I found this ad while leafing through a January 1981 National Geographic with an awesome feature on the Mount St. Helens eruption. To the dismay of many of our readers, I actually did not know Chevy Monte Carlo ever came with a turbo option. For one thing, I thought boosted V6s were exclusively Buick’s speciality (other than 1989’s Trans Am turbo) and for another, with only 3,027 sold for 1981, such cars can fairly be called obscure. On the other hand, I shouldn’t have been surprised when GM surely needed to spread the costs of developing the forced-induction 3.8 and restricting it to only one division wouldn’t be the most sensible option. Let’s explore this short-lived wonder a bit more, shall we?
The Monte Carlo turbo was actually added to the line up the in 1980. 13,839 of these were sold, making them a lot more common than the restyled 1981 featured in the ad above. Other engines for 1981 included a 229 CID (3.8 liter) Chevy V6, a 231 (3.8 liter) Buick V6 (for California), a 267 (4.4 liter) Chevy V8 and a Chevy 305. With 170 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque to the 305’s 155 and 240, the turbocharged 3.8 Buick V6 mostly distinguished itself with reportedly marked lag and similar real-world economy.
News of the disappointment apparently spread rapidly resulting in a pronounced sophomore slump. This, despite the addition of computer control and a lock-up torque convertor for the turbo’s second sales season. The turbo was gone for 1982, though the Monte Carlo did get a 4.3 liter diesel V6 and 5.7 diesel V8 as “compensation.” Both would be gone by 1985.
Chevrolet offered the turbo V6 on both trim levels, but did not offer a performance package as Buick did. The Monte Carlo was meant to conform to a very conventional understanding of elegance and as such, could not be ordered with such vulgar touches as a tachometer or boost gauge, even when equipped with F41 suspension and the optional gauge package, which added a water temp gauge and giant clock, à la Jetta diesel.
The Regal, on the other hand, benefited from an options package which added a lower (numerically higher) rear axle ratio, higher-stall torque converter and dual exhausts–all of which aided low speed response and added five horsepower to the upper midrange where the turbo really proved itself against the Chevy 305.
Chevy would abandon forced induction as well as formal styling for the Monte Carlo, going for a more old school muscle car approach with 1983’s SS, but Buick stuck with the turbo 3.8 and refined it considerably over the next few years. As it turned out, the biggest potential it offered was not in increased economy as much as increased performance. This is a seemingly forgotten lesson today, with the newest crop of small displacement, forced induction engines often providing disappointing real-world fuel economy but formidable performance (I’m looking at you, Ford EcoBoost) or decent torque and economy but middling performance (GM’s soon-to-be-replaced 1.4 turbo).
Had Chevy hung on until a proper multi-point fuel injection system was offered (beginning in 1984), the SS might’ve been a very different car. Ironically, it was Buick’s quest for improved economy and emissions which ultimately and unquestionably gave them the fastest of the sport-oriented G-body coupes.