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Fire-Breathing Monsters: Turbo Cars That Revolutionized The Auto Industry

Vukasin Herbez January 17, 2024

Even though turbocharging as a concept dates back to the early 20th century, it took decades for it to make its way to the car industry. Complicated and unreliable at first, it was gradually improved over time. Today, due to significant emissions, fuel economy, and power advantages, it’s a standard feature on nearly all current engines produced worldwide.

Its path from an unknown technical obscurity to a mainstream component was challenging. But it was paved with great cars, speed records, and some fire-spitting monsters that will remain forever as the choice of true enthusiasts. So today, we’ll revisit the turbo cars that had a hand in revolutionizing the car industry. Buckle up because there are some true speed demons ahead.

Chevrolet Corvair Monza

The Corvair was a compact car in a time when they were rare on US soil and produced mainly by foreign brands. It had its engine in the back rather than the front like most other domestic vehicles had. Third, it was a six-cylinder boxer, not a straight six or V8. Overall, this car was a bold and unusual move by the usually conservative Chevrolet (via New York Times).

Photo Credit: Hagerty

The most interesting Corvair was the Monza. It was a two-door coupe or convertible and featured one of the most unusual power plants Detroit has ever produced – a turbocharged boxer engine. Think of it as Chevrolet’s four-seat Porsche 911 Turbo 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. Despite the fact it isn’t a significant number, the small weight of the Monza helped produce some lively performance, at least for the standards of the compact car class in the early ’60s.

Foto Credit: Hagerty

Oldsmobile Jetfire

The Oldsmobile Jetfire is an important model for automotive history that unfortunately never got the respect it deserved. It 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, which deserves a detailed look. Engineers took the compact F-85 model and retained its small 215 cid V8 engine, producing 185 hp. It also gave it a new forced induction intake system that included a Garett turbocharger and a unique “Turbo Rocket Fuel” tank. This fuel consisted of distilled water, methanol, and a corrosion inhibitor mixture which was injected into the fuel and air mixture to prevent detonations (via Car Throttle).

Photo Credit: Auto WP

For the standards of the day, the Jetfire V8 was a state-of-the-art technology. Initially, the market was very interested. The new V8 delivered 215 hp, one hp per cubic inch, making it one of the best performance cars of the day. It was almost as fast as the Corvette with a 0 to 60 mph time of around eight seconds. Although the Jetfire wasn’t marketed as a performance car, it was still fast for the day’s standards.

Photo Credit: BMW Group

BMW 2002 Turbo

In the early ’70s, BMW found success with their 02 NeueKlasse series. The 02s were quick, nimble, and light coupes, establishing the brand amongst performance lovers and racing fans worldwide. But BMW wanted more. They tried to present the ultimate 02 models incorporating a signature design with the latest high-performance technology – turbocharging (via BMW).

Photo Credit: Silodrome

So in 1973, BMW introduced the 2002 Turbo, a crazy cousin to the rest of BMW’s lineup. The car featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with 170 HP, revised suspension and brakes, only one color choice, and an exciting graphics package. On the front bumper, “Turbo” was written backward so the drivers would recognize the model in their rearview mirrors when they saw flashing headlights behind them.

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Porsche 911 Turbo

Despite the market and racing success of the 911 in the early ’70s, the general automotive climate certainly could have been more performance-oriented. The oil embargo, recession, and quest for environmentally friendly cars threatened to kill the sports car market. Porsche introduced a new generation called the 930, which featured the same basic layout, new and improved design, and more significant engines. But the real news was the 1975 930 Turbo. Faced with government-imposed restrictions, Porsche needed something to boost power but still retain average displacement. Turbocharging proved to be the perfect solution (via Porsche).

2014 Porsche 911 Turbo S via Car And Driver
Foto Credit: Pinterest

The 930 Turbo produced 260 hp from its 3.0-liter flat-six. It also featured signature air cooling, a big rear wing, and a wider rear track. It was notorious for its ill-handling capabilities but it delivered exhilarating performance at a time when performance cars were almost nonexistent. It also started a legendary breed of lightning-fast Porsches and turbocharged sports cars.

Saab 900
Photo Credit: Saab

SAAB 900 Turbo

The 900 model was introduced in the late ’70s when SAAB was at the height of its success as a manufacturer of high-quality cars. The 900 Turbo was presented when turbocharging was pretty new. Only a few models before had it as a regular production item (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: SAAB

The 2.0-liter four-cylinder with forced induction produced 143 hp at first and 185 hp in later versions. The 900 Turbo was initially offered as a coupe but also could be had as a convertible. In the ’80s, SAABs were popular with upper-middle-class buyers, intellectuals, and artists as a stylish yet affordable transport with advanced technology. Back in the day, the SAAB 900 differed from any other offering in that price class. The convertible was especially sought-after in yuppie circles of young executives in the ’80s.

Photo Credit: Popular Mechanic

Mercedes 300 SD W116

Nobody thought that diesel had a 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. It became an iconic machine that revolutionized the industry. For the first time, there was a luxury diesel sedan with performance equal to gasoline engines but with fuel economy far better than competitors (via W116).

Photo Credit: Popular Mechanic

The Mercedes 300 SD was introduced amid the fuel crisis of the late ’70s. The model was intended for sale on the American market and proved successful even though the diesel and turbo were new, rather unknown features. The engine wasn’t particularly powerful and the 3.0-liter five-cylinder delivered only 120 HP. It managed to move this big luxury sedan with decent performance and fantastic fuel economy.

Photo Credit: Audi

Audi Quattro Sport

In the early ’80s, Audi had just upgraded Volkswagen with little to offer. Then, the motorsport department proposed entering the rally championships with an innovative all-wheel drive model called the Quattro. Suddenly, Audi had a championship-winning car and was at the forefront of two new technologies: all-wheel drive systems and turbocharging (via Piston Heads).

Photo Credit: Audi

This resulted in rising interest in this company and the rise of Audi as we know it today has started. The Quattro Sport featured a 2.1-liter straight five-cylinder engine with a turbocharger and 306 horsepower in street trim. With its short wheelbase, light body panels, a short ratio gearbox, and 306 ready to jump in any moment, the road-going Quattro Sport was capable of achieving 0 to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. This made it one of the quickest cars of its era and showed how capable the Quattro all-wheel-drive system and turbo were.

Foto Credit: Mecum

Buick GNX

The ’80s are generally considered 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 engineers got permission to develop a performance version that would deliver better acceleration figures (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Omaze

The first model was the Buick Regal T and then the Buick Grand National with 175 hp, which wasn’t impressive but was a start. In the next couple of years, the Grand National got a bigger engine and more power, jumping from 175 hp to 200 hp and finally to 235 hp. However, in 1987, the ultimate version of GNX (Grand National Experimental) was born. It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 with 275 hp and a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.

Photo Credit: Mecum

Ford Mustang SVO

The third generation Mustang appeared in 1979, bringing much-needed modernization of the Mustang range. The late ’70s and early ’80s weren’t excellent times for performance cars and Ford engineers struggled to deliver powerful models until the appearance of the SVO model (via Ford Performance).

Foto Credit: Pinterest

However, the biggest news was the introduction of the turbo engine, a very modern device for the time. Ford’s SVO (Special Vehicle Operations) department introduced a special Mustang SVO for 1984, which featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 175 hp. It was quite the power output for a small engine. As a light car, the ’84 Mustang SVO was pretty hot. The package included four-wheel disc brakes, stiffer suspension, and sharper steering, transforming the little Mustang into a capable sports car. For 1985, the SVO upped the power to a pretty impressive 205 hp, which turned the eyes of the motoring public to third-generation Mustangs.

Foto Credit: Pinterest

Porsche 959

In the ’80s, Porsche introduced one model, a rolling compilation of every technology compatible with the 911. Experience from racing, the latest technology, the turbocharging, everything in one car – the 959. Introduced in 1987, the 959 had a 3.0-liter turbocharged flat-six engine with 450 hp, which was transferred to all four wheels over an intelligent AWD system. This was the first of its kind (via Porsche).

Porsche 959
Photo Credit: Automotion

The car was also equipped with traction control, ABS, and a host of electronic systems which helped the driver. Although this is pretty standard in most new cars today, it was space-age technology in the late ’80s. The performance of this technological tour de force was also astonishing. The 0 to 60 mph sprint was possible in just 3.7 seconds.

Ferrari F40
Photo Credit: Ferrari

Ferrari F40

The Ferrari F40 was Enzo Ferrari’s last creation as he died just a couple of months after introducing the F40 in 1987. To explain the F40 in a few words, it’s a race car with a gorgeous body and performance that will both terrify you and inspire you (via Ferrari).

Photo Credit: Evo

Heavily based on the 288 GTO model, the F40 was an improved version. It was a twin-turbo, 2.9-liter V8 engined supercar with two seats, a basic interior, a manual gearbox, and 480 screaming horses. 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 was 3.8 seconds as tested by various magazines.

Photo Credit: Auto WP

Nissan 300 ZX

One of the best cars in a long line of Z-named Nissan sports coupes was the 300 ZX. The model was introduced in 1990 and discontinued in 1996. Car enthusiasts respect this model since the 300 ZX was a proper sports coupe with the technology. Its performance that could rival much more expensive and exclusive cars (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Auto WP

The twin-turbo V6 engine pumped 300 hp and the 300 ZX could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds, topping 150 mph. Today, the 300 ZX is a coveted modern classic as one of this list’s most universally usable cars.

Photo Credit: AutoSport RL

Toyota Supra Turbo Mk4

This is one of the most iconic Japanese sports cars and has reached legendary status by appearing in many street racing movies (like the Fast and the Furious franchise), racing games, and music videos. You may think that Supra’s popularity is based purely on media appearances but you’d be wrong. This is one serious machine, especially in its Turbo version (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Auto WP

The base model was naturally aspirated. But despite being quick the most iconic model is a 3.0-liter straight-six twin-turbo variant with 276 hp. We know that 276 horsepower isn’t much but the engine produced somewhat more than advertised and had fantastic tuning potential. So much so that it’s hard to find a stock Supra today. With just a few bolt-on power adders, a bigger turbo, and an intake system, you can go boost one up to 1000 horsepower.

Photo Credit: Pinterest

Nissan Skyline R32

Anyone who played racing games in the last 20 years will know about the R32. This crazy powerful all-wheel-drive Japanese coupe has been on top of many American enthusiasts’ wish lists for a quarter of a century. Now, it’s finally eligible for import. The model was introduced in 1989, but the best versions were introduced in the early ’90s. That makes the GT-R version a quintessential ’90s car. It’s a two-door coupe with intelligent all-wheel drive, a 2.6-liter turbocharged engine with 276 horsepower stock, and a ton of tuning potential (via Car Magazine).

Photo Credit: Auto Evolution

Unfortunately, all R32s are right-hand drive models since they were mostly produced for the Japanese and Australian markets. But for true JDM fans, this just adds to their appeal. On a side note, American fans of Skyline R34 will be pleased to know that they can now legally import this car to the USA.

Foto Credit: Pinterest

Jaguar XJ 220

The story of the XJ220 is a strange one. Conceived in the late ’80s as Jaguar’s first road-going supercar, it looked very promising. The concept car and the prototypes had Jaguar’s V12 engine but tuned to produce high output. However, halfway into development, it was decided to install a new 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 unit with 542 hp. The car’s design was fantastic; flowing lines and a wide stance emphasized its performance and speed (via Hemmings).

Foto Credit: Pinterest

When it was released, the XJ220 was the world’s fastest-going road model with an enormous price tag. Despite the hype when it was announced and wealthy customers waiting to buy this model, several delays in production and the lack of V12 affected the market, and eventually, less than 300 were built. The XJ220 was called that since it could top 220 mph and was never officially sold in the USA.

Photo Credit: Car And Driver

GMC Typhoon

Today, turbo-powered SUVs are standard. But in the early ’90s, the idea was unheard of. Especially stealth-looking, performance SUVs could beat almost any sports car at stop-light drags. The legendary Typhoon had a 4.3-liter V6 engine with a turbocharger and intercooler. Its power output was 280 hp, 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, and the Typhoon could accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds. Even today, this is fast for an ordinary SUV (via JD Power).

Foto Credit: Pinterest

The rest of the package included unique trim, luxury interior appointments, color and wheel choices, and limited production. In just three years of production, from 1991 to 1993, precisely 4,697 copies of the Typhoon left the factory.

Photo Credit: W Super Cars

Subaru WRX STI

The infamous Subaru WRX STI is both a street racing and rally legend. For decades now, Subaru has been one of the 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 horsepower delivered to all four wheels via a six-speed manual. It’s a valid driver’s car with a proper manual gearbox, excellent road holding, and enough power to make this car fly (via Subaru).

Photo Credit: Subaru

The performance numbers are pretty respectable, with 5.1 seconds from 0 to 60 mph and 160 mph as the top speed. Since this is a four-door car, it is also reasonably practical since it can seat five people and has a decent trunk. Also, the price is low, so it is reasonable for young families with performance-loving drivers.

Photo Credit: Edmunds

Ford F150 Raptor

It’s amazing how the truck industry has evolved. The idea of a performance truck with a small-ish turbocharged engine and 10-speed automatic was pretty unbelievable just a couple of years ago. However, we now have the latest F150 Raptor, a brutal machine that raises the bar for all other performance trucks (via Ford).

Photo Credit: Ford

It’s a 3.5-liter turbo V6 with 450 hp and 510 lb.-ft of torque, a 10-speed automatic transmission, and sub-five-second acceleration times. The figures suggest that this is an exotic supercar, right? No, this is a full-size pickup truck with room for five people and a regular truck bed. Of course, this is not your ordinary pickup. The Ford Raptor is the closest thing to a complete Baja 1000 racing vehicle you can buy today and put license plates on.

BMW M2 Coupe
Photo Credit: BMW

BMW M2

Since the current M3 and M4 models are way up in terms of power, performance, and price, BMW decided to introduce a more affordable but still immensely exciting and fast two-door coupe. The F87 M2 is one of the best driver’s cars on the planet. It combines BMW’s driving dynamics, German quality, and M Power heritage. It’s also a modern-day equivalent of the legendary 2002 Turbo and pure German muscle car (via Stratstone).

Photo Credit: Hey Car

To create the M2, BMW took the compact platform of the 2 Series models. It was praised for its precision driving, sharp handling, performance-tuned suspension, and most of all, its 365 hp 3.0-liter turbocharged straight six-engine. As you can expect, the result is fantastic. The M2 is an Autobahn missile of the highest order with a 4.1-second 0 to 60 mph time and a top speed of 168 mph. Also, as a nod to classic performance cars, the new M2 is available as a six-speed manual. This is the version you should get if you consider yourself a true car enthusiast.

Photo Credit: Al-Ain

Ford Focus RS

The first-generation Focus RS had a powerful 2.0-liter turbocharged engine with 220 HP but was a limited production model. It was not available in the U.S. The second-generation Ford Focus had a five-cylinder engine, so the third model, the Ford Focus RS, is the most impressive (via Piston Heads).

Photo Credit: Net Car Show

The RS is one of the most potent four-cylinder cars on the market. It’s now available as a regular production model to U.S. buyers for the first time. The new Focus RS has a 2.3-liter turbocharged unit that delivers 345 HP to all four wheels, making it a capable hot hatch beast. The performance is incredible. Going from 0 to 60 mph takes the RS only 4.7 seconds, and the top speed is 165 mph. This kind of performance deserves special packaging. So the Focus RS has a unique front spoiler, bulged fenders, side skirts, and a spoiler. Just looking at this furious compact will tell you this is a genuinely fast Ford.

Foto Credit: Pinterest

Ford Mustang EcoBoost

Even before the Camaro had a 2.0-liter engine, the Mustang introduced the 2.3-liter EcoBoost unit with 315 HP and a convincing performance. After the global economic recession, Ford was the first major manufacturer to introduce a downsized, turbocharged engine. It looked strange initially, but it proved to be a good business move since the most significant part of Ford’s global engine lineup includes turbocharged four cylinders (via Drive Line).

Foto Credit: Pinterest

This influenced the production of the traditional muscle car like the Mustang. When Ford presented the latest generation, the 2.3-liter EcoBoost had a place in their engine lineup. The engine proved to be capable and popular with consumers. It is fast, with a 5.1-second 0 to 60 mph time and a top speed of around 150 mph.

Foto Credit: Honda

Honda Civic Type R

The latest addition to the powerful four-cylinder car club is the fifth generation Honda Civic Type R. The new performance Civic looks like every racer’s dream, with numerous spoilers, scoops, and air vents all over the body. Its aggressive design, excellent performance, and JDM appeal make this Civic a valuable and highly sought-after addition to the hot hatch class (via Top Gear).

Foto Credit: Honda

Honda has resisted the temptation to turbocharge its performance engines for a long time. Still, the Civic Type R has precisely that under the hood, like any other competitor in the class. The 2.0-liter turbo four delivers 306 HP and can propel this nasty-looking Civic Type R from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds. It can also top 170 mph.

Photo Credit: Auto WP

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X

Despite being discontinued, the Lancer Evo X is still a big legend amongst performance car enthusiasts. The automotive world misses the long-lasting series of four-door sedans with four-wheel drive and powerful four-cylinder turbocharged engines (via Mitsubishi).

Photo Credit: Edmunds

The latest version, the Evo X, had a 2.0-liter turbo engine with 291 horsepower. Experts say the engine’s output was more likely around the 320 hp mark, but Mitsubishi chose to market it with 291 hp. The performance figures were astonishing. The 0 to 60 mph time was 4.5 seconds and the Evo X could almost top 160 mph.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Dodge Neon SRT-4

Introduced in 2003, the Neon SRT4 was one of the best and cheapest performance cars in America at the time. The compact Neon was turned into a pocket rocket with a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 230 HP, which propelled the Neon from 0 to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds (via Car and Driver).

Photo Credit: Car Domain

Of course, almost every owner tuned their Neon SRT4 the exact minute it left the dealership, and some owners even managed to squeeze over 400 HP from the 2.4-liter engine.

Photo Credit: Automobile Mag

Cadillac ATS-V

Introduced in 2016, the newest American muscle four-door car is the compact but immensely powerful Cadillac ATS-V. With this model, Cadillac attacked the likes of Mercedes C Class and BMW 3 Series. Under the hood is a twin-turbo 3.6-liter V6 engine with 464 hp and 445 lb.-ft of torque. That was enough to launch the ATS-V from 0 to 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds with a top speed of an astonishing 189 mph (via Cadillac).

Photo Credit: Car And Driver

Although the ATS-V doesn’t have a V8, it’s still a proper muscle car and precision driver’s machine. It’s also available in two-door form. The sad news for Cadillac’s enthusiasts is that despite stellar reviews from specialized press and fans, the company killed it. This also means you can now get an excellent deal for ATS-V and pay much less than the MSRP.

Photo Credit: Architectural Digest

Ford GT (2016 to 2022)

While the previous generation was a superfast road car, the current model is a racing car for the streets full of competition parts, tricks, and active aerodynamics. Ford wanted a car that would give them triumph at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time after 1969. The new GT was a racing car from the start and a road car second. It competed in the 2016 Le Mans and won its class precisely 50 years after the first legendary GT40 win (via Ford).

Photo Credit: Car And Driver

The engine of the new GT is exciting. It’s a 3.5-liter EcoBoost V6 with 656 hp, which gives the car a 0 to 60 mph time of 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 216 mph. What is interesting about it is the fact that the GT’s engine is almost the same as the 3.5 EcoBoost V6 from the F-150 pickup truck. Of course, there are a lot of different details. But the basic architecture, block, displacement, and turbo technology are the same.

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