Boost Pressure

Tim Marrs

Virginia International Raceway is scary. The BMW 1-series M coupe is scary. Ergo, driving a 1M at VIR is terrifying. I'm here to crash a session of BMW's M Performance Driving School, and by lap 2 I'm wondering if it isn't going to crash me back. The 1M is a royal handful, in part because of its hyperagile stubby wheelbase but mostly because of the beast under the hood. If a normally aspirated BMW six-cylinder delivers its torque like a burning fuse, the turbo versions are more like dynamite. You know what precedes a flat torque curve? A lot of torque all at once.

This is an interesting moment to attend the Driving School, because the vehicles on hand embody the transition from BMW's normally aspirated past to its turbocharged future. The 1M coupe represents the way forward, while a brace of V-8 M3s and V-10 M5s celebrate the big-bore, 8000-rpm approach. Those outgoing M cars have their drawbacks (the M3 might be the smallest car ever hit with the gas-guzzler tax), but in its dotage I'm finding that I harbor a soft spot for the normally aspirated engine.

During my automotive formative years, the word turbo connoted ultimate performance -- Ferrari F40, Porsche 959, Callaway Corvettes, Buick GNX. Eventually, I owned a 1991 Saab 9000 Turbo, which, thanks to its robust Garrett AiResearch T25 turbocharger, was among the quickest four-doors of its day. A badge on the deck lid proudly boasted TURBO.

But over the years, turbocharged engines have become both ubiquitous and mundane, playing a growing role in fuel economy over horsepower. Turbos feature in cars like the Chevy Cruze Eco, the EcoBoosted Ford Edge, and the BMW 328i (with EcoPro mode, of course). Somehow, none of them would look quite right with two-foot billboard lettering across their flanks screaming TURBO.

As turbos have transitioned into the mainstream, it's become a matter of performance-car honor to eschew the magic turbine in favor of normally aspirated purity. The Ferrari 458 Italia, Lamborghini Aventador, Porsche 911 GT3, Lexus LFA, SRT Viper, and Corvette Z06 all make their horsepower the hard way, like an athlete who trains six hours a day instead of shooting a syringe full of Russian horse steroids. And yet the writing is on the wall: the normally aspirated Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG is barely quicker than the newly turbo'ed SL550. I suppose that's progress, but it's also a little sad. Because, as I affirm at VIR, normal aspiration flatters your talent while forced induction exposes the lack thereof.

On a wet skid pad in the M5, I occasionally string together consecutive laps of full-lock tail-out glory, adjusting the drift with the throttle. Thanks to the V-10's gradual dispersal of torque, your right foot need not attune itself to each millimeter of pedal travel. Had I attempted this exercise in the 1M, I probably would have made it a quarter way around the first lap before veering off to punch a new entrance in the adjacent fence. The torque curve that giveth on the street taketh away when I'm loose on the track.

Intellectually, I know that the proliferation of turbos is a good thing. But when the Mazda CX-7 people-schlepper uses a turbocharger and doesn't even bother to proclaim as such with a snazzy badge, you know the romance is gone. Turbos are nearing the ubiquity that fuel injection reached in the 1980s, when the technology became a given rather than something special to brag about. (Eventually, someone should gently inform BMW that they can drop the "i" from their nomenclature -- nobody thinks your new 550 is running a Holley double-pumper.)

Meanwhile, the upper echelon of hard-edged performance cars can't stave off the turbo invasion forever. The quest for horsepower and efficiency will compel a change of heart even for those Italian companies that seem to regard turbochargers with the cold disdain of a businessman who's just sat in a wad of gum on the subway. Hey, if it was good enough for the F40, right?

And then we'll have faster, thriftier Ferraris, and I'll have an excuse to take more driving lessons. I'm fine with that. But hopefully there will always remain a few supercars out on the ragged edge that make big power without resorting to boost. And those cars should wear billboard lettering, two feet high, that screams NOT TURBO.

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