. 

Turbochargers also give engines more torque, creating immediate results that can be felt during acceleration. Turbochargers can be stronger because the extra torque makes nipping the gaps easier. The complexities of the turbocharger make it an expensive option. Superchargers may be a cheaper option in the long run because it requires less maintenance, and there are fewer vehicle modifications required.

The Role of Turbo in Diesel Engines 

Turbos are very popular in diesel engines, where they are used to help produce extra torque needed to power buses and locomotive engines.  

Diesel, having tougher engine blocks and simpler intakes, are ideally suited for turbocharging. The diesel’s power output is also smoke-limited. With turbocharging, this restriction can be more relaxed because more air mass is added to a given cylinder size. Unlike gasoline engines, there are no knock problems to overcome when turbocharging diesel engines.

What’s next for the turbo? 

Advancements in turbo technology have come a long way. Most economy cars now use turbo because it offers a powerful benefit, allowing engines to be downsized dramatically without sacrificing maximum power and performance. 

Demands to expand the use of turbo technology continue to increase because of efficiency gains. Recent developments put a spotlight on innovations that reduce inefficiencies, oil consumption, and emissions.

The turbo is already going through an innovative upgrade as of writing with the introduction of the E-turbo. Swiss company Garrett Motion, one of the known manufacturers of the turbocharger, has been testing the electronically-assisted turbo, which saw an up to 16% increase in rated power and a 10.5% boost in rated torque.

With exciting advances up ahead, there’s no better time to upgrade your engines with turbo. Head over to PureDieselPower for cutting-edge diesel performance parts and accessories that give your vehicle the right type of boost it needs.