3 May 2016

Today’s turbo revival is rooted in the ‘80s

Today, it’s no big deal to find a turbocharged engine on a mainstream family car. Small-displacement turbo fours have become ubiquitous on the road toward meeting higher fuel economy requirements. Sound familiar?

Three decades ago, many carmakers turned to turbos to boost fading performance. At the time, the V-8’s future appeared uncertain, and turbos seemed like the magic elixir for squeezing “free” horsepower from smaller engines. The Buick Grand National might have been the turbo big kahuna, but there were other turbo stars. Here are 10 worth remembering. (If you don't see your favorite, give it a shout-out in the comments section.)

1981-1983 Datsun 280ZX Turbo

The Datsun Z lost some of its performance edge when it became the bulkier 280ZX in 1979. Horsepower sagged, but comfort was way up and sales soared. For 1981, the Z got its mojo back with a 180-horsepower turbo six. The first year was automatic only, but a proper 5-speed stick arrived for 1982. In a Car and Driver comparison test, the turbo-boosted Z car matched a Corvette and smoked a Ferrari 308 GTSi. Take that, Magnum.

1982-1989 Chrysler Conquest/ Mitsubishi Starion

Mitsubishi’s turbo lineage stretches way back before the Lancer Evo. The 1983 Starion put a 145-horsepower, 2.6-liter turbo four in a rear-drive sport coupe. An intercooler pushed that to 170 hp and 220 lb.-ft. of torque in late 1985, when Car and Driver called the Starion a “sophisticated driver’s car.” Chrysler/Plymouth and Dodge dealers sold the car as the Conquest. A widebody Starion ESi (and Conquest TSi) arrived in 1986, and horsepower reached 188 in 1988, accompanied by chassis tweaks. Mitsubishi had produced a legitimate budget Porsche 944.

1984-1986 Ford Mustang SVO

Redeeming its sins of earlier turbocharged Mustang clunkers, Ford put its Special Vehicle Operations group on the case. The result was the 1984 SVO Mustang, a Euro-flavored coupe aimed at the Porsche and BMW crowd. Beneath its odd-looking offset hood scoop, the SVO packed a respectable 175 horsepower from a turbo/intercooled 2.3-liter four-banger. Horsepower was 200 for 1986.

Tweaked suspension made the SVO a superb handler, but this $16,000 Euro-flavored pony cost about $6,000 more than a quicker V8 Mustang. No wonder Ford sold just 9,844 SVO Mustangs. Perhaps the current Mustang’s EcoBoost option – a 320 horsepower 2.3-liter turbo four – is the SVO’s vindication.

1985-1992 Volvo 740 Turbo Wagon

Volvo revved up its image in the 1980s with turbocharged models, but none was so endearingly contrarian as the 740 Turbo wagon. With the 160-horse 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine, it could run from 0–60 in a little over 8 seconds – not too shabby for a family hauler with Volvo safety and 74 cubic feet of carrying space. Volvo used some clever advertising, one headline audaciously claiming, “Until Ferrari builds a wagon, this is it.” Volvo Cars North America backed an independent two-car team of these family haulers in the SCCA Showroom Stock series. They finished every race and even set some lap records.

1986-1990 Porsche 944 Turbo

When you think “Porsche Turbo,” the whale-tail 911 probably comes to mind. But Porsche offered its turbo tech in something more affordable in the 1980s, if you can call $47,600 in 1989 ($100,000 in today’s dollars) “affordable.”

Though this front-engine coupe was never fully accepted by some Porsche faithful, Porsche was unrelenting in its mission to make the 944 a notable sports car. In 1985, Porsche issued the 944 Turbo with 217 horsepower and chassis upgrades. Horsepower reached 247 in the 1987 Turbo S, which road testers found could go from 0–60 mph in 5.5 seconds and top out at 160 mph.

1987-1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe

Ford’s Thunderbird Turbo Coupe debuted for 1984, but this boosted ’Bird didn't truly fly until a 1987 redesign brought a smorgasbord of major mechanical upgrades. Chief among those was the vastly improved engine from the SVO Mustang, making 190 horses with the 5-speed manual (150 hp with the automatic).

The ’87 Turbo Coupe, which started at $16,800, also featured four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and 16-inch alloy wheels and was the first American car with automatically adjusting electronically controlled shocks. An eight second 0–60 time sounds slow today but was on par with the $24,000 BMW 325i coupe. Ford sold about 60,000 units over two years.

1986-1987 Dodge Charger Shelby GLHS

Of all the Shelby-branded cars to come after the 1965-1966 Mustang GT350, the Dodge-based GHLS (“Goes Like Hell Some more”) duo probably came closest to matching the original formula: bare-bones machines focused on performance, period. The GLHS models were rude, crude and fast.

For the 1986 GLHS, Shelby’s operation modified Dodge’s production Omni GLH Turbo with an intercooler and other parts from the Chrysler Turbo II engine. The 175 horses and 175 lb.-ft. of torque could pull this 2,200-lb. front-drive box from 0– 60 in 6.5 seconds and down the quarter-mile in 14.9 seconds. That was, coincidentally, about as quick as a 1965 Shelby GT350. Shelby built 500 of these $10,800 hot hatches and then, for 1986, built 1,000 based on Dodge’s Shelby Charger.

1987-1990 Dodge Daytona Shelby Z

The prevalence of Shelby’s name on Dodge products in the 1980s caused some confusion. Some were built by Chrysler, while others were modified by Shelby. The Dodge Daytona Shelby Z was one of the former, and one of the best. First, it used the stout Turbo II engine (5-speed), which included a beefed up block. Accordingly, Dodge reinforced the driveline, too. With 174 horsepower and 200 lb.-ft. of torque, the Shelby Z could run 0–60 in the low sevens, on par with the SVO Mustang. Handling was excellent, and interior refinement was much better than its unruly Shelby GLHS relatives.

1989 Shelby CSX-VNT

And here we have, oh, another Shelby Dodge – as a matter of fact, the last one. This one is something of a landmark car. The 1987 CSX, based on the Dodge Shadow, put the GLHS powertrain into a more comfortable and civilized package. For 1989, Shelby went all out, putting the first variable-nozzle turbine (VNT) turbocharger in a production car (and beating Porsche by about 17 years.) The VNT reduced turbo lag dramatically. The CSX-VNT was also the first production car with composite wheels. Shelby made just 500.

1989 Pontiac Trans-Am 20th Anniversary Edition

By the time its 20th anniversary rolled around, the Pontiac Trans-Am was using Chevy V8s. Pontiac, though, wanted to make an even stronger performance statement than the Corvette’s 5.7 TPI unit. So, it pulled Buick’s intercooled turbo V-6 out of retirement and made some tweaks. Pontiac rated the engine at 250 horsepower, but with Car and Driver clocking a 4.6-second 0–60, the magazine estimated (probably correctly) output at 300 honest horses. The 1989 Turbo Trans-Am was the quickest American production car at the time and served as the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car without requiring powertrain modifications. Pontiac built 1,555 of these speed demons.

22 Reader Comments

  • 1
    billyv Buffalo, NY May 4, 2016 at 15:51
    Surprised to see no mention of the Corvair Spyder Turbo but that would have meant the turbo movement was rooted in the 60's.
  • 2
    Mel Davey Westbrook, CT May 4, 2016 at 16:15
    Shout out to Saab - the mid to late 80's included the 900 SPG and the 9000 Turbo
  • 3
    JK Miami May 4, 2016 at 16:27
    Where is the GM authorized Callaway twin-turbo Corvette on your list??
  • 4
    Jeff Moro San Francisco May 4, 2016 at 16:49
    Let us not forget the 1985 Mercury Cougar XR7
  • 5
    Mike Denver May 4, 2016 at 16:57
    You totally forgot and failed to include Saab in your list of great turbo cars! There entire line of cars had turbos way ahead of most anyone else in their time and some were very fast!
  • 6
    Richard Poulter Ontario May 4, 2016 at 19:30
    I had a '89 Dodge Caravan Turbo with a 5-speed. Once you got past the turbo lag it was very fast. Unfortunately, the wife at the time did not like the manual transmission.... Fun while it lasted.
  • 7
    Edward Lisicki Las Vegas May 4, 2016 at 19:58
    What about the 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati turbo. one of the most beautiful cars made.
  • 8
    Dale Whitney Greenville, SC May 4, 2016 at 20:33
    Any list of 1980's Turbo cars has to have the Saab Turbo and the Audi Quattro - right up there with the 924 and 944 Turbo's.
  • 9
    Jim West Maine May 4, 2016 at 21:23
    Hard to believe the Saab 900 spg didn't make the cut....Best Turbo I've ever driven...
  • 10
    tom Kentucky May 4, 2016 at 21:47
    When I got my 1978 Saab 99 Turbo, it's powertrain and outer space looks had people wondering what that blur was that went by. Probably seemed faster at the time that it really was.
  • 11
    Aaron N Illinois May 4, 2016 at 22:43
    Chrysler had more fun at the turn of the decade running the variable boost engine when they marketed the Dodge Spirit to the family man. A boxy mid sized with room for five and performance that matched that of the GLHS that started it all. I had a professor in college that was commuting with one as late as the early 2000's. It had 200k on it and would run right with my 3.2 SHO. Both of which could spank the 429CJ mid size ford from the "golden years of mussel " another professor had in the side garage. Best part is ours 4 doors did it at 20+mpg and looked nearly pedestrian enough to not get a second look from Jonny Law. Good thing we were all criminal justice people.
  • 12
    Michael Washington May 4, 2016 at 23:51
    As the former owner of over 25 Thunderbird Turbo Coupes, I found it both hilarious and accurate that the only photo you could find was of one with mis-matched paint, an open hood, and missing trim. So apropos.
  • 13
    Mark A North Carolina May 5, 2016 at 14:36
    How can you have an article about turbo cars of the '80s worth remembering and not include the Saab 900 turbo coupe? Saab basically defined mainstream turbo usage in the late '70s and into the '80s.
  • 14
    john coulson west lafayette, IN May 5, 2016 at 21:02
    The Merkur coupes ran like they were on rails. Very responsive at all speeds.Topped out at about 128. The double wings were eye catchers.
  • 15
    Sean Toronto May 5, 2016 at 09:27
    Eagle Talon TSi (Mitsubishi Eclipse) and the Dodge Stealth (3000GT) twin turbo. Both forced induction AWD animals.
  • 16
    Bob Merritt Asheboro, NC May 5, 2016 at 00:07
    How could you forget the turbo Regals? By far the fastest sedans of the '80s. A lot more Buick turbo cars out there than turbo Ponchos.
  • 17
    Grant CA May 5, 2016 at 00:40
    What about the Saab 900 Turbo? Good enough to 'star' in "Sideways"...but skipped over on your notable turbos of the '80s list...
  • 18
    Jim Koscs Barnegat, NJ May 6, 2016 at 18:18
    From the writer: this story could easily have gone to 20 cars. I mentioned the turbo Regal in the intro as the "big kahuna." The Saab was kind of obvious, but you're right, it was certainly a high note of '80s import performance.
  • 19
    Harry NC May 7, 2016 at 14:58
    The '80s, that's odd. In 1964 we had a new Corvair Spyder convertible with a turbo. The shame of it was that there weren't enough Chevy dealers that knew how to work on it!
  • 20
    john burrows newark ohio May 7, 2016 at 15:02
    I had a family grocery getter dodge omni with a small decal on the rear that said omni glh.My wife and i had loads of fun in it at red lights shàming supposedly sports cars how to get to the next to the next red light first and with those wide tires blew away lots of supposedly fast cars in the twisty bits and they never knew what hit them as my tailights faded into the distance.A true sleeper.I had a permanent grin on my face everywhere i drove.I loved it.
  • 21
    Mike Williams California May 9, 2016 at 16:22
    1980 used a Pontiac too, turbocharged 301 V8 with 236-hp and 345 lb-ft of torque
  • 22
    Michael Dickson New York October 23, 2016 at 10:05
    The 280ZX in the photo is mostly not a turbo but a non turbo 2+2. The model shows the non-turbo rims. Turbos had a different type rim

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