The Turbo Era: Is it a Good Thing Mid-Size Trucks are Leaving the V6 Engine Behind?
Over the last few years we’ve seen a nice mid-sized pickup resurgence in America, with a new Ford Ranger, a heavily re-designed Nissan Frontier, a new generation of GM’s Colorado and Canyon — and soon the long-awaited 2024 Toyota Tacoma.
And as these trucks are updated, we’ve seen many of them abandon their stalwart naturally aspirated V6 engines for smaller four-cylinder engines with turbochargers. In fact, most of these trucks are now offered only with turbo four-cylinders.
It's clear now that the era of the V6-powered midsize truck is coming to a close. But is this a good thing?
Like many questions, it depends — in this case, on what type of truck buyer you are. Looking purely at horsepower, torque and fuel economy ratings, it’s hard not to see the new turbo engines as being an upgrade all around. But is it really that simple?
Downsizing from larger displacement naturally aspirated engines to smaller turbocharged engines is nothing new. It’s been happening across the auto industry at a rapid pace over the last decade.
For the most part, the turbo engines do usually outperform their N/A counterparts in most categories. While peak horsepower ratings might be similar between a V6 and a turbo four, torque is what really sets the two engines apart.
And not just the amount of torque a turbo produces, it’s the way it’s delivered — which is much lower in the rev range. And this boost in low-end torque can be very beneficial in “truck situations” like towing or off-roading.
We’ve seen this play out already on trucks full-size Ford F-150 where many are sold with EcoBoost turbocharged V6 engines rather than V8s. Typically, owners are happy with the capability of their EcoBoost engines in the real world.
What about fuel economy? Now here’s where the on-paper and real world start to differ. The turbocharged engines in modern mid-size trucks may have better fuel economy ratings than the old V6s on paper, but that doesn’t always mean they use less fuel in the real world.
Whether its a pickup truck or a car, turbocharged engines are great and have good MPG ratings on the EPA test cycle, but many owners will tell you they struggle to get those numbers in real-world driving.
That’s because the engines are often tuned specifically to ace the EPA tests, but out on the road, you may find yourself going into boost a lot more than in those controlled situations. And the fuel economy of turbo engines is famously known to drop off quickly if you don’t have a feather for a foot.
Now this doesn’t mean the turbo engines are gas hogs. It just means you probably shouldn’t count on significantly improved real-world fuel economy when driving a turbocharged pickup.
Finally there’s the question about reliability. Pickup buyers of course, want the most dependable rig they can get, and for the most part the old V6 engines have served well across all the different brands.
Is that the same for the turbo four-cylinder engines? While we haven’t heard about many major engine issues, a lot of the trucks are simply too new to tell.
It’s hard to say how these turbo engines will hold up after 100,000 or 200,000 miles of hard use. They could prove to be reliable, but there’s certainly more going on under the hood, with more moving parts that could potentially have issues.
But a lot of the questions around reliability come not from the engines themselves, but from the simple fact that the automakers are moving away from the proven V6 and to the more complex turbo-engines.
Take the Tacoma for example, while it never set anyone's hair on fire with its performance, the simple, dependable N/A V6 was a big part of the draw from a pickup famous for its reliability.
Now there’s no reason to think the new 2.4L turbo won’t be reliable, but it’s a significant departure from the old engine and it will take some time to see things go in the real world.
For now, if want a new midsize truck that sticks with the traditional N/A V6, the Nissan Frontier will be your only choice, and its 3.8L engine is not lacking for power. Who knows how much longer it will be around?
And for the rest? it’s time to either buy used or embrace the turbo era that’s here to stay — at least until they stop selling pickups with gasoline engines altogether.
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