“To the stars through turbocharging.” When car makers take time out from designing electric cars and hybrids, their second favourite pastime is shrinking petrol engines and adding turbochargers to them. The vogue for petite petrol engines avec turbo probably started about eight years ago with the Skoda Yeti which came with a seemingly puny 1.2 litre petrol engine. Then they stuck a 1.4 litre engine in the Superb, a car just fractionally smaller than the Titanic. Was Skoda mad? Could such tiny engines even move such substantial cars?
Of course these engines proved more than adequate, other manufacturers followed suit and they seem quite normal today. Now however, manufacturers are going a step further and deliberately putting their already diminutive petrol engines through the wash on the wrong cycle in order to shrink them further. What’s more, whole cylinders are falling off in the washing machine. Teeny tiny, three cylinder one litre petrol engines are now all the rage. Ford claims its three cylinder one litre lump will fit on an A4 sheet of paper yet it is deemed up to the job of powering the sizeable Mondeo.
And all this is down to the magic of turbocharging. For engineering numpties (like me), I’ll try and explain what a turbocharger is in numpty terms. A turbocharger is a spinny thing (like an enclosed water wheel) that is spun round and round by the exhaust gases puffing out of the engine (free power!). This spinny thing is attached to and therefore spins another spinny thing which rams more air into the engine which allows fuel to burn more efficiently and due to the laws of engineering/nature/physics/Sod or whatever, this produces more power. So, clear as mud to people without oil under their fingernails?
A few years ago, a one litre engine was only found in city cars. Even then, no review of such a car would ever consider its performance as anything other than “adequate” and that would apply only to life in the town or city. Now, with the addition of those spinny things, that has all changed.
I was prompted to right this post because a couple of weeks ago, by happy chance, I got to drive an old school, one litre city car back to back with a thoroughly modern one litre turbocharged family car. So how did the two compare?
Let me start with the old school one. A current Peugeot 108, pocket-sized and with bodywork made from recycled Coke cans and only one windscreen wiper. If they added a second windscreen wiper it probably wouldn’t move. Actually that’s not quite true. Once you have got it moving with a bit of raucousness instigated by your right foot and then wound it up, it bowls along reasonably well (not sure what it would be like with four people in and a few bags of shopping though). But it needs that flimsiness to allow it half decent performance. Unfortunately, that flimsiness does make you feel vulnerable on the motorway, surrounded by lorries and with torrential rain drumming on the roof, as was the case on when I drove it the other week. Due to the din, I turned up the radio to discover they were playing “Crash” by The Primitives. Fortunately, that turned out not to be an omen. However, the little Peugeot had a certain charm and once you got used to it, it was quite endearing but of course it was let down by its raucous little motor.
So how would the same sized engine fare in a car two sizes bigger than the Peugeot – namely, a Vauxhall (Opel) Astra? In a word, brilliantly. The Astra and the Peugeot were poles apart. The Astra pulled quietly and smoothly from the off and continued in that manner for the rest of my journey. Most of the trip was along A roads but there was a three mile stretch of the M1 motorway to negotiate and at 70mph, the Astra maintained its quiet composure. Add to this refinement, a comfortable ride and pleasing, quality interior and the Astra really is an impressive car. That interior would not look out of place in a much more expensive car with lots of smart piano black bits and at last Vauxhall has got rid of that horrible, dated orange dot matrix display for the radio, outside temperature etc. As you would expect, this has been replaced with a neat, colour touchscreen.
For a modest family car with 105hp, performance is more than respectable – 0-60mph in 10.5 seconds and a top speed of 121mph (the 1 litre engine in the Peugeot 108 gets it to 60mph in 13 seconds and onto 99mph and the little Peugeot weighs less than a dry J-cloth). So, how does the Astra do in terms of fuel economy? After all, car manufacturers are shrinking and turbocharging their petrol engines in an effort to wring out more miles per gallon and to provide a more viable alternative to diesels which, we are now being told, are the work of Satan himself. The Astra’s trip computer told me that I had achieved about 51mph – pretty good I thought. The official, combined figure is 62.8mpg compared to 83mpg for the 1.6 litre, 110hp Astra diesel.
There is obviously a big difference between those two figures but have you ever stopped to consider what it really means for your pocket? Let’s say that in reality, the little petrol Astra averages 50mpg and the diesel, 65mpg. If you do 10000 miles a year, then the difference in fuel costs is about £230 per year in favour of the diesel. But the diesel costs about £1500 more to buy in the first place …. So, you pays your money and takes your choice.
Coming back to the main theme of this post, a seemingly feeble one litre, three cylinder petrol engine would appear to be absolutely fine in a decent-sized family car – all through the magic of turbocharging. The one possible reservation may be the car’s ability to lug a whole family and a bootful of luggage. I stress possible reservation because I genuinely don’t know how it would fare (there was only me in the car when I drove it!). I just assume that these little engines will not have the same amount of pulling power as a diesel. So, if you are contemplating one of these little turbocharged, petrol wonders as your next car and if it will be used frequently as a packhorse, then take your family/friends/rent-a-crowd and a couple of suitcases full of bricks when you go for a test drive!