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author photo by Josh Sadlier January 2012

If you're old enough to remember the 1980s, the current fixation on turbocharging should seem quite familiar. That decade, you'll note, was the first full decade after the OPEC crisis, which had led to the adoption of federal emissions standards for automobiles in the mid-'70s. Accordingly, engineers in the '80s were faced with emissions challenges that their predecessors simply didn't have to think about. Solution? Slap a turbo on it, of course! After all, those early turbos promised the best of both worlds: plenty of power when you needed it and superior fuel-efficiency from a smaller-displacement engine when you didn't. It was the right technology at the right time.

Except it didn't work. There were exceptions, of course, but most turbos from the '80s were plagued by higher initial costs, spotty reliability and massive lag (roughly, the delay between when you step on the gas and when the turbo "spools up"). Gas ultimately wasn't that expensive anyway, so the turbo gradually fell out of favor, finding its niche as a marginal enthusiast-oriented technology while Americans turned en masse to naturally aspirated, gas-guzzling SUVs.

Fast-forward to 2011, and it's deja vu all over again-except this time the automakers look like they mean business. Whereas turbos in the '80s were relatively rare even at their peak, the spread of turbocharging over the past few years has been remarkably rapid. Why? Well, for one thing, gas prices are going to remain high for the foreseeable future. For another, emissions requirements are about to get seriously strict if the Obama Administration has its way, and turbos are generally more efficient in the EPA testing cycle at any given horsepower level, though doubts linger about real-world fuel economy. Also, engineers have devised ingenious solutions for minimizing turbo lag, and while reliability is still unproven, at least warranties these days are better than they used to be.

But just because everyone's trying turbocharging doesn't mean everyone's good at it, right? We've driven all the turbocharged cars on the market (well, except the ultra expensive Bugatti Veyron), and we don't mind playing favorites. Here are the best turbocharged cars for 2012.

Four-Cylinder Class

Mini's 1.6-liter inline-4

Mini's 1.6-liter turbocharged inline-4 hasn't changed much since it debuted in 2007, but that's one reason why we like it so much-Mini had this turbo thing figured out before just about anyone else. The "S" engine has always delivered unusually linear acceleration thanks to twin-scroll technology, which lessens low-rpm lag and improves high-rpm efficiency. But as laudable as its current 181-horsepower output may be, we're even more impressed by its fuel economy, which gets as high as 30 miles per gallon combined in the Cooper S Hardtop and still hits 26 mpg in the thirstiest Mini model, the automatic Cooper S Countryman AWD.

Hyundai/Kia's 2.0-liter GDI Turbo inline-4

The numbers for this direct-injected Korean masterpiece speak for themselves: 274 hp, 269 lb-ft, 26 mpg combined. BMW's got a new 2.0-liter turbo four that yields comparable fuel economy, but the GDI outmuscles it by 34 hp and 9 lb-ft. Yep, you heard right: a Hyundai/Kia turbocharged engine generates more power than a much pricier BMW turbo of the same displacement. That's why BMW's four isn't on this list, not to mention Mercedes-Benz's new 1.8-liter turbo four, which is down on both power (201 hp) and efficiency (25 mpg combined, including a low 31 mpg on the highway). But how's the GDI Turbo drive, you ask? Wonderfully, thanks to good overall refinement and twin-scroll technology that delivers heady low-rpm passing punch. Among family-sedan motors, we still prefer the Toyota Camry's V6, but the GDI Turbo, especially in the Kia Optima SX, might be next in line.

Six-Cylinder Class

BMW's "N55" 3.0-liter inline-6

On the subject of turbo reliability, BMW engineers got a crash course in it a few years back when the new twin-turbocharged "N54" inline-6 started eating high-pressure fuel-pumps on a regular basis. Although the N54 soldiers on in limited-production applications like the 640i and 740i, BMW's volume-selling turbocharged inline-6 is now the N55, which employs a twin-scroll single turbocharger. We heard some kvetching about the N55 when it came out-"less power from the factory" and "harder to tune"-but that all faded away the first time we opened the throttle. The 300 horses feel very strong, and they're delivered in a smoother, more linear fashion here than in the N54. Moreover, paired with BMW's newish eight-speed automatic, the N55 delivers an impressive 24 mpg combined in the 535i sedan.

Ford's "EcoBoost" 3.5-liter V6

The jury was definitely out among truck guys on this one, but now that the numbers are in, it's clear that Ford's got a bona fide hit on its hands. Not only does the EcoBoost V6 get up to 18 mpg overall in the F-150, it also generates a whopping 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. No, it doesn't sound remotely as cool as a V8, but it does reliably beat the F-150's available 5.0-liter V8 in performance testing. Happily, you don't have to buy a truck to appreciate this engine, as Ford also offers it in slightly detuned form in the Taurus/MKS sedans and the Flex crossover.

Eight-Cylinder Class

BMW's "N63" 4.4-liter V8

We'll move on from BMWs in a minute, but no turbo awards would be complete without mentioning the luscious twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter N63 V8, which so effortlessly generates its 400 hp and 450 lb-ft of torque that you'd think the motor was electric. There's serious speed here, though; maybe too serious. The 650i coupe, for example, accelerates so ferociously that it makes the forthcoming M6-which is powered by a closely related N63 variant called the S63-seem irrelevant. The only knock against the N63 is its disappointing fuel economy: the 650i gets just 19 mpg combined with its eight-speed automatic.

Mercedes-Benz's 4.7-liter V8

Here's another case where less is, if not more, then at least more than enough. Currently featured in the CLS550, and soon to be offered in basically everything that used to have the 5.5-liter naturally aspirated V8, the twin-turbocharged 4.7-liter V8 churns out an impossibly refined 402 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. We can't imagine wanting more, and yes, we've driven the 5.5-liter, twin-turbo, 500-hp-plus CLS63 AMG. If this is what the turbocharged future feels like, we're all for it. Fuel economy, alas, remains in the BMW V8's league at 20 mpg combined, though Mercedes will tell you that the old 6.2-liter AMG V8 was much thirstier (and they're quite right). But this new Benz V8 is such a pleasure to work with that it's almost a privilege to replenish its stocks.

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