Although turbocharging is the latest trend in engine technology, this type of forced induction has been around since the early ’60s. But turbocharging dates back to the ’20s and ’30s, although it wasn’t nearly as sophisticated or reliable as today. However, during the Second World War, military engineers wanted to enhance the performance of fighter planes and used turbo compressors to do so.
After the war, several manufacturers used this technology with mixed success. Only in the late ’70s and early ’80s, did turbo finally caught on. The principle is simple yet effective. It uses a turbine device powered by the engine exhaust. The turbine is turned by the fumes and creates the pressure to force clean the fuel and air mixture into the engine’s intake manifold. Since the turbine is spinning much faster than the engine, the pressure it creates is high.
This means the engine receives much more fuel and air, which translates to more power and ultimately a better performance. Even though turbocharging became rare in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, modern environmental standards required engines to be much cleaner. So, manufacturers used turbos to keep the displacement down, as well as provide more fuel economy.
And yet they could still enhance the performance and power. This is why there are so many turbocharged engines on the market from small compact cars to supersport exotics and hypercars. However, turbos have evolved over time. So here is an in-depth look at some of the most iconic turbocharged cars that shaped the industry.
Chevrolet Corvair Monza
The American car industry was intrigued when Chevrolet presented the Corvair in 1959. It was a compact car when compact cars were rare on U.S. soil. Until then, they were mostly produced by foreign brands. Back then, the engine was in the back rather than in the front like all other domestic vehicles. It was a six-cylinder boxer, not a straight six or V8 as everybody expected.
All in all, it was a bold and unusual move by the conservative Chevrolet. However, the most interesting model was the Corvair Monza. It was a two-door coupe or convertible, which was a performance car in the Corvair lineup. And it featured one of the most unusual power plants Detroit ever produced, the turbocharged boxer engine.
Think of it as Chevrolet’s four-seat Porsche 911 Turbo some 15 years before Porsche even thought of the idea. The heart of the car was the 2.4-liter, flat six engine with the turbocharger mounted on top. The result was 150 HP, but although it isn’t a big number, the small weight of the Corvair Monza produced a lively performance. At least, for the standards of the compact car class.
The Oldsmobile Jetfire is an important model for the automotive history that unfortunately never got the respect it deserved. This was the first turbocharged passenger car along with the Chevrolet Corvair Monza. However, Oldsmobile’s system was far more complex and powerful than Chevrolet’s so it deserves a detailed look.
The engineers took the compact F-85 model and retained its small 215 CID V8 engine which developed 185 HP. They gave it a new forced induction intake system that included a Garett turbocharger. It had a special “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank consisting of distilled water, methanol and a corrosion inhibitor mixture. They injected this into the fuel and air mixture to prevent detonations.
For the standards of the day, the Jetfire V8 was state of the art technology and initially, the market was interested. The new V8 delivered 215 HP, which was one HP per cubic inch, making it one of the best performance cars of the day. With 0 to 60 mph times of around eight seconds, it was almost as fast as the Corvette. Even though they didn’t market the Jetfire as a performance car, it was still fast for the standards of the day.
BMW 2002 Turbo
In the early ’70s, BMW found success with their 02 Neue Klasse series of models. The ’02s were quick, nimble and light coupes. They established the brand among performance lovers and racing fans all over the world. But BMW wanted more. It wanted to present the ultimate 02 model with a signature design and the latest in high-performance technology: turbocharging.
So, in 1973, BMW introduced the 2002 Turbo. It was the crazy and naughty cousin to the rest of BMW’s lineup. The car featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 170 HP. They revised the suspension and brakes along with unique design details.
White was the only color choice, but they came with an interesting graphics package. On the front bumper, they wrote the word “Turbo” backward. This was so other drivers would recognize the model in their rearview mirrors when they saw flashing headlights behind them.
Porsche 911 Turbo
Despite the market and racing success of the 911 in the early ’70s, the general automotive climate was not especially performance-oriented. The oil embargo, economic recession and quest for fuel efficient, safer and environmentally- friendly cars threatened to kill the sports car segment.
Porsche introduced a new generation they called 930. It featured the same basic layout, a new and improved design and bigger engines. But the real news was the 1975 930 Turbo. Faced with government-imposed restrictions, Porsche needed something to boost power and performance. However, they still wanted to retain its normal displacement, so turbocharging proved to be the perfect solution.
The 930 Turbo boosted it to 260 HP from its 3.0-liter flat six. It also came with its signature air cooling, big rear wing and wider rear track. It was notorious for its ill-handling capabilities, but it delivered an exhilarating performance in times when performance cars were almost banned. And it started a legendary breed of lighting fast Porsches and turbocharged sports cars.
SAAB 900 Turbo
They introduced the 900 model in the late ’70s when SAAB was at the height of its success as an upscale manufacturer of high-quality and high-tech cars. They presented the 900 Turbo at a time when turbocharging was new. Only a few models before had it as a regular production item.
The 2.0-liter four-cylinder with forced induction produced 143 hp at first, but then all the way to 185 HP in later versions. They initially offered the 900 Turbo as a coupe and also as a convertible. In the ’80s, SAAB cars were popular among upper middle class buyers, intellectuals and artists as a stylish yet usable and affordable car.
Yet it came with advanced technology and a unique design. Back in the day, the SAAB 900 was different from any other offering in that price class. The convertible was especially sought after in yuppie circles of young executives in the ’80s.
Mercedes 300 SD W116
Nobody thought that diesel had any future as a fuel for passenger cars until the legendary Mercedes 300 SD. This car combined two rare features, a diesel five-cylinder engine and turbocharging. This helped them create an iconic machine that revolutionized the industry. For the first time, there was a luxury diesel sedan with performance equal to the gasoline engine.
However, the fuel economy was far better than any of the competitors. They unveiled the Mercedes 300 SD during the fuel crisis of the late ’70s. They intended to sell this model on the American market. And it proved to be successful and influential, even though diesel and turbo were new, unknown features.
The engine wasn’t particularly powerful, though. The 3.0-liter five-cylinder delivered only 120 HP, yet it managed to give this big luxury sedan decent performance and amazing fuel economy.
Audi Quattro Sport
Back in the early ’80s, the Audi was just an upgraded Volkswagen with not much to offer. Then, the motorsport department proposed entering the rally championships with an innovative all-wheel-drive model they called the Quattro. And suddenly, Audi had a championship winning car on the forefront of two new technologies: all-wheel-drive and turbocharging.
This resulted in the rise of Audi as we know it today. The Quattro Sport featured a 2.1-liter straight five-cylinder engine with turbocharger and 306 HP in street trim. With the short wheelbase, light body panels and short ratio gearbox, it ready to jump at any moment.
The road going Quattro Sport could achieve 0 to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. This made it one of the quickest cars of its era. The Quattro Sport showed how capable the Quattro all-wheel drive system and turbo are.
Most people consider the ‘80s the dark age of muscle cars and American performance, but there were a few bright moments. One of the cars that restored faith in the muscle car movement in the ’80s was the mighty Buick GNX. In 1982, Buick started experimenting with turbocharging its line of standard V6 engines. The results were satisfying, so the engineers got permission to go further.
The would develop a performance version that would deliver better acceleration figures. The first model Buick Regal T and then the Buick Grand National with 175 HP wasn’t impressive, but it was a start. In the next couple of years, the Grand National got a bigger engine and more power.
This helped it jump from 175 to 200 HP, and finally to 235 HP. However, in 1987 they released the ultimate version, which they called the Grand National Experimental (GNX). It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 but with 275 HP and 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.
Ford Mustang SVO
The third generation Mustang appeared in 1979, bringing the much-needed modernization of the Mustang range. The late ’70s and early ’80s weren’t particularly good times for performance cars. So those Ford engineers struggled to deliver powerful models until the appearance of the SVO model.
However, the biggest news was the introduction of the turbo engine, a modern device for the times. Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) department presented a special Mustang SVO for 1984. It featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 175 HP. And that was quite the power output for a small engine. As a light car, the ‘84 Mustang SVO was hot at the moment.
The package included four-wheel disc brakes, a stiffer suspension and sharper steering, transforming the little Mustang into a capable sports car. For 1985, the SVO upped the power to an impressive 205 HP. That turned the eyes of the motoring public to the third-generation Mustangs.
Back in the ’80s, Porsche decided to introduce a car to be the rolling compilation of every technology compatible with the 911. They combined their experience from racing with the latest technology like turbocharging in one car to offer the 959. Porsche introduced it in 1987, giving the 959 a 3.0-liter turbocharged flat-six engine. It delivered 450 HP, which it transferred to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system.
And it was the first of its kind. The car came with traction control, ABS and a host of electronic systems to help drivers. All of that is standard in most new cars, but for the late ’80s, it was space age technology. The performance of this technological tour de force was also astonishing. The 0 to 60 mph sprint was possible in just 3.7 seconds.
The Ferrari F40 was and still is a special car in many ways. They built it to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Ferrari. And it was a car Enzo Ferrari supervised and envisioned himself. In fact, it was his last creation because he died just a couple of months after they introduced the F40 in 1987.
The F40 is a race car with a gorgeous body and a terrifying performance that will inspire you to drive as fast as you can. They based it on the 288 GTO model. And the F40 was an improved version of a twin turbo, 2.9-liter V8 supercar with two seats.
It also has a basic interior, manual gearbox and 480 screaming horsepower behind your ears. The F40 was one of only two cars that accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in less than four seconds in street legal trim. The exact result is 3.8 seconds according to testing by various magazines.
Nissan 300 ZX
One of the best cars in a long line of Z-named Nissan sports coupes was the 300 ZX NIssan introduced in 1990 and discontinued in 1996. Car enthusiasts respect this model since the 300 ZX was a proper sports coupe with the technology and performance to rival more expensive and exclusive cars.
The twin-turbo V6 engine pumped out 300 HP Also, the 300 ZX could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds and top 150 mph. Today, the 300 ZX is a coveted modern classic, as one of the most universally usable cars on this list.
Toyota Supra Turbo Mk4
This is one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars that reached legendary status by appearing in many street racing movies like the Fast and Furious franchise, racing games and music videos. But, if you think the Supra’s popularity is due to its media appearances, think again.
This is one serious machine, especially in the Turbo version. With the naturally aspirated base model, the Supra is quick. However, the most iconic model is 3.0-liter straight six twin turbo variant with 276 HP. You probably know that 276 HP is not much, but the engine produced somewhat more than they advertised.
Also, it had fantastic tuning potential. So much so, that today it is hard to find a stock Supra. And with just a few bolt-on power adders, bigger turbo and intake system you can get up to 1,000 HP on the rear wheels.
Nissan Skyline R32
Anybody who played racing games in the last 20 years knows about the R32. This crazy powerful all-wheel-drive Japanese coupe was on many American car enthusiast’s wish lists for a quarter of a century. And now it is finally eligible to import. Nissan introduced this model in 1989, but they unleashed their best versions in the early ’90s.
This makes the GT-R version the quintessential ’90s car. It’s a two-door coupe with intelligent all-wheel drive and a 2.6-liter turbocharged engine. The engine produces 276 HP in stock form, and the Skyline R32 has a lot of tuning potential.
Unfortunately, all R32s are right-hand drive models since they mainly produced them for the Japanese and Australian markets. But for true JDM fans, this just adds to their appeal. And the good news is, American fans of the Skyline R34 can now import this car legally to the U.S.
Jaguar XJ 220
The story of the XJ220 is a strange one. Jaguar conceived it in the late ’80s as their first road-going supercar. The XJ220 got it name because it could top 220 mph. And it looked promising as a concept car. The first prototypes had Jaguar’s V12 engine, but they tuned it to produce a high output.
However, halfway into development, they decided to install a new 3.5-liter twin turbo V6 unit with 542 HP. The design of the car was fantastic with flowing lines along with wide stance that emphasized its performance and speed. When Jaguar released it, the XJ220 was the world’s fastest road going model with an enormous price tag.
Despite the hype and wealthy customers waiting to buy this model, several delays in production and the lack of a V12 affected the market. So, eventually, they built less than 300 of them. But they never officially sold it in America.
Today, turbo powered SUVs are quite common, but in the early ’90s the idea was unheard of in the car world. Especially for those stealthy looking, performance SUVs that could beat almost any sports car in stoplight drags. And one such vehicle was the legendary GMC Typhoon.
GMC equipped the Typhoon with a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler. The power output was 280 HP, which is not that impressive today, but back in 1991, it was a nice number. However, the automatic transmission, performance-oriented all-wheel drive system and suspension helped the performance. So, the Typhoon could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds.
Even today, this is quite fast for an ordinary SUV. The rest of the package included a special trim and luxury interior appointments. The Typhoon came in special color and wheel choices, and the production was limited. In fact, in just three years of production, from 1991 to 1993, they made 4,697 Typhoons.
Subaru WRX STI
The infamous Subaru WRX STI is a street racing and rally legend. For decades, Subaru has been one of most powerful turbo cylinder cars on the market. And the latest generation of WRX STI certainly doesn’t disappoint. Under the hood is a flat four engine with 2.5-liters of displacement and a turbocharger.
This combo is good for 305 HP delivered to all four wheels via the six-speed manual. It’s a true driver’s car with a proper manual gearbox, great road holding and enough power to make this car fly. The performance numbers are respectable with 5.1 seconds from 0 to 60 mph and 160 mph of top speeds.
Since this is a four-door car, it is also quite practical because it seats five people and has a decent trunk, too. Also, the price is not that high, so it is a fair proposition for young families with performance-loving mom and dad drivers.
Ford F150 Raptor
It is amazing how the car industry has evolved. The idea of a performance truck with a small turbocharged engine and 10-speed automatic was unbelievable just a couple of years ago. However, now there is the latest F150 Raptor. And it’s a brutal machine that raises the bar for all other performance trucks out there.
The Raptor is a 3.5-liter turbocharged V6 with a 450 HP and 510 lb-ft. Its 10-speed automatic transmission delivers sub-five-second acceleration times. The figures suggest this is an exotic supercar, right? No, this is a full-size pickup truck with room for five people and a regular truck bed behind. Of course, this is not your ordinary pickup. The Ford Raptor is the closest thing to a full Baja 1000 racing vehicle that you can buy today.
These are the 18 greatest turbocharged cars ever made. You may have recognized some of them, but hopefully, some surprised you. You may have some new models to add to your ultimate turbocharged car wish list.