Australia crashed the turbo party almost by accident. Put that down to the Commodore VL Turbo. The last of the line of the original Commodore shape was an odd thing; a stop-gap model that should have staggered to obsolescence given it was replaced just three years later by the brave new VN. Yet it earned a place in the hearts of enthusiasts via the fickle hand of legislation.
Unleaded fuel rules spelled the end for the old Holden Black straight-six engine, so a deal with Nissan was done to fit the Skyline's RB30E in the 1986 VL. This was followed six months later by the turbocharged RB30ET variant. Available in SL, Berlina and ritzy Calais trims, it's fair to say we liked it.
Back in August 1986, Wheels wrote: “The engine is silky smooth and flexible. Accelerating with wide-open throttle the turbo’s up to maximum boost pressure and into full stride as it clears the 2400rpm mark. Equally importantly, it willingly works right down to 1500rpm or less. It may lack the raw bottom-end punch of the bigger engines when accelerated from lowly speeds, but there’s no real suggestion of turbo lag either. What you get is immediate response which gathers strength very quickly as the revs rise to two-five ... The turbo may, however, prove to have more performance everywhere when ranged against the coming VL unleaded 4.9-litre V8...”
1987 Holden Commodore: VL Turbo vs Group A V8
To a certain degree, Ford made it easier for Holden to offer its flagship sedan with an exclusively six-cylinder line up (albeit temporarily), having dropped the V8 from its XE line up some four years earlier. It wouldn't be until 2002 that Ford finally appreciated the benefits of a turbo six, and while the VL Turbo has achieved cult status, the blown Barra lump is unarguably the hero engine.
Where the old Holden made a hearty 150kW, the 3984cc overhead cam Barra was good for a massive 240kW. Let's put that figure into the perspective of 2002. Back then, a 911 GT3 only made 25kW more, and here was Ford offering that much power in a $44K sedan. It upset the hierarchy somewhat, its 14.2s 400m time eclipsing its XR8 sibling by 0.2sec.
With a lighter front end, the XR6T was nimbler than the XR8 too, and its sports suspension package was developed with the help of John Bowe. Unlike the VL Turbo, the early five-speed manual's not the preferred gearbox; the sequential four-speed auto does a solid job of keeping the turbo fizzing. A six-speed Tremec T56 manual appeared in 2004.
We're not sure who coined the phrase, ‘Aussies love V8s but buy sixes’, but the Commodore VL Turbo and the Ford Falcon XR6 Turbo are two vehicles that were transformed for the better by forced induction, in effect doing much of the heavy lifting for the image of the straight-six.
COPS AND ROBBERS
The VL Turbo BT1 interceptor, commissioned by Victoria Police, featured a larger fuel tank and striking yellow paint. Contrary to much rumour, the Garrett T03 turbocharger wasn't wicked up for pursuit duties. It made much the same 0-100km/h in 7.6sec as the civilian-spec car, just so long as that massive tank (up to 90 litres) wasn't brimmed. Look out for cloned cars.
Although the Garrett GT40 ball-bearing turbocharger only ran at a modest 0.4 bar, the assistance of an air-to-air intercooler saw the XR6 Turbo make 58kW more than its atmo sibling. The 240kW power figure was enough to beat Holden's VY Commo SV8 with its 235kW LS1, and more low-end torque and smarter gearing also made the Ford able to get the drop on the Commo at the lights.
2002 FORD BA FALCON XR6 TURBO BUYER GUIDE
Current value: $7500 - $10,000
What to look for: Flaky central locking, warped brake discs, worn rear suspension bushings, auto gearbox heat exchangers, and boot floor rust.
1986 HOLDEN COMMODORE VL TURBO
Current value: $20,000-$45,000
What to look for: Sun-wrecked plastics, warped cylinder heads, failed brake boosters and sagging headlining. Avoid lowered suspensions and overboosted examples. Original five-speed manuals and ex-cop interceptors are sought after.
Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the humble turbocharger and its miraculous power-boosting abilities.