One of the great quests in the automotive world is horsepower and we spend countless dollars and hours in our garages trying to make our cars just a bit faster. There are a couple of basic ways to increase the power of an engine—make it bigger or make it more efficient. Two popular efficiency options are superchargers and turbochargers. It may surprise you to find out how similar these two devices really are. As a matter of fact, a turbocharger is actually a type of supercharger.
Both the supercharger and the turbocharger are “forced induction systems”. This means that they both use a compressor to force more air into the engine, which can allow for some significant power gains. More air means more fuel can be dumped into the engine, which creates a stronger detonation in each cylinder (and bigger “booms” mean more power). The primary difference between a supercharger and a turbocharger is how they are powered.
A supercharger is usually mounted to the engine and is driven by a pulley that is placed in line with the crank or accessory belt. The pulley on the supercharger drives a compressor that pressurizes the air going into the engine’s cylinders.
A turbocharger is mounted to a car’s exhaust manifold and is powered by the car’s exhaust flow. The turbine in a turbocharger spins when exhaust gasses push against it. The turbine is connected by a shaft to a compressor, which pressurizes the air going into the engine’s cylinders.
How do you know which one is the best option for your vehicle? There are pros and cons for each system.
Cost is not typically a factor as systems can be somewhat similar in price.
Turbochargers tend to be a bit more efficient as they are powered by exhaust stream of your car. Because superchargers are powered by the crank, they require some of the engine’s energy to drive them.
A turbocharger requires time to “spool up” before it can turn the impeller in the compressor and start forcing air into your engine’s cylinders. This delay is commonly referred to as “lag”. Superchargers do not suffer from “lag” since they are directly connected to the crank of your engine.
Superchargers are a bit less complicated than turbochargers to install. They have fewer components and do not require the modifications needed by turbos. Many, however, find the extra effort required to install and maintain a turbocharger worth it because turbos can spin up to ridiculously high rpms and generate incredible amounts of boost (extra air pressure in the engine’s combustion chambers).
If you search, you will find hard-core fans of both systems. We are not here to convince you which system is best—only to provide you with an easy-to-understand overview. While our overview is simple, we hope we have given you some idea as to what these devices are and how they work. If you decide to tackle one of these installs, we would love to hear about it.