I Tested Borla Performance’s New Turbo & Exhaust Upgrade for F-150 3.5-Liter EcoBoost

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Borla Performance

In 2009 Alex Borla, president and founder of Borla Performance, spent his hard-earned cash on a car not many people think about: a 1988 Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe.

During the emissions-choked dark ages of the ’80s, the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was forgotten in America, lost in the shadow of cars like the Buick Grand National, the Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z and the Ford Mustang GT. It wasn’t the prettiest of things, but it had a host of interesting tech: multi-port fuel injection, a limited-slip diff, automatic dampening and most importantly, a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that made 190 horsepower.

Alex first owned one of those 4-cylinder turbo Thunderbirds in the late 80’s because he saw them as “the future”. At the time everyone laughed at him not having a V8, but Alex knew then and there that small displacement and forced induction would be the future. Today, with emission standards getting stricter, much like they did in the ’80s, that prediction is overtly evident and true.

Today, most of the Porsche lineup is turbocharged, the top hypercars have turbocharged hybrid systems, F1 cars run turbos, and for the first time in the world, a full-size pickup truck comes straight from the factory with a turbocharged V6 engine in the Ford F-150 EcoBoost. The 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V6 came ready with 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque, and in doing so, completely changed the customer buying structure. Since then, Ford has doubled-down on green offerings with a second EcoBoost engine—this time a 2.7-liter—but the 3.5 remains the lineup’s torque darling and is only 20 horses behind the 5-liter V8. Because of that, Ford has sold more than 1 million EcoBoost models. A dominating majority of Ford trucks sold come with turbochargers. That’s a massive departure from tradition, but it’s also a good thing from a progress standpoint.

“I think it’s great,” Borla Performance Special Project Manager Ola Lysenstoen said. “Look where it’s gotten us. I remember in the ’80s, the Corvette came out in ’86 with 250 horsepower. It was the most powerful car you could buy in the U.S. Then you look at today, and with a little chip, my Audi has 250 horsepower from a 2.0-liter turbocharged engine. Where does that come from? The quest for mileage. So we get mileage and power. The technology that’s come along with it, I fully embrace it. We can go fast and be clean too.”

Being fast while being clean is one thing, but can they still be cool? Can they deliver the same experience?

“Usually, in these big, heavy trucks, you’re just ramming the biggest V8 you can get in there, so it’s pretty crazy,” David Borla said. “If you just look at the numbers, the six-cylinder is definitely a badass, but the V8 sounds different and it’s definitely got a culture.”

That culture and that difference are part of the reason the guys at Borla saw a need for the turbocharged truck. Anybody who has heard the EcoBoost engines running in the F-150s knows that something is missing. It’s not necessarily that the sound is so much different; it’s more that there really isn’t much sound, at least directly from the engine block. You hear the turbos winding up like a wind tunnel, and that’s it. The Oxnard, Califiornia-based sound specialists took notice of that.

Borla Performance

Resurrecting That Classic Ford Feel

“There’s still an expectation from the end user to maintain the history, not of Borla, but of the Ford truck,” David said. “So the challenge for us is to give them the same feeling with a completely different architecture. Our job is much different, and it takes a completely different approach to get there, but you’re trying to get to the same place. That motor has a particular sound and particular sound signature, especially the turbos and turbo spool. It’s a completely different exhaust system than we would have done 10 or 15 years ago. But at the end of the day, we kind of want the guy who gets into the truck to still feel the same way he did 10 years ago.”

The new challenge got Borla Performance thinking. As major players and proponents of the “spirit of the aftermarket,” it was time to take another step forward and offer a package that extended beyond the exhaust and over to the induction side. Through previous connections, Borla Performance had an in with BorgWarner, one of the biggest turbocharger manufacturers in the world.

About three years ago, the two began working together to produce specialized turbochargers. Now they have a near-exclusive relationship for these F-150 products (BorgWarner allowed another company into the mix).

“We looked around for suitable personnel, and built a structure internally in order to start with turbochargers, which Borla Performance has not been known for in the past,” Lysenstoen said. “We’ve literally built an organization up underneath this product line in order to launch it. It’s not a one-shot deal. We’re in it for the long term, and we have the appropriate personnel to do the engineering, the development, and the marketing.”

Singing the Right Tune

You can’t just slap bigger turbos on and bolt on a previously crafted exhaust, though. Well, you can, but you wouldn’t be getting optimal performance, and the the sound might not be right. In order to make everything perfect, Borla is offering a more complete upgrade kit for $4,495 that includes two OEM hi-performance turbochargers, a Borla True Dual Cat-Back Exhaust, an SCT X4 Tuner with a custom tune from 5 Star Tuning, a high-flow Airfilter, and six NGK spark plugs.

From that you get up to a 160-horsepower boost, and a drastic sound makeover that would make Ty Pennington proud. Unlike many other aftermarket exhaust products, Borla’s products are not simply bigger, longer, or wider pipes and a muffler off the shelf. This system was specifically crafted for the 3.5-liter EcoBoost.

Borla Performance

“We start off by recognizing what the sound signature is for a particular engine,” Lysenstoen said. From there, we understand we need to tune it down in this area, or amplify it in this area, and from there, we start building prototypes. Those prototypes allow us to fine-tune and narrow in on that target. We make judgement calls based on what that signature is, and make modifications to the internals, lengths and diameters, etc. We use all the tricks that modern performance cars would have, but in a turbocharged truck application.”

A turbo-V6 presents all sorts of issues that could prevent a pleasant sound experience in the truck’s cabin.

“V6s are prone to drone or resonances,” Lysenstoen said. “The next issue with the V6 is that it has two turbos on it. The turbos will chop up, or attenuate the sound all by themselves. It makes it more challenging to make it sound good or crisp, so it does have a little bit of a muted hoarseness to it. You have two things going on: You have more pressure building up in front of the turbine wheel and waste gate. And this pressure acts as its own little attenuation chamber, and the higher the pressure, the more attenuation you get, which is why many exhaust systems have higher back pressure in them; they’re using that pressure to attenuate the sound. And with the turbocharger, you get the same thing. A lot of the sound is reduced before it even comes out of the turbo.”

Borla Performance

Sound Engineering

There are multiple setups you can choose for the exhaust. There is touring, S-Class, or ATAK (loudest), and in addition to that, you can either leave your stock cats on or use high-performance cats. There is also the option between rear duals or side exit.

“Its really easy to make an exhaust system loud,” David said. The loudest exhaust system is no exhaust system. Just pull off as much as you can or just put straight pipes on the whole thing. It’s usually obnoxious, and they sound terrible inside the vehicle. It’s really difficult to make an exhaust system loud and sound good.”

In order to really hone in on what works and what doesn’t, Borla has a system that maps out the sound in a physical, readable form.

“We go out with a laptop with what we call binaural headphones, which are in the exact position of where the driver’s ears are going to be, and we put five different microphones in and throughout the vehicle,” David said. “We have a program that overlays RPM, speed, and the frequency, so we can see what’s going on frequency-wise from each of these microphones at different speeds and RPMs. We’ll set the cruise control to 65 or 70, which is where the majority of drone issues are, and we’ll sit there and say, ‘OK, 130k: it’s got way too much of that.’ Then we use technology to eliminate 130k. Or we’ll look at it and say, ‘There’s a big dip here. It’s hollow. It doesn’t have it,’ but we know we need more of this size pipe to bring that out.”

Most people think of exhausts as a few pieces of metal thrown together. Borla sees it as an exact science, and it is that precision that allows its products to sound so good. And trust me, they sound fantastic. After watching the team piece this one-of-a-kind project together in its fabrication and R&D center about an hour and a half north of L.A., I saw them run the dynometer and was fortunate enough to drive the truck with two different setups.

The key with these exhausts is to hear and feel the sound when you want it, and not have to worry about it being overbearing or annoying when you’re putzin’ around town or cruising at steady speeds on the highway. With the right setup, the BorgWarner Borla Performance F-150 EcoBoost gives you that.

The Road Test

On my first drive, the F-150 had the all-out ATAK exhaust with Borla Performance’s high-flow cats, and that was seemingly about as loud as you’re going to hear an EcoBoost get while still having all the metalwork on the truck. When you punched it, this thing absolutely yelled. And it wasn’t just a blaring WAHHH. It had a lot more character to it. It was more throaty. At startup, of course, it wasn’t the same glub, glub, glub you’d get from the V8, but the sound has so much more bass to it. It’s low, more serious, and definitely gives you a burble when you’re idling or pulling out of a parking lot.

When I took it out for a spin, I tried it in almost all stages of driving. I drove around 25-mph zones in brief stop-and-start traffic, stomped on it on near-empty roads, took it on the highway and got up to speeds around 70 mph, sat at 70, and kicked it into gear multiple times in the 40-60-mph range. When you get on the gas, it puts a smile on your face, but when you let off or when you’re sticking to one speed, it’s not extremely intrusive. With the ATAK, you’re going to get big sound a large majority of the time, to the point that somebody in the car with me didn’t think the cats and ATAK together were a good idea long-term, but I’ve heard much worse. Let’s just say it wasn’t shaking me to my core or nailing my eardrums, and I never once had an issue hearing the other two people (one in the back seat) during our conversation.

My second drive was the with stock cats and the ATAK exhuast, and there was a pretty significant difference. This truck’s final destination is going to be in and around L.A., so the guys decided to put the stock cats back on and were considering going one level quieter with the S-Type exhaust. The note is a little more subdued, but you’re still going to have people looking to the street expecting some sort of muscle car driving through. If you don’t want as much attention, the Touring or S-Type would be the move.

The wild part about all of this is that you get the turbos spooling up with the exhaust, so you get sound coming at you from all over, and that’s a pretty cool feeling. There are lots of layers to the experience, which in my opinion, is a great thing.

Five grand is a lot of money, but for such a complete package and such an improvement in both power and sound, you’re going to have an extremely hard time finding something comparable, whether you’re trying to replicate it yourself or find it from another manufacturer.

And the F-150 is just the beginning for the company’s new division. Naturally, the EcoBoost Mustang is also on the docket, as well as its competitor: the 2.0-liter turbocharged Chevrolet Camaro. Borla Performance’s impact on the aftermarket industry continues in a big way, and the new projects can been seen at this year’s SEMA show, where there will be both the F-150 and a Camaro on display.

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Photos via: [Borla Performance]

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