LOS ANGELES - Tomorrow's turbocharger sales may be just like yesterday's turbocharger performance - not much puff at first, then all hell breaks loose.
Interest in turbochargers has been dormant in the United States since the early 1990s. At their peak in 1989, the components were on more than 3 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States. By 1994, just 39,410 autos were turbocharged - a 0.4 percent market share.
Even so, the industry's largest supplier, Garrett Turbocharger Systems, believes a turnaround may be possible here and is confident of a rush of business from automakers overseas.
Garrett, a Los Angeles-based division of AlliedSignal Corp., saw worldwide sales of $950 million last year. It forecasts sales of $1.4 billion in 2000, with its chargers increasing from 7 percent to 18 percent of an engine's content, thanks to technological additions to the product.
Garrett officials say most of the growth will come from light-duty automotive diesel engines, and most of that in Europe. Next year, for example, Garrett is expected to supply turbos to a sophisticated new V-8 direct-injection turbodiesel built in Europe by DaimlerChrysler AG. Volkswagen, Peugeot, Renault, Fiat and other European carmakers are launching or planning to launch new superefficient diesels using the latest technology.
'All of those engines are based on turbocharging and aftercooling technology,' said Paul Cassidy, vice president for business development at Ricardo, an engine development house in Belleville, Mich. 'You need turbos to achieve an acceptable power density.'
Power density has become the holy grail as governments in Europe enact tighter emission rules. Global-warming treaties there will restrict carbon dioxide output and regulate fuel economy. Direct-injection gasoline and diesel engines, common-rail injection systems, and variable valve timing are all ways to increase power density while decreasing emissions.
Turbo suppliers want to be part of the strategy.
A turbo captures some of the energy in hot exhaust gas that normally is wasted out the tailpipe. A metal fan or turbine spun by rushing exhaust gas shares a common shaft with another turbine fed by outside air. The fresh air is compressed by the turbo, pushed through an intercooler's radiator to chill and condense it, and then piped to the intake manifold.
The result is better engine breathing, more efficient fuel combustion and easier revving. Garrett claims a turbo will raise the fuel economy of similarly equipped gasoline engines by 15 percent.
By comparison, the turbo's near cousin and main competitor, the supercharger, relies on a belt running off the crankshaft to turn its compressor. While superchargers provide smoother and more instantaneous power delivery, they are a drag on the engine and can be difficult to package under the hood.
Along with Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Germany's KKK AG, Garrett is competing for new contracts with advanced technologies designed to make turbos cheaper, more durable and more seamlessly integrated into the powertrain.
Turbos have some warts. Throttle response is typically uneven because of turbo 'lag.' That is the time needed to build enough exhaust pressure to spin the turbo fast enough to generate boost. Lag is one reason why General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and other automakers have migrated to superchargers on some luxury models.
Also, early units were not cooled adequately and tended to burn out their shaft bearings. With 80 percent of turbo failures traceable to worn bearings, turbos have struggled against a popular perception of high maintenance and fragility. At the same time, deflated fuel prices have encouraged automakers to seek performance through more conventional means, such as increased displacement.
Whether sales of turbochargers revive in the United States depends largely on how automakers respond to potential new environmental regulations. Proposals to increase the corporate average fuel economy standard for light trucks could spawn a larger market for light-duty turbodiesel truck engines.
Last year, Ford commissioned Navistar International to design a 4.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. And GM signed an agreement with diesel engine specialist Isuzu Motors Ltd. to build a diesel engine plant in Ohio. That plant initially will produce engines for heavy trucks but could be expanded to make light-duty engines.
However, the industry is waiting to see whether California's proposed LEV II emission standards - and the subsequent federal standards that likely will emulate them - will render diesels too dirty for certification. If they do, the turbo-diesel revival in the United States could be stopped cold.