When I was a kid, turbocharging ruled. The aim in life was to elongate the point between request and delivery, to worship at the altar of lag and to ensure that when the goods arrived they did as much damage to tires and supposed ‘handling’ as possible. By eliminating lag have we not eliminated what makes turbos fun?
I left the Ferrari stand at the Geneva motorshow, my head ringing with anecdotal numbers I will never be able to validate. You know the ones we all seem to digest like they’re irrefutable facts? “The new paddle-shift gearchange takes 80 milliseconds instead of 90 millie-somethings and we can tell you it’s true, but you’ll never be able to test it.”
This time it was throttle response timings for the new Ferrari 488 GTB, Maranello’s mighty 660hp coupe and gateway to the turbocharged future. Someone with a large forehead had been impressing me with crank response times in denominations I couldn’t compute and comparing them to the McLaren 650S and the outgoing 458. He said this would do this in a that and I just nodded and thought: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, I need to drive it really.”
A few minutes later I bumped into someone else from Ferrari and told them how impressive the numbers had sounded and that I didn’t really absorb meaningless figures unless they were backed-up by some practical demonstration. At which point he questioned my stance on the matter at hand. He said I was quite wrong to be questioning the supposedly anecdotal data being aired to prove that Maranello could to all intents and purposes make a turbocharged engine behave like a normally aspirated one. He said the main issue was: why would we want to do that in the first place – why hide the fact it’s turbocharged?
And then he walked away, smiling.
And left me befuddled and pondering this rare moment of profundity at an auto show.
I think maybe he’s right. Over lunch last summer with a few Ferrari engineers I asked them how difficult it was to calibrate the turbocharged V8 and dual-clutch transmission for the California T. The answer was long and involved, caused several grimaces and could have been summarized thus: “a little more complicated than splitting an atom.”
And this is the great engineering conquest of modern fast motoring times – making forced induction feel like atmospheric pressure and yet I’ve never stopped to question if this in itself is the right direction for us all. I think of all those man-hours and I think of the crazy throttle response on something like a new BMW M3, which at times does seem to have zero lag, and then I remember my first ride in a Saab 99 Turbo when I was a kid. The wait, the spool, the push, the flickering boost needle. The drama of the whole experience.
In many ways, severe turbocharged power delivery is the very essence of exciting motoring – and yet in 2015 we’re locked in a battle to expunge every last vestige of turbo behavior. Are we heading down the wrong path?
Or, to couch it in more practical terms: is the Ferrari F40 any less awesome because it is turbocharged, and makes zero attempt to hide that turbocharging? Er, it’s the greatest road-doing Ferrari of them all.
Are car-makers missing a trick here? Instead of spending millions, perhaps billions making these potentially explosive motors behave in a crisp, linear fashion, shouldn’t they be celebrating some lag and some unruliness? I mean, most of the unwanted side-effects, such as trying to kill the driver on anything other than straight, dry pavement can be eradicated though clever chassis electronics.
Think back to the late ‘80s and early ‘90s – those days of furious turbocharging, especially over here in Europe. We had mental French hatchbacks like the Renault 5 GT Turbo, and sedans like the Ford Cosworth. And if you’d asked their owners what they liked most about their rolling death-traps, they’d have all said ‘that massive bang you get in the back when the Turbo kicks in!!’
Heavy turbocharging deserves heavy-duty delivery. I’m not sure I don’t want these cars to be scary. There are some unlikely side-effects of scary power delivery too – a reduction in road traffic accidents being one of them. The slowest I’ve driven on a public highway in years was in a Jaguar XJ220. The whole thing just felt terrifying – the road was damp, the long throttle seemed to wake these wheeeshing demons with little consistency and as for trying to pin it mid-corner: well, forget it. I couldn’t drive fast, it wasn’t possible without soiling myself. A minivan would have been quicker that day.
The big-banger turbo motor working in conjunction with no traction control is perhaps the second best active safety device known to mankind – pipped only by the large metal spike extending from the steering wheel. You’d think twice about that silly overtake with the spike resting against your chest.
Maybe what I really want to happen is for this next generation of turbo-nutters to have a nutter ‘mode.’ So you can have your turbo 488, 911 and AMG all doing their very best impression of being normally aspirated, but there’s a button you can hit that sends you straight back to 1987. You hit the gas and nothing happens, and then you sense something stirring under the hood and then before you have time to do shit about it WHOOOOOOOOOSH-KABOOOOOOOM you’re wrestling the bastard down the road.
That’s what I want. I want the essential excitement of turbocharging not to be lost in the next few years. I want someone to harness that crazy feeling of spool and boost, and to celebrate it.
Illustration By Sam Woolley