The Top 10 Factory Supercharged Vehicles You Probably Forgot About
Though they may not be quite as popular as their exhaust-pressure-driven cousins with OEMs these days since they take some engine power to make engine power, superchargers are still might useful for giving an engine and the vehicle in which it’s installed a swift (and, unlike turbos, lag-free) kick in the rectum. Just ask anybody who has opened the taps on one of Dodge’s Hellcat twins, a second- or third-generation Cadillac CTS-V, a Jaguar F-Type SVR or any other modern performance car with a mechanically-turned compressor shoving more air down the engine’s gullet.
But for every mid-aughts Ford GT and Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren, there’s a supercharged car or truck that never got in the same time zone as icon status. Maybe their makers didn’t bother making a big hullabaloo about them. Maybe their blowers whined at such a frequency that only dogs could hear them…and dogs, as we all know, can’t buy cars. Whatever the reason, the following 10 supercharged vehicles failed to embed themselves in the collective petrolhead consciousness, so we’re going to try to make sure that they’re not entirely forgotten.
Although Mazda’s Amati luxury brand was DOA thanks to the early-‘90s recession that hit Japan especially hard, the car that would have been the badge’s first product did eventually make it to American showrooms as the Mazda Millenia beginning with the 1995 model year. In addition to being front-wheel-drive and smaller than the rear-drive 929 it essentially replaced over here, another key difference from the company’s previous USDM flagship was the Millenia S’s 2.3L supercharged V6 which operated on the Miller Cycle rather than the damn-near-ubiquitous Otto one.
This engine not only offered more power than the Otto Cycle, non-supercharged 2.5L V6 that was standard on North American Millenias (210 horsepower versus 170), but also greater efficiency thanks to the Miller Cycle’s reduced pumping losses. However, the clever powertrain wasn’t enough to overcome the Millenia’s lack of size and a prestige badge, and the model was quietly dropped worldwide after 2002 with no replacement.
Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson
While Ford SVT’s second attempt at turning the F-150 into a muscle truck – the Lightning – is rightly lauded as one of the most righteous haul-ass haulers ever created, not everybody recalls that you could get that same rip-roaring Eaton-puffer-topped 5.4L V8 in a more spacious cab configuration. The catch? You had to be okay with Harley-Davidson branding inside and out.
Except that wasn’t the case initially: When the F-150 Harley-Davidson arrived in 2000, it came with a medium-length SuperCab body, a Flareside (Dearborn-ese for stepside) box and a naturally-aspirated 5.4L SOHC Triton V8…except for Jay Leno’s, which also happened to be the very first one made. In addition to some other custom touches, the world’s most recognized Canadian tuxedo model managed to convince the SVT team to slide one of the Lightning’s 360 horsepower force-fed lumps under the hood. So well-received was this idea that, by the time the 2002 model year rolled around, it was made standard in the Harley-Davidson edition (which was now based on the SuperCrew, with its four big front-hinged doors and full-width bed). Yes, it was dialed back a bit to 340 horsepower and 425 lb.-ft of torque, but it was still a badass blown rig that just happened to have room for the family.
When the Toyota Previa arrived in America in March of 1990 for the 1991 model year, it was unlike any minivan produced before or since…and not just because of a body shape that will make you hungry for an omelette. A specially-designed longitudinally-mounted 2.4L inline-four, designated the 2TZ-FE, was tipped almost 90° off of vertical toward the passenger side (on lefthand-drive models) and placed under the essentially flat front and middle seat floor areas, routing power to either the rear or all wheels. And in case you were worried about accessibility for routine maintenance, engine-turned accessories like the alternator, power steering pump and A/C compressor were mounted under the stubby hood and driven via a single jackshaft called a Supplemental Accessory Drive System; yes, that shortens to “SADS.”
But the real sads stemmed from the engine’s piddly 135 horsepower. Yet because of the obvious packaging restrictions, it wasn’t possible to slide in a V6 or straight-six to satisfy the tastes of American right feet. Toyota’s solution? Add a Roots-type supercharger and intercooler (along with a slightly reduced compression ratio and beefier internals) to create the 2TZ-FZE, which gave a more acceptable 158 horsepower and actually improved fuel economy, since the extra power and torque meant the force-fed engine didn’t have to be caned as hard to do the same work. No, you couldn’t get the 5-speed manual transmission (that was discontinued at the close of the 1993 model year, while the S/C didn’t arrive ‘til the following year), but it’s still one of the most amusing peoplemovers ever offered on these shores.
Cadillac’s decision to return the STS (formerly Seville) to a rear-drive configuration for the first time since 1979 beginning with the 2004 model was greeted with murmurs of approval from driving enthusiasts. Two years later, their excitement was decidedly more apparent when the jewel in GM’s crown announced the STS-V. Utilizing the same supercharged 4.4L mutation of the division’s DOHC Northstar V8 as the XLR-V roadster (but tuned to make an extra 26 horsepower and 25 lb.-ft of torque, for 469 and 439 total) matched to a 6-speed automatic transmission, the STS-V was a not-quite-full-size Q-ship that, while not as hardcore as a CTS-V or as refined as a contemporary M5 or E55, could still provide drivers with sports car levels of entertainment.
Aston Martin DB7
After years of struggling to make ends meet, Aston Martin got one hell of a sugar daddy in the form of Ford Motor Company, starting with a partial ownership in 1987 and growing into full control in the early ‘90s. And the first all-new Aston Martin to feel the heavy Dearborn influence was the DB7. More than a few Aston aficionados bemoaned it as a parts bin special and, in fairness, it did make use of a fair number of parts from within the global Ford sphere (Oval?) of influence: Jaguar XJS chassis, Mazda 323F taillights and Miata front marker lights, a grab bag of Ford switchgear in the cabin, and even a variant of Jaguar’s second-generation DOHC inline-six (codename AJ6) under the bonnet.
However, said variant was shrunk down to 3.2L and fitted with a Roots style supercharger produced by Eaton. Its 335 horsepower and 361 lb.-ft of torque were both impressive figures by mid ‘90s standards (particularly when teamed with the available 5-speed manual transmission), but once the V12-powered DB7 Vantage arrived in 1999, it didn’t take long for interest in the six to drop off a cliff, and it was discontinued that same summer.
As the Pathfinder grew in size, prestige and price throughout the ‘90s, Nissan realized it needed a more rugged and affordable SUV if it wanted to keep doing battle with nemesis Toyota’s 4Runner in the North American market. Thus was born the Xterra, the first letter of its name a not-so-subtle nod to the generation at which it was targeted. The first three model years – 1999, 2000 and 2001 – offered buyers a choice of rear- or four-wheel-drive and a 2.4L inline-four or 3.3L V6.
Come 2002, the VG33E V6 gained 10 horsepower (for a total of 180), but even then it was no longer the most potent Xterra powerplant; instead, that responsibility fell to the supercharged version of that engine – dubbed VG33ER – that had debuted in the Frontier pickup the year before. Its 210 horsepower wasn’t a huge boost over the atmo version, but the 4-speed automatic version’s 246 lb.-ft of torque (231 lb.-ft if you went for the 5-speed stick) represented a sizable and usable bump over the unsupercharged V6’s 202. Yet when the second (and as it turned out, final) generation Xterra dropped in 2005, the only engine on offer was a naturally-aspirated 4.0L V6 which, while noticeably more potent at or near sea level, likely lost a large part of its advantage as the altimeter reading increased, whereas the force-fed 3.3’s output stayed pretty steady.
Mercedes-Benz C 230 Kompressor
The arrival of the Mercedes-Benz SLK for model year 1997 also saw the arrival of a supercharged version of the company’s iron block, aluminum head M111 2.3L inline-four. With 192 horsepower, it wouldn’t win very many drag races, but it gave the small folding hardtop roadster a decent amount of pep. However, not a lot of people remember that this engine made its way into the first-generation (W202) C-Class sedan beginning in 1999 for the U.S. market, giving rise to the C 230 Kompressor (which is “supercharger” auf Deutsch).
The blown M111 was carried over for the first couple of years of the Gen 2 W203 C-Class, until it was replaced for the 2003 model year by the new 1.8L M272 supercharged four making 189 horsepower, though the “230” in the name was retained despite the displacement drop. And unlike the automatic-only W202s, U.S. market W203 C 230 Kompressors, both sedans and the short-rumped hatchback C-Coupes, could be had with a 6-speed manual transmission in place of the (exponentially more popular) 5-speed automatic. No, neither generation of forced-induction four-pot Cs will be mistaken for a 3 Series when the road gets squiggly, but they are enjoyable and not-crazy-thirsty RWD compact premium runabouts.
Chevrolet Impala SS (2004-’05)
If enthusiasts were irked that Chevrolet applied the Impala name to its front-drive W-body Lumina replacement at the turn of the century, they were positively apoplectic when GM’s bluest-of-collar brands revived the Impala SS for the 2004 model year. Yes, the supercharged 3800 Series II 3.8L V6 (shared with a whole herd of other contemporary and prior large FWD GM performance models like the Pontiac Grand Prix GTP, Buick Park Avenue Ultra and Oldsmobile LSS, as well as the reborn-the-same-year Monte Carlo SS) made a hearty 240 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft of torque but, dammit, any wrong-wheel-drive Impy – especially one calling itself “Super Sport” – was wrong, man! Of course, we’d argue that this iteration of Impala SS was more worthy of the label than the 1962 to ’67 iterations equipped with the standard engine, which was the same untoasted-white-bread 235 c.i. (3.9L) straight-six of a base motor as any other full-size Chevy, but that’s none of our business…
Volkswagen Corrado G60
When Volkswagen decided to retire the second-generation Scirocco, it decided to move its Karmann-built sport coupe farther upscale. One of the things it did to accomplish this was change its name, to Corrado. Another was to strap a G-shaped supercharger (a.k.a. G-Lader) to the venerable VW Group 1.8L 8-valve inline-four to create the G60.
This engine’s 160 horsepower was stout for the time and certainly worthy of the Corrado’s racy looks. Yet VW had something even more potent waiting in the wings for 1992: The original 12-valve VR6. This ultra-narrow-angle 2.8L V6 made a hefty 179 horsepower, and the Euro-spec 2.9L unit made a heftier-still 187 horsepower, both without the parasitic loss and added complexity of an engine-driven compressor. A 16-valve G60 was considered (and at least two prototypes were built) but, ultimately, the suits in Wolfsburg decided the bigger, less-peaky engine would be the only power unit for North American buyers starting with the ’93 model year, though the Corrado would disappear from our shores after the following lap of the sun and worldwide the lap after that.
The 1957 Fords
Because Ford was the first of the Big Three’s low-priced brands to launch an overhead valve V8 (the 239 c.i. or 3.9L “Y-Block” in 1954), many figured Chevrolet and Plymouth would be playing catch-up for a while. Just one year later, though, it was clear Ford was the one caught with its pants around its ankles, as the 265 c.i./4.3L Chevy “Turbo-Fire” Small-Block V8 arrived with better packaging, better reliability (specifically in the area of valvetrain oiling) and more room for displacement growth, as it would eventually grow as large as 400 c.i./6.6L (with the aftermarket giving birth to even bigger ones). By contrast, Dearborn’s powertrain gurus could only punch the Y-Block out to 312 c.i. (5.1L) without severely compromising things like block integrity and oiling and coolant passage sizes, and even then they resorted to that just four years into the design’s life (with 256, 272 and 292 cubic inch versions being introduced along the way)!
The year 1957 also saw Chevy enlarge the Turbo-Fire to 283 c.i. (4.6L) and add mechanical fuel injection to the options menu, the more potent version of which achieving the magic on-horsepower-per-cubic-inch figure. But Ford was ready for this volley, for it had inked a deal with Paxton to purchase its McCulloch centrifugal superchargers and install them on upgraded 4-barrel 312 engines. Officially rated at 300 horsepower, this blown beast (known internally and by enthusiasts as the “F Engine” for its code letter) was available in any ’57 Ford passenger car or Thunderbird. Alas, this limited-production powerplant wasn’t enough to save the Y-Block, which disappeared from North American Ford and Mercury cars after 1960 and trucks in 1964.