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CAFE standards putting turbochargers ahead of hybrids

With fuel efficiency in mind, look for more turbochargers - not hybrids - to proliferate the North American market over the next decade.

As it stands now, just shy of 14 percent of all passenger vehicles sold in North America make use of turbochargers, but an executive from a leading turbocharger producer says that figure will climb to 23 percent by 2016 and then a staggering 82 percent by 2020.

So what is fueling the expected massive surge in turbocharged forced induction in production vehicles? Steve McKinley, vice president of engineering for turbocharger producer, Honeywell, says the newly proposed U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

McKinley explained that turbochargers allow for fuel economy gains of approximately 20 percent on gasoline engines and 40 percent on diesel engines, while requiring only a minor cost increase compared to competitive technologies aimed at boosting fuel economy.

"While electric vehicles get a lot of attention nowadays for their potential, turbocharging is a credible technology available and accepted in the marketplace right now. Engine downsizing coupled with turbos is the quickest way to make a significant improvement in the overall fuel efficiency of the U.S. automotive portfolio while maintaining performance levels," explained McKinley.

While Ford was the first automaker to brand its turbochargers with a green label when it launched its EcoBoost, European manufacturers have long adopted turbocharging en masse as a way to deliver tremendous power while simultaneously boosting fuel economy by dropping cylinders and adding forced induction.

Another relative newcomer to the "eco-angle" is General Motors, which utilizes Honeywell turbochargers on three of its four new Chevrolet Cruze models, including the segment-leading Cruze Eco (non-hybrid highway fuel economy). Combined with some aerodynamic add-ons, the Cruze Eco nets 42 mpg on the highway thanks to its boosted 1.4-liter gas engine.

While the expected adoption rates of turbochargers in North America may seem impressive, they pale in comparison to Europe's current usage rate of about 65 percent. But European consumers are far more likely to buy diesel-fueled cars, which utilize turbochargers in part to make up power restrictions inherent to their design.