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Turbocharging Your Fuel Economy

BMW's TwinPower Turbo Four-Cylinder Engine

According to the Department of Energy, the nationwide average for gas is currently about $3.51 per gallon. While that’s a bit less than the last time I analyzed gas prices in April, the DOE reports that it’s still $2 more than we were paying per gallon 10 years ago. That’s not cheap, but it’s still significantly less than the €1.48 that a liter costs in Europe. That works out to roughly $7.69 per gallon.

So how are the Europeans dealing with it? By getting away from the old adage that “there’s no replacement for displacement” when it comes to engine power. According to research by Honeywell, a company that, among other things, manufactures turbochargers for passenger cars and commercial vehicles, 56 percent of European cars built in 2009 were equipped with turbochargers, while just 5 percent of cars sold in the U.S. had turbocharged engines. And while the average size of an engine in the U.S. was 3.6 liters, cars in Western Europe make do with powertrains that are half that size.

Honeywell’s Director of Global Product Marketing, Mark Rodrigues, says that the variance adds up to better fuel economy in European cars. While Rodrigues says that cars in Western Europe average 40 mpg, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in the U.S. are still just 27.5 mpg.

However, these numbers are on the rise in the U.S. Honeywell predicts that by 2020, 82 percent of cars sold domestically will be turbocharged – but it’s important to remember that Honeywell wants to sell turbochargers.

So are the turbocharged cars of today the most efficient ones? Cars like the Audi A6 and Chevrolet Cruze both use turbochargers to provide competent power and good fuel economy, while Ford now puts its EcoBoost engine in multiple cars, trucks and SUVs to provide fuel-efficient options for new-car buyers.

Here are a few new cars that use turbochargers, and how they stack up against the competition:

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

With its 138-horsepower turbocharged engine, the EPA estimates that the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco will get 26 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway when equipped with an automatic transmission. That makes the Cruze one of the most fuel-efficient affordable small cars that doesn’t rely on a hybrid powertrain or diesel engine.

Still, there are more fuel-efficient options out there. The Hyundai Accent, for example, gets slightly better fuel economy with an automatic transmission. The EPA projects that you’ll save roughly $105 per year on fuel, with the Accent, but it also packs 28 less horsepower.

2011 Lincoln MKS EcoBoost

2011 Lincoln MKS

Among all-wheel drive luxury large cars, the Lincoln MKS EcoBoost’s 17/25 mpg city/highway fuel economy isn’t the best. All-wheel drive versions of the Audi A6, BMW 535i and Volvo S80 also carry a turbocharger under their hoods and get better fuel economy, but they’re also smaller in size than the Lincoln. However, when compared with similar large sedans without turbo power, such as the Hyundai Equus and Cadillac DTS, the MKS EcoBoost has a distinct edge with better fuel economy and standard all-wheel drive.

2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec

2011 Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTEC

The Mercedes-Benz E350 Bluetec continues to offer excellent fuel economy compared with other luxury large cars. In its class, only the base Audi A6 and Infiniti M Hybrid can beat the diesel E-Class’ 22/33 mpg city/highway fuel economy estimates.

Choosing the diesel E350 Bluetec should pay for itself rather quickly as well. The diesel option costs just $1,500 more than the base E350 sedan. And even though diesel fuel is sometimes more expensive than regular gas, the EPA says you’ll save roughly $640 per year on fuel by going to the Bluetec. That means the E350 Bluetec should pay for itself in well under three years.

Should you Turbo?

There are non-turbo cars that offer better fuel economy. However, many newer turbocharged cars strike a nice balance for car shoppers who’d like to pay less at the pump, but don’t want to skimp on performance. What cars and trucks do you think offer the best combination of fuel economy and power?

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