Among automotive suppliers, a monopoly on technology is rare. Automakers encourage competition among suppliers: It holds down prices and fosters innovation. That is why Eaton Corp.'s grip on the supercharger market is so interesting.
The Cleveland, Ohio, powertrain supplier commands more than 95 percent of the world's market. Eaton is racing to build a South American plant and has expanded its North American plant to keep up with demand. But its near-monopoly may be about to end. BorgWarner Automotive Inc., the world's second-largest turbocharger supplier, is about to enter the supercharger market. BorgWarner decided to make superchargers after European regulators tightened emissions rules on turbocharged engines. The company is expected to decide soon on which type of supercharger it will build and whether it will need a partner, said Ulli Frohn, BorgWarner's vice president for product development.
Superchargers let automakers use smaller engines without hurting performance. Emissions and fuel economy are not seriously affected, either. To be sure, the supercharger market is small compared with the global turbocharger market. The auto industry will produce about 9 million turbochargers this year, primarily in Europe.
A decade ago, Eaton invested $55 million to develop superchargers. Today, it is the only producer for U.S. automakers. Eaton's market dominance is rare, said Neil De Koker, managing director of the Original Equipment Supplier Association. 'If it's too good, there will be people nosing around, waiting to get in.'
Two Japanese companies, Aisin Seiki Co. Ltd. and Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co. Ltd., build superchargers, but those are used almost solely in cars sold only in Japan. One exception is the compressor on the Mazda Millenium S.
Eaton's original-equipment production jumped from 50,000 units earlier this decade to 210,000 three years ago. With the expansion of its plant in Athens, Georgia, Eaton now can produce more than 300,000 superchargers per year. South America is the next big market for superchargers. Brazil, which levies heavy taxes on engines larger than one liter, is a promising market. Eaton is building a plant in Sao Jose dos Campos. Europe may be the next production site for Eaton. Industry forecasts put annual supercharger demand at 750,000 units by 2005.
DaimlerChrysler is Eaton's largest supercharger customer. The automaker uses them on its Mercedes E- and C-class cars, plus the CLK and SLK models. Meanwhile, General Motors gets good performance from the supercharged V-6 3800 engines used on the Buick Park Avenue Ultra, Pontiac Bonneville SSEI and Grand Prix GTP.
Ford Motor Co. opted for Eaton superchargers on its Jaguar XKR and XJR, plus its SVT Lightning pickup. Still more opportunities may come from the market for light trucks and sport-utilities. The 2001 Nissan Frontier pickup is scheduled to get the Eaton blower. The Nissan Xterra also could be a candidate, sources say.
And DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser may get a supercharger, predicts Mike Robinet, director of forecasting services at CSM Worldwide, a forecasting and marketing company in Northville, Michigan. DaimlerChrysler would prefer a V-6, he said, but smaller engine compartment sizes and fuel efficiency favor a supercharger.
Both turbochargers and superchargers increase horsepower by delivering more air and fuel to the engine under pressure. But because turbochargers recycle exhaust fumes, temperatures in the catalytic converter tend to drop. That hampers the catalytic converter's effectiveness in the first few minutes after the engine is started. Superchargers do not have that problem because they are belt-driven by the engine crankshaft. Superchargers can boost horsepower by 25 to 50 percent. Adding an intercooler can double that power gain.
While superchargers improve performance, they are more costly. So far, superchargers have not enjoyed the high production volumes that have driven down turbocharger prices. But BorgWarner does not want to wait much longer. Frohn said BorgWarner already has won a supercharger contract from an unnamed North American marine engine manufacturer.
You can e-mail Automotive News Staff Reporter Robert Sherefkin at [email protected]