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Turbocharged cars are a lot of fun. All things being equal, they make far more power than their naturally aspirated counterparts, especially when it comes to low-end and mid-range torque. However, the problem with any high-performance car is the possibility that it was driven into the ground by its previous owner. Here's how to gauge the condition of your next used car before you make a purchase, with an emphasis on issues to look for with turbocharger systems.
Research by Make, Model, and Year
Over the years, many cars have been built with faulty factory components that trigger a manufacturer's recall. Once you've decided which turbocharged car you want to buy, research online to find out if there were any recalls for specific years. That way, when you find a car you like, you can request maintenance documentation to ensure that any recalls were taken care of by previous owners.
Even if there weren't any recalls, a lot of cars have model-specific mechanical issues that tend to develop over time. Find out if there are any common issues with the make and model you're considering so you know what to look out for in a test drive. Generally, car enthusiast web forums are a great place to do research, because they're filled with users who have maintained and modified their own cars extensively.
When you find a car you're interested in, obtain a copy of the vehicle's history report so you know if it was wrecked or otherwise abused. There are some great sites that offer a free VIN history report: simply enter the vehicle identification number and you get a comprehensive overview of how the car was treated in the past.
Inspect the Turbocharger
Once you've got your background research out of the way, it's time to inspect the car in person. Bring along some basic tools for the job: a set of screwdrivers, socket wrenches, and a flashlight should do the trick.
First, visually inspect the turbocharger unit. You might have to remove the plastic engine cover and/or exhaust manifold heat shield to get a clear view. Look for signs of heat stress and cracking throughout the turbo housing. Inspect the turbo inlet, outlet, and central bearing housing for signs of oil leaks. Any of these issues can mean the turbocharger is on its last legs.
Next, remove the intake pipe from the turbo inlet so you can inspect the compressor wheel. Generally, the intake pipe is held on by a single hose clamp that can be removed in a matter of minutes. Spin the compressor by hand and ensure there are no dings or cracks in the fins. Wiggle the compressor back and forth to ensure that there is little to no play in the bearings.
If the compressor wiggles excessively, that indicates the shaft that connects the compressor to the turbine is not securely held by the internal bearings. Excessive shaft play allows the compressor and turbine wheels to come in contact with the external housing which can cause the the turbocharger to fail at any moment.
Inspect the Intercooler Piping and Vacuum Lines
Visually inspect the intercooler piping that connects the turbocharger to the intake manifold. Pay especially close attention to the rubber adapters that connect separate sections of piping. Ensure there are no cracks in the piping or adapters. Also, inspect the intercooler radiator for signs of damage. Slightly bent fins and sporadic dings are common due to road debris, so don't worry about those. However, if there are extensive dents or ruptures in the intercooler runners, the intercooler may have to be replaced.
Next, inspect all of the rubber vacuum lines routed throughout the intercooler and intake system. Rubber lines are prone to cracking over time due to heat from the engine, and leaking vacuum lines can lead to a number of reliability issues. If all of the lines look like they're in good condition, start the car and let it idle for a minute. Watch the tachometer to ensure that the engine idles steadily. Some vacuum leaks are too small to be seen, but they generally cause the engine idle speed to fluctuate up and down. A rapidly fluctuating idle speed is a telltale sign of vacuum leaks.
General Issues to Look For
Inspect the sides of the engine block for signs of leaking oil. Pay close attention to the head gasket area, as blown head gaskets can be quite pricey to replace. Also, inspect the radiator, coolant hoses, and intake manifold for signs of leaking antifreeze.
If everything looks good, perform an extensive test drive before making a purchase. There are a myriad of power train issues that are impossible to diagnose with a quick inspection, but they'll generally present themselves during a thorough test drive. Make sure the transmission shifts smoothly into every gear, and pay close attention to the way the clutch feels when letting out the pedal. If the clutch chatters, slips, or offers inconsistent resistance, that may be a sign that a number of transmission components are due for replacement. Accelerate at wide-open throttle to ensure that the engine revs smoothly all the way to the redline.
After your drive, pop the hood and make sure there are no unusual smells such as burning oil or transmission fluid. If everything checks out, you can buy your used turbo car and enjoy its performance capabilities with the confidence that it isn't on its last legs.