Driven: Ford's New EcoBoost Engines

By Brandon Turkus

November 23, 2010

When turbocharged engines started to gain traction in the 1970s and 1980s, one could argue they weren’t the most refined pieces of technology. Drivers of Ford’s own turbos were forced to cope with a lack of power while the turbo spooled up, and then were thrown back in their seats when on boost. If you have ever had the pleasure of sampling the turbocharged 2.3-liter Ford engine in the mid-80s Mustang SVO or Merkur XR4Ti (AKA the Ford Sierra XR4i), you’ll know the sensation we’re talking about. Those products were wildly fun to drive for those looking for the thrill of acceleration, but they lacked the sort of refinement needed for true, mass market appeal. 

After largely being a niche performance product for past thirty-odd years, then, turbos have been gaining widespread popularity thanks to a major reduction in turbo lag, and in turn, an increase in driveability. A great example of the progress turbos have made is Volkswagen/Audi’s 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4. Using technology like direct-injection, the VW/Audi 2.0T has been a hit and is now available on almost every product from the German manufacturers. And certainly, all of Ford’s new range of EcoBoost engines have been a revelation for the modern turbo.

Our first experience with the new and growing range of blown Fords was with the biturbocharged, 3.5-liter V-6 found in the Taurus SHO. That powerplant was conceived as a fuel-efficient alternative to big V-8s, and has subsequently made its way into the larger SUVs and crossovers in the Ford Family. Our most recent experience with this powerhouse motor came in the form of Ford’s F-150 range, which impressed us with its power and sophistication. It truly made us question the need for a V-8-powered truck.

Then again, that’s the point of EcoBoost; deliver the power of a bigger engine with the fuel economy of a smaller one. In the case of the 3.5 liter in the F-150, it soundly smashes the old 4.6- and 5.4-liter V-8s in terms of power: 365 horsepower and 420 pound-feet of torque for EcoBoost versus 320 and 390, respectively for the 5.4. Fuel economy is expected to be significantly improved, too. (EPA numbers aren’t yet out, but Ford expects a twenty-percent improvement over the two V-8s).

Following the successful formula of swapping biturbocharged V-6s for big V-8s, Ford is now planning on dropping a pair of four-cylinder EcoBoosts on us, in the hopes of replacing larger-displacement V-6s and I-4s. We were invited out to Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California to see what the future held for Ford’s newest powerplants.

First though, we need to figure out what makes Ford’s system different than other turbocharged setups. A general principle with turbos is that the larger it is, the longer it’ll take to spool. To counteract that, EcoBoost features lightweight, low-inertia turbochargers that result in a quicker build-up of boost. Aiding the quick-spooling nature of the Ford units is gasoline direct-injection. By spraying fuel directly into each combustion chamber, the time it takes for the fuel to be blown up is drastically reduced. The resulting evaporation from GDI also results in a cooling effect on the air in the combustion chamber, which results in more power. Finally, Ford’s twin independent variable camshaft timing allows optimum timing of the camshafts on both the intake and exhaust side. By adjusting the opening and closing of the camshafts, Ti-VCT allows for a broader torque curve, increased engine responsiveness, and better fuel economy.

The engine we were most excited to put through its paces was the new 2.0-liter turbocharged I-4. The Europeans have already seen this motor in the Mondeo mid-sizer, S-Max MPV, and Galaxy minivan, but Americans won’t get a crack at it until 2011, when it appears under the hood of the Edge, Explorer, and Focus ST. When it is available though, the all-aluminum 2.0-liter will be packing around 230 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque, depending on the application (we already know, for example, that it makes 246 horsepower in the Focus ST). Although still being certified by the EPA, Ford expects the 2.0T to return “best-in-class” fuel economy. The only available gearbox when the Edge and Explorer EcoBoost arrive in dealerships will be a six-speed automatic. Fans of manual gearboxes will have to wait until late 2011 when the manual transmission-equipped Focus ST becomes available.

The other unit on hand for us to test was the 1.6-liter EcoBoost. Once again, the Europeans have gotten first crack at this engine, under the hood of the C-Max MPV. Americans will see it when the seven-passenger Grand C-Max makes its way to the United States in late 2011. Ford was mum on what other vehicles will get the 1.6T, but we see more than a few candidates for this little unit. Certainly a hopped-up Fiesta is a possibility, while the Focus and Fusion would be worthwhile candidates as well. Regardless of where it ends up, the 1.6-liter produces 177 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. Power goes to the front wheels through a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox.

To put these motors through their paces, Ford brought over a pair of C-Max with the 1.6-liter turbo and a pair of Mondeos with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost. There were also some very early pre-production builds of the Edge 2.0T. We resisted the European forbidden fruit and made our way to the Edge. We wanted to see, even though this was an early pre-production vehicle, what the 2.0 liter would be like in an American-sized product.

Ford setup a nice autocross course for us in one of Auto Club Speedway’s massive parking lots. The “track” consisted of a few high-speed straights, a few sharp left and right handers, as well as a double-apex turn and a tricky decreasing-radius turn. These tight turns were followed by decently long straights, which allowed us to nail the throttle early and really experience the character of these motors.

As we headed out in the Edge, we were mentally comparing this 2.0-liter model with the 3.5-liter V-6-powered Edge we had in the office a few weeks back. The first thing we noticed was how smooth the 2.0 liter sounded compared to the 3.5. For just tooling around town, this would be a wholly acceptable powerplant. We decided to have a bit of fun with it though.

Nailing the throttle from a standstill results in a little bit of lag, but as it spools up, the 2.0 liter just purrs along, riding a meaty wave of torque that runs out just short of the redline. This thing really has power all over the place, as we found out exiting the turns of the autocross track. Exiting a turn at around 3000 rpm, and nailing the throttle produces a surprising amount of thrust. While hardly a track burner, the EcoBoost had plenty of power for everyday transportation. We weren’t huge fans of the six-speed auto, but this was more because it was tuned for fuel efficiency instead of performance, rather than the overall shift speed or performance.

To sample the 2.0-liter EcoBoost in a slightly more natural environment, we headed out in one of the Mondeos. The 2.0T was really in its element here, as everything felt sharper and more natural. The little bit of turbo lag we experienced in the Edge was less noticeable in the European Ford. The Mondeo felt quicker, but we suspect it had more to do with its lighter weight than any changes in the motor. Of note was the Mondeo’s six-speed automatic gearbox, which snapped shifts off with such alacrity that we had to check with Ford to make sure it wasn’t a dual-clutch transmission. This gearbox is pretty amazing, and we can only hope it finds its way into the Edge.

After our shenanigans in the Mondeo (we may have snuck a few extra laps), we headed out in the C-Max. We’ve driven turbocharged 1.6-liter engines before, notably in the Mini Cooper S, so we know not to underestimate these small powerplants, but even so, this EcoBoost motor surprised us. It wasn’t quick like the Mini and its 1.6, with its torque steer and ability to easily exceed the speed limit, but it was just so livable. Much like the 2.0 liter, the 1.6 has just a bit of turbo lag at low revs and a slight drop in power at high rpm, but there is plenty of torque everywhere in-between. We would have absolutely no opposition to owning this engine on a day-to-day basis. The abundance of torque makes it easy to drive in town or on the highway, and it is just quick enough to have some fun without getting in trouble.

Ford is making serious strides with EcoBoost, and expects ninety percent of its North American and eighty percent of its global nameplates will be available with turbocharging by 2013. More important than the numbers, is that Ford is making turbos appeal to the public. These engines are extremely livable and easy to drive, thanks in large part to the massive amount of torque and the reduction in turbo lag. This ease of use is what is going to get people behind the wheel.