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Green turbos

September 22, 2011

Electric cars have dominated this year's Frankfurt Motor Show. While BMW's i3 plug-in concept attracted plenty of attention, the company's chief developer of gasoline motors says normal engines are becoming greener too.

A BMW twin turbo, six-cyclinder gasoline engine
BMW says combustion engines won't disappear any time soonImage: BMW

Fritz Steinparzer is the head of development in BMW's petrol or gasoline engine department, which produces everything from compact 1.6-liter engines to the V12 monsters that power modern Rolls Royce vehicles. He told Deutsche Welle that while electric concept cars like the BMW i3 will play a major role in future urban mobility, conventional engines still have plenty of life left in them. The gasoline motor is undergoing a revolution of its own, thanks to what used to be an inefficient and frivolous power-boosting system: the turbocharger. Modern turbos allow the internal combustion engine to do more with less, boosting fuel efficiency as well as power.

Deutsche Welle: Is it fair to say that BMW has widened its scope in the past decade, with new small car projects like the 1 Series and Mini, coupled with the purchase of Rolls Royce in the extreme luxury bracket?

Fritz Steinparzer: The world is very complex, and one target of BMW is to find solutions for all areas. We decided to go for all the technologies, for highly sophisticated gasoline engines, diesel engines, hybrids and also for the pure electric car. We think this is necessary to be successful all around the world.

Fritz Steinparzer
Steinparzer says modern turbos are about efficency, not powerImage: BMW Group

As with most motor shows in recent years, electric and hybrid power is stealing the show here – but you have cautioned, like many manufacturers, that this technology needs time. How long do you think your engine department, the gasoline engine division, will be BMW's biggest?

I'm sure for the next 10, 20, maybe 30 years… because there is a need for electric cars in some areas of the world, but there will also be a need for conventional gasoline cars and diesel-powered cars for the next decades.

For decades, BMW's staple small engine has been a four-cylinder 1.6 liter engine. This remains your smallest motor, powering the Mini and some 1 Series and 3 Series models. The basic specifications have stayed the same, but presumably the motor has changed?

In the new 1 Series car there is really a very modern four-cylinder gasoline petrol car. This engine uses TwinPower turbo technology, as does the new six-cylinder turbocharged engine and also the new V8 in the M5, for example.

Turbochargers - something many people might think of as a performance-enhancing, fuel-wasting technology - are a recurring theme there, why is that?

Downsizing is a key aspect of our "Efficient Dynamics" strategy. We are introducing a four-cylinder, two-liter turbocharged engine to replace the old three-liter, six-cylinder engine in several models. In the future, most of the engines will be turbocharged. For the last 20, 25 years now, all diesel engines have been turbocharged, and we are now seeing the same trend on the gasoline side. With new technologies like direct injection it's now possible to build turbocharged gasoline engines with very low fuel consumption. They are very efficient; that wasn't the case in the past, but now it is.

Does that make turbo-charging a viable rival, if you like, to hybrid power?

I think it's one solution. Turbo-charging allows a carmaker to greatly downsize their engines without losing performance, and this is one key factor to reduce the fuel consumption. On the other hand, you can add hybrid components to these turbocharged engines as well - so, obviously, this could be a further step.

BMW offers many of its models with a hybrid power option, but the firm has shied away from a bespoke electric model for mass production so far. Do you think the technology is ready to meet the average consumer's needs?

I think electric cars will be very important in the future, in some areas and regions for some customers. But the conventional combustion engine-driven cars will stay and will be very important. The demands and requirements of customers can be very different. In megacities, for example, the electric car makes a lot of sense for many of our customers. But on the other hand, when someone is mostly driving on a German motorway, I personally don't think it makes sense for this customer to buy an electric car. It's better for him to use a diesel or modern gasoline car. So, in the future we will see this diversification in the car market, and we have to offer good solutions for all types of customers.

Interviewer: Mark Hallam
Editor: Sam Edmonds