By on July 18, 2012


TTAC commentator sprite948 writes:


I once owned, to my sorrow, a 1978 Saab Turbo. The bearings in the snail went belly up in about 50,000 miles, which pretty much made the turbo a maintenance item that needed regular replacement.

So now we see increasing numbers of vehicles with smallish engines with turbos. What’s your estimate of their longevity?

Sajeev answers:

Luckily, these modern motors won’t fail like an old turbo mill from the disco era. But I don’t like these new turbo motors in mainstream machines: I’d prefer more modestly sized platforms, with cheap/simple naturally aspirated powertrains to net the same improvement in fuel economy.  Or Corvettes/Panther-like rigs with tons of low-end grunt (i.e. no need to run WOT) and tall gearing.

And now that I got that out of the way…

Most OEM’s work hard to minimize component failure in the first 100,000 miles.  And these new crop of turbocharged and direct injected engines will pass that test for a bazillion reasons, all stemming from improved technology across the R&D spectrum. But, and there’s a big butt:

1. Regular oil changes with the right type of oil, as per manufacturer guidelines.  And with that in mind, insert VW/Audi 1.8T engine sludging joke here.

And if you expect the vast majority of modern Turbo engines to not have a turbo failure before 250,000 miles, well don’t bet on it.  And that’s not a slam on auto manufacturers: that’s a slam on the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th owner of these vehicles.


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36 Comments on “Piston Slap: The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men…...”

  • avatar

    as the first owner of a 1998 passat 1.8l i am lucky to say that in 217K there has not been a sludge issue. my guesses as to why there has not been a catastrophic failure on this engine?

    1. my wife drove it for the first 11 years of its life
    2. it received regular oil changes at +/- 5K intervals (note I am not always certain it received full synthetic – see #1 above)
    3. the drive home has always necessitated a slow approach for 1-2 minutes prior to shut down.

    needless to say i have my fingers crossed.

    • 0 avatar

      My wife and I are in the same boat. Her 2004 Passat 1.8T with 145k has been fairly durable so far. Bought as a CPO at 35k, we have been religious about getting the prescribed synthetic oil changes at the proper 5k intervals. I am expecting the automatic transmission to grenade before the engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Same here… our ’00 Passat 1.8T made it to 100K with NO engine related problems other then a small coolant leak that nobody was able to track down. I just kept a jug of Prestone in the trunk and topped it off every few months. We had plenty of other problems common to VeeDubs (window regulators!) but the turbo was fine. I too credit routine synthetic oil changes and a proper cool down procedure.

      I’ve owned 3 turbos now (Mitsubishi, VW & Volvo) and the common problem appears to be heat soak. Turbos run hot and stay hot! So having fresh, cool oil is key to making sure they live long happy boosted lives.

  • avatar

    I feel the same concerns as the poster. I see this mad rush towards “We need 300 horsepower but our V6 can’t break 30MPG! Quick! Man the turbos!”

    I look at it as just one more thing that could possibly break.

  • avatar

    I was the unfortunate owner of a brand new 1987 Dodge Shadow ES. For it’s day (and my budget) it was a spiffy looking vehicle, all in black with cool alloy rims, 50-series wheels. It was even a bit fast with the 2.2 L turbo under the hood and 5 spd stick. It did not hold steep hills very well (my later 5.0 Caprice with 3,500 lb boat behind it held the same hills better.)
    That Shadow spent more time up and down on the hoist at the dealer, then it did going forward. Two head gaskets, two water pumps, rack and pinion steering, steering wheel ignition linkage, the main computer, the clutch on the compressor… the list was endless.
    However, that turbo never once gave any trouble. Apparently, Chrysler had licked the oil coking problem in the bearings with water jackets. In the 100,000 miles I put on that car in 4 years, the turbo was the only thing I didn’t worry about.

  • avatar

    Great question Sprite948. I have been thinking the same thing with the recent proliferation of modern turbocharged engines in the US market. A pessimist knows that a turbo = lots of extra plumbing under the hood that is likely to crack and leak inside 100k miles. Not to mention the high cost associated with replacing just a single turbo. Other more optimistic folks think TURBO = TEH TORQUEZZ

    If you rewind just 10 years, there were only a handful of turbocharged vehicles offered for sale in the US. Off the top of my head, most were low-volume European coupe and sedan offerings from Audi, Porsche, Saab and Volvo. VW had the only high-volume application in the Golf/Jetta and Subaru had the somewhat niche WRX. The range of high-volume turbocharged vehicles is much longer today. It will be interesting to see how they fare in the US market.

    • 0 avatar

      “A pessimist knows that a turbo = lots of extra plumbing under the hood that is likely to crack and leak inside 100k miles.”

      More than half of the cars in Germany have a turbo and there is essentially no issue with “crack[ing] and leak[ing[ inside 100k miles. Where are you getting your info?

      • 0 avatar

        I’m getting it from the perspective of a pessimist. You are probably right that it is a non-issue, but in general more parts = more potential for problems.

      • 0 avatar

        Diesel engines run cooler than gas engines. A gas engine with a turbo pumps out a huge amount of heat. In fact if you open the hood at night, you can see the whole exhaust manifold glowing red after a drive.

        The turbo itself is pretty robust these days thanks to water cooling and synthetic oil. But the huge amount of heat in the engine bay does take its toll on the hoses and other components.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    Dont forget the thousands of mercedes turbo diesels sold in the USA. Many of them have donated their engines for mercedes into Toyota swaps when the body work creaked it’s rusty last.
    my own experince is that i bought an abandoned mercedes 1981,Diesel turbo for $200 . it has 250,000 on the clock but i removed the turbo and fitted it to my NA 300D mercedes and it still runs fine. Why? apart from the superior quality of the older mercedes (pre chrysler fiasco in other words ) the engine in both cars has an after market turbo timer which allows thev car to idle for a cople of minutes before shutting down. You can lock the car walk away and it’s idling by itself and then turns off. This allows the turbo to wind dwon from 100,000 plus RPM with full oil pressure to zero without running dry. if you want your 2012 turbo whatsit to live longer,forget the synth oil, buy cheap oil and change it often and fit a turbo timer. Cheaper than buying a new engine permaturely .

  • avatar

    People are singing praises to VW about turbo’s, but both a co-worker and a vendor engineer had their VW car’s turbo’s fail in the 60-70 K mile range. I cannot remember the models of the cars or years, but the NOV engineer paid $2,400 to have his turbo replaced. How do I know? He was telling us he got 50 plus MPG highway, then mentioned the problem with the turbo.

    • 0 avatar

      One can use a VAG product for proving the lack of reliability in almost anything automotive related. Engine, transmission, windows, electrical system, turbocharger, etc. It’s not like their NA V6 is any more reliable. The 2.5L 5 cylinder is more reliable, but they stole the design from John Deere, Caterpillar, or Ingersoll Rand.

  • avatar

    The hotest automotive niches to go mainstream as about every manufacturer has a turbo-4 except Honda and Toyota. Thanks Sanjeev for bringing up.

    Machining tolerances and better from synthetic motor oil can push turbos close to 300,000 miles and engines far past that with minimal maintenance.

  • avatar

    Premium gas? Vital oil changes? Synthetic oil? Oh the extra expenses. Give me a V6 or V8, please; it would probably be cheaper to own.

    • 0 avatar

      On most domestic turbos, like the Ford 1.6/2.0/3.5, premium isn’t required. Ford factory fills all these engines with 5w20 synblend that they put in basically everything.

    • 0 avatar

      Ahh…no. Not always, anyway. In my family we have a 2004 Saab 9-5 (4cyl turbo) and a 2008 Pathfinder (V6). Both owner’s manuals specify premium gas and synthetic oil. The Pathfinder requires more of everything too – more oil and lots more gas. Interestingly both engines make comparable power – 250hp/258lbsft for the Saab and 266hp/288lbsft for the Path – despite the Saab’s engine being just over half the size of the Nissan’s.

      And, at 95K miles, I’ve had zero issues with the Saab’s turbo – or any part of its drivetrain for that matter.

      I would also argue that oil changes are sorta “vital” for all cars! ;)

      • 0 avatar

        PartsUnknown: good points.

        Perhaps I should have found a different word than ‘vital’. I used to craft my own oil and filter change schedule, based on oil usage, types of miles driven, age of car, and other things.

        Example 1: Synthetic oil used with filter only changes every three out of four.
        Example 2: Regular oil used with only filters changed every 5k (in a vehicle purchased used, that used 1qt. every 1000 miles from day 1.)

        How did it work? Excellent. Never had an oil-related problem in over 300k miles with each. With expensive turbo bearings to protect, I wouldn’t be so daring.

      • 0 avatar


        I will admit, I am much more fussy about the oil change intervals, oil type/brand and filter brand with the Saab than I am with the Pathfinder. The Saab is every 5K miles, no questions asked, Mobil 1 0W-40 Euro synthetic and a Mobil 1 premium filter. I’m a little more laid back with the Path.

  • avatar

    Robert Burns, wasn’t it? To a Mouse (1785): “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”

    English translation: “The best laid schemes of mice and men
    go often awry”

    I agree with Sajeev’s basic advice though–get the Ford 4.6L V8.

  • avatar

    Turbos in big diesel trucks regularly run for 500k+ miles without issues, and that is in a high stress application. A little cool down time before engine shutdown will make a big difference in turbo longevity.

    Most cities of any size have turbo rebuilders that will take the old unit, sandblast the core, put in new bearings, re-balance the shaft, and put it all back together for around $500. As long as the turbine blades are in good shape (no reason that they should not be) the only real failure point is the bearings. It can usually be done in a day.

  • avatar

    I don’t trust them and I don’t want one.

    Automotive engineering is mature. Engineers can build whatever the product planners want them to. If you want a million mile boosted powertrain all you have to do is pay for it – in pounds and dollars. Commercial truck buyers have for decades.

    But nobody is asking for a bulletproof boosted powertrain for appliance cars. Product planners told engineering to game the now all-important EPA test at the lowest possible cost and weight that will make it through the first owner and the warranty. That’s exactly what they got.

    Ownership 10 or 12 years down the road is an afterthought. So is driveability. So is mileage on an actual road when 1400-1600cc needs to be on boost all the time.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed on all points, I think “Hit the EPA numbers and get the first owner through the warranty/extended warranty” is becoming the mantra for almost all auto makers.

  • avatar

    I’m glad wifey and I passed on thinking about buying a new VW Eos…

    The turbo question being answered, among other things makes me sleep better already!

    Still, many like them for the HP boost it gives and that can sure come in handy at times. A friend owned a Lancer GTS back in the late 80’s and that thing ran like a rocket and was fun, but I’ll stay with either a normal 4 cyl. or a V6.

    Yeah, his turbo went belly-up, too. He fixed it.

  • avatar

    My 1984 Volvo Turbo (intercooled) had a boost regulator that increased boost pressure and turbo rpm at over 3000 engine rpm. It ate its first turbocharger at about 35,000 miles – replaced under warranty. The OEM replacement lasted about the same length of time, replaced under extended warranty contract. Its replacement lacked the extra-boost plumbing and was set to a somewhat higher cutoff pressure for all speeds without noticeable preignition, but a little less total output. At trade in time (117k miles) it was starting to make that familiar strangled-chicken squawk again. The replacement car, a ’97 Volvo 850 T5 wagon, went a similar total distance without any turbo problems until it was killed by a stop-sign rear-ender from an idiot in a BMW 745. Technology has pretty well taken care of the bearing problems that plagued early turbos.

  • avatar

    We have a 2008 Saab 9-3 2.0 Turbo. It has an auxillary electric coolant pump for the turbo that comes on if it senses a “heat soak” condition when the engine is off.. With the hot weather we’re having in the mid-Atlantic it comes on a lot. Now that Saab has shuffled off this mortal coil, I hope the turbo doesn’t blow anytime soon.

    • 0 avatar

      This after-run coolant pump is a key pat that can help a turbo engine survive – thankfully many new turbochaged cars are utilizing this relatively simple technology.

      • 0 avatar

        This is a great point that lends credibility to the point I was making.

        Even recent gen Lancer Evos had the “spray-yo-turbo” push button to keep the turbo from grenading.

  • avatar

    Turbos on passenger car diesel engines do fail on a regular basis. You can make a living out of repairing and/or replacing them.
    Turbos on gasoline engines a problem? I don’t see my SAAB dealer fooling around often with turbos.
    These are no longer the seventies you know!

  • avatar

    ***…As always, I could be wrong***…

    … but all cars are built to a price point, and this is especially true of the EPA gas mileage goal post aiming vanilla commuter cars, many of which are now equipped with relatively tiny motors packing turbos but pulling an equivalent weight of what would have been an early 2000s midsize vehicle (e.g. Chevy Cruz 1.4 turbo weighs over 3100 pounds).

    Heat soak hasn’t gone away. All the claims about the better durability and longevity of modern day turbos vs previous generations ones may or may not be true (it’s probably akin to 1/2 true in volume), but even the best improvements in design and materials will only delay (and how much delay is the real question) and not defeat heat soak as the bane of the internal combustion motor.

    If these new vehicles were equipped with truly innovative cooling systems, which doubled or tripled the amount of cooling capacity that flowed through the gills with every 1000rpm of spooling, that may be a genuine method of effectively combating thy nemesis, heat soak, but I don’t see that possibility given the cooling systems these same cars are equipped with.

    But …***As always, I could be wrong, and I’ve been wrong before***…and maybe I’m absolutely wrong, and the new unobtanium alloys and such that these version 2.0 and 3.0 turbos are made are enough to defeat the heat (and coking).

    As they say, time will tell.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    I get my oiled changed like religion, thanks dad. Realistically I should look at a turbo failure as no worse than a water pump or alternator failure? Oh wait, doesn’t BMW uses turbos and a plastic water pump?

  • avatar

    Mopar made lots and lots of eononmy cars with turbos in the late eighties while these cars had their share of problems most of them were not caused by the turbo. I think it’s more about correct engineering in this day in age then what type of engine aspiration.

  • avatar

    I think your absolutely right about the 100,000 mile claim, most of the tightly wound 4-banger turbos will go that far with no worries. Beyond that it’s a crap shoot. And when these things go, they GO, as in just not worth it to fix and keep anymore. So if 250,000 miles is the new 100,000 miles then I really wonder about all these turbo 4s, I just don’t see them going the distance.

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