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How to Modify and Tune Up Your Car's Turbocharger

Jun 1, 2023 - By: Eric Navarete

turbocharger tuning and modifications

If you’re lucky enough to own a vehicle with a turbocharged engine you’re hundreds of horsepower ahead of other vehicles.  But don’t stop there.  What you may not know is that there are many ways to tune up and get greater performance out of your car’s turbocharger.  Today we’re going to learn the basics of how you can modify or tune up your vehicle’s performance beyond it’s stock turbocharger and the full automotive tuning that goes around it. 


How to Modify and Tune-up Your Car's Stock Turbocharger


1. Tuning up and Modifying Your Turbocharger’s Intercooler


When air enters your turbochargers it heats up.  The hotter the air is, the less dense it is.  This means it contains less oxygen, which equals less power.  Hot air also increases the chance of detonation, which is dangerous for your car’s overall engine.  


To cool the air, your turbocharger has an intercooler that lowers the temperature using air.  Most factory intercoolers leave a lot to be desired, so upgrading to a higher end or more efficient intercooler, the better the airflow, the more power you’ll get.


 2. Modifying Your Car’s Boost Pressure


Boost is directly related to your engine’s power.  The more boost the better, as long as your engine can handle it.  Too much boost for your system will blow your engine. 


By maximizing the appropriate level of boost in your car, and adding improvements such as an ECU chip upgrade or fueling improvements, you can give your vehicle more power.


3. Swapping Out Your Car’s Turbo


Adding an aftermarket turbocharger to a car that doesn’t have one can be a huge undertaking.  However, you can upgrade the actual turbocharger itself, giving you more power due to it’s ability to handle more boost.  You can also tune up the system with a larger compressor or exhaust housing right for your system. 


4. Water Injection


If you can’t get a larger intercooler in your vehicle, water injection is an option that helps to cool the inlet charge.  The system sprays mist on your inlet pipe and the water absorbs heat from the air as it evaporates, brining the air temperature down.  


5. Adding Nitrous Oxide to Your Turbocharger


Nitrous is a good booster on any engine, when used moderately, but when you’ve got a pre-existing turbocharger in your car, it comes in even more handy.  Nitrous is extremely cold, so when injected it cools the boost pressure tremendously, giving your car the ability to create even more power. 


It also prevents turbo-lag.  By kicking in the NOS at a low rpm, your boost will get in performance much faster. 


6. Screamer Pipe


A screamer pipe is an un-silenced exhaust that is separate from your regular exhaust system.  Exhaust gas only escapes down the screamer pipe once maximum boost has been achieved.  When this happens, the pipe starts to scream, unfortunately making a lot of noise. 


7. Correct Fuel for Your Turbocharged Engine


You need the correct fuel to maximize performance in your turbocharged engine.  The combustion rate is different that other cars and it needs to match up or you’ll end up blowing up or melting your engine. 


Special attention paid to upgrading your fuel pumps and fuel injectors will give your car a serious power boost. 


8. High Octane Fuel


When it comes to turbocharged engines, you need to fill up with a high octane fuel.  No more of the cheap stuff.  The higher the octane the more resistant your car will be to detonation (or knocking) and allows your turbocharger to safely run on a higher boost.


9. Air Filter Positioning


Where your air filter is positioned in your car is extremely important, especially when it comes to turbocharged engines.  A good system setup will help boost horsepower.  If your filter is too close to hot engine parts, it will drive in hot air that will lower your performance.  Optimizing your air filter location can also help your car to reach it’s maximum boost faster.   


10. Avoiding Pre-ignition/Detonation


If you don’t pay careful attention to the heat and pressure buildup in your car’s engine, your fuel and air will ignite before it receives the spark.  This is called detonation.  Detonation increases temperature and pressure, which slows down the rate at which the air moves through the engine, the amount of air moving through, and the power the engine can create.  In some cases your engine can blow up right away.  Talk to a professional about your tuning and modifications and make sure you avoid blowing your headgasket or pistons. 


11. Dump Valves


When it comes to extending the life of your turbo, dump valves can help.  They stop the turbo from stalling as the throttle is closed, by letting the air escape out.  Because the turbocharger is allowed to continue spinning, it will be then able to reach it’s boost quickly.  Your throttle response will be improved.  The more boost you run, the more effective your dump valve will be.    


12. Wastegates


A wastegate is a valve that separates the gas from the manifold to the exhaust without passing through the turbocharger first.  This regulates and prevents the turbo from spinning to fast.  Cars usually come with a wastegate, but larger turbos can benefit or sometimes need a separate wastegate fitted to the exhaust manifold. 


13. Head Gasket Upgrade for Your Turbo


Head gaskets are purposely made to be blown.  Why?  So if your engine builds up too much pressure or combustion, they blow before the rest of or the more expensive parts of your engine does, like your pistons or your engine block.  Cylinder pressure is what makes your head gasket blow. 


Upgraded head gaskets and bolts can help prevent failure, especially in turbo cars.  In addition to a good set of head gaskets, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got any detonation issues under control and that they’re compatible with your turbo’s boost levels so the gaskets don’t blow in the first place due to too much pressure. 


14. Aftermarket Engine Management System


Keep your car’s ignition and boost in check with an engine management system.  These systems create the adjustment needed to keep your car’s engine components performing properly, and making the proper adjustments when they don’t. 


A good EMS will improve your car’s performance, drivability, reliability as well as engine life. 


15. Exhausts for Turbocharged Engines


If you see a vehicle with a mega exhaust, it most likely has a turbocharged engine.  You can’t have an exhaust that’s too big on a turbo.  The reasoning behind this is that you want zero backpressure from the car’s exhaust, allowing more air to escape and run through the engine more efficiently. 


16. Compression Ratios for Turbochargers


The compression ration is how much fuel/air is compressed by the car’s pistons before it’s ignited.  Compress the air/fuel too much and you get detonation, which is very bad for your engine.


If you increase your boost, you will need to adjust/drop the compression to keep the cylinder pressures regulated to avoid detonation.


17. Stronger Engine Parts


Improving the strength of the internal parts of your system, you will extend the life of your car’s engine.  Upgrades like forged pistons will help your engine be more resistant to detonation and other issues.   

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