Let’s go back in time – 2013, to be precise. It was the year when the Ford EcoSport made its market debut in India. The rest, as they say, is history. The EcoSport was a runaway success, but more importantly, it was a trendsetter, for it was the product that kickstarted the sub-4m compact SUV frenzy in the country. Interestingly, though, at the time of its arrival, the EcoSport was tasked to do one more very important thing for the masses. And that was to democratize small turbo-petrol engines.
Dubbed the EcoBoost, Ford’s 1.0-litre three-cylinder direct-injection turbo petrol wonder made it to our shores via the EcoSport. I vividly remember reading all the rave reviews it got from critics and enthusiasts at that time. The jobless me back then was so sold on it that I convinced my brother-in-law to put down his hard-earned money on the EcoBoost version instead of the diesel, which he originally planned to buy. However, 10 years later, I can safely tell you – on his behalf – that the ownership experience hasn’t been the same as was advertised to him back then.
As controversial as it may sound, small turbo petrol engines aren’t as good as they are cracked up to be. On paper, they promise to bring the best of all worlds – fuel efficiency, low emissions, and sprightly performance – but in the real world, all they get you is a lot of turbo lag, a spikey/narrow power band, and poor fuel efficiency as compared to their NA counterparts. And because of this very nature, I don’t think they are suited for our driving conditions.
What’s more, a turbo petrol engine commands a hefty premium over their naturally aspirated counterparts – which is another reason why they aren’t particularly popular among the masses. A case in point is the Hyundai Creta. Hyundai discontinued the 1.4 turbo-petrol versions of its best-selling SUV earlier this year, but this hasn’t affected its sales figures. The Creta is still flying off the shelves, clocking over 14,000 units in monthly sales. Sure, a big chunk of it comes from the diesel version, but it seems that nobody gives two hoots about the missing turbocharger in the petrol Creta and are happily lapping up the less powerful, but more affordable, naturally breathing version. I reckon it’s a similar story with its Kia brethren, the Seltos. Unlike the Creta, it is now available with a 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine, but I have a hunch that it’s the NA version that brings more volumes. Go to your nearest Kia dealer and see what version/engine option is available for a test drive – I can bet it’s going to be the 1.5-NA version.
There’s more proof. In segments/vehicles where there’s an option to choose between a turbo and NA motor, it’s still the latter that leads the numbers game by a fat margin. Take the Maruti Suzuki Fronx for example. It was launched with much fanfare with a 1.0-litre BoosterJet engine a few months ago but, reportedly, the three-pot turbo accounts for less than 15% of its monthly sales! It’s the tried-and-tested and more affordable 1.2-NA engine that’s selling in way more numbers.
The bottom line is this – as much as carmakers want us to believe, turbo-petrols haven’t really led the way as promised. Sure, the difference in performance is amazing when you’re seeking outright thrills but in daily driving conditions, it’s a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. When you are “off-boost”, you get no performance but good fuel efficiency, and when you’re “on-boost” you get spectacular performance as the turbo pumps more air into the cylinders, albeit it also sucks in a lot more fuel, which is bad news for your pocket. All in all, there seems to be no middle ground or right balance when you’re driving a small turbo petrol-powered vehicle.
The other question mark over turbo petrols is their long-term reliability. With a complex architecture and highly stressed components, repairing a turbo engine is a tricky and costly affair, too. For instance, the EcoSport I spoke about earlier had a full engine change – not overhaul, but replacement – because it overheated during a road trip, thanks to a leaky radiator hose. The car was towed to the nearest Ford service centre, and after two months of inspection – without even opening the cylinder head – they concluded that the EcoBoost engine is too complex for them to fix, so there’s no other option but to replace it.
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This was followed by a cool Rs 4 lakh invoice (40% of the car’s actual price in 2013), but, thankfully, Ford gave the owner some breather with a ‘goodwill’ discount. Still, he ended up paying around 1.5 lakh to get the car back on the road. From what I know, the car’s running fine as of now, but I have a feeling that he still curses me, every time he gets behind the wheel. Fair to say, I don’t think I can vouch for a small turbo petrol motor ever again.