Approximately a ⅓ of the energy produced by an internal combustion engine is lost as thermal energy that is fed out the exhaust manifold. It is this energy that is used to drive a turbocharger. When the exhaust gases are forced through the turbine-wheel of the turbocharger, the turbine-wheel becomes a reduced-flow area in the exhaust system and causes some back pressure, which causes some loss in engine power. Of course, back pressure increases as the size of the turbo decreases and inversely, back pressure decreases as the size of the turbo increases. So a larger turbo causes a smaller loss in power, but it also requires more air-flow, and hence more RPM, to spin up or spool up the turbocharger and produce boost pressure (i.e. above-atmospheric pressure). The time it takes to spool up the turbocharger and start producing pressure is referred to as turbo lag. So a larger turbo produces less back pressure but has more turbo lag while a smaller turbo produces more back pressure but has less turbo lag. So what is better? As we are about to explain, the answer to that depends on what you're looking for — low-end torque, top-end power, or a bit of both.
Later on in the series we'll look at turbo sizes, but for now, let's get a better understanding of turbo lag. As we've just mentioned, turbo lag is defined as the time between the point when you hit the accelerator and the point at which the turbo produces enough boost to create boost pressure. This may sound like a bad thing but what would happen if you didn't have a turbo? You'd get no boost! So it's either no turbo lag or no boost. A simple choice, I think, especially when you consider that the loss of power due to back pressure caused by the turbine-wheel is hardly noticeable. Provided you haven't done something silly like lower your compression ratio! In years gone by car manufacturers built production turbo motors with low compression ratios to counter the thermodynamic effect of compressing air. Any time air is compressed, the temperature of the air increases. This affects the internal combustion temperatures in the engine. But when a suitable intercooler is used to cool the intake air, normal compression ratios can be used. With normal compression ratios, you're still getting close to normal aspirated performance until you get boost and then you're flying with an up to 50% increase in bhp, depending on the boost you're running! But let's not get too excited just yet, we'll go back turbo boost first.
We've said that turbo lag is the time between the point when you hit the accelerator and the point at which the turbo produces enough boost to create above-atmospheric pressure in the intake manifold. The boost level at which the turbo produces enough boost to create above-atmospheric pressure in the intake manifold is called the boost threshold. This is the point at which the exhaust gas flow over the turbine is high enough to overcome inertia and spin the turbine-wheel fast enough so that the compressor-wheel can begin creating boost pressure. From that point on boost will increase but it is important to remember that the quality of the fuel you run and the temperature of the air pumped into the intake manifold will influence the amount of boost you can run. With normal pump fuel, a stock engine and an intercooler, you should be able to run at 7-12 psi boost fairly safely. A wastegate regulates the boost pressure by allowing exhaust gases to bypass the turbine-wheel so as to limit the exhaust gas flow that drives the turbine-wheel when the boost pressure becomes too high.
But more about wastegates at a later stage; here's something to ponder on for now: A properly installed and tuned turbo operating at 10 psi can reduce the 0-60 mph time by a third, despite turbo lag! Yes, you read right a 10 second car will do 6.66 seconds if the turbo is done right!
Some turbochargers feature twin-scroll turbines, which is basically two scrolls mated together on the turbine side of the turbocharger that is fed by the exhaust system. When used on four cylinder engines, twin-scroll turbochargers make better use of exhaust pulses as it allows for the separation of exhaust gasses so that alternate pulses can be fed into separate scrolls. This creates better exhaust gas scavenging and higher backpressure at the turbine wheel. This in turn causes the turbine wheel to spool up faster and reduces turbo lag, which is one of the reason why the good people at Mitsubishi opted for a twin-scroll turbocharger on the Mitsubishi Lancer EVO X.
We discuss backpressure and exhaust scavenging in more detail in our section on designing and building performance exhaust systems.