Monday, September 29, 2008

Bravo! European Diesels impress Consumer Reports; Diesels for U.S. Market on the Way

OK, car buffs. How would you like to drive a 2009 Audi A4 that has 236 horsepower, shove-you-back-in-your-seat acceleration of 369 lb-ft of torque and still get 36 miles per gallon? You would?

Better get on an airplane, then. This Audi isn't sold in the U.S. Neither is the 2008 Mini Cooper D, (the "D" stands for diesel), that gets 60 mpg, or a 2007 BMW 123d hatchback, another diesel, which gets 45 mpg. (These are European mpg ratings.)

In fact, in 2007, Europeans had a choice of 113 vehicles that got 40 mpg or better, according to a report from The Civil Society Institute's All were made either by U.S.-based manufacturers or those with substantial U.S. sales operations like Nissan and Toyota.  Many, if not most of these were diesels; half the new cars sold in Europe these days are diesels. 

The car wonks from Consumer Reports got to test-drive a sample of these European vehicles recently at the annual International Motor Press Association track days at Pocono Raceway, and they were mightily impressed. They gave the 2009 Audi the highest marks, and their only objection to the other diesels was that they weren't "quite as smooth as the best gas engines." 

I've been driving a 2002 Jetta diesel since 2004, when I bought it used. The advantage of a diesel like mine over hybrids like the Toyota Prius is that it has better acceleration and handles like a big car on an Interstate, keeping up with the traffic, at 80 mph. And gets 43 mpg all the while. (No, I'm not being paid by Volkswagen!) Hybrids like the Prius, which I've test-driven, are best in stop-and-go city driving, especially where the terrain is flat and the gas engine doesn't have to go to work. 

We've been languishing without new diesel car choices in the U.S. for years now, mainly because California's air resources board put human health over conservation, a position it's hard to argue with. In smoggy California, the pollution created by old-technology diesels, particularly emissions of tiny particles implicated as a cause of asthma, outweighed diesels' better mileage and lower emissions of carbon dioxide of about 20 percent. So they banned sales of new diesel cars in California, and when other big states like New York followed their example, the manufacturers stopped selling them even in states where they were not banned.

That's changing now as car manufacturers have finally met California's air quality standards. About a dozen new diesels are now available, according to the Diesel Technology Forum. Unfortunately, this group is heavily skewed toward high-priced luxury cars like the Mercedes E320 Bluetec, which will knock you back nearly $60,000 once you pay the taxes and other fees. And its fuel economy is only 23 mpg, city, and 32, highway.

The only reasonably priced model yet available is the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta, which gets 30 mpg, city, and 41, highway. (Compare that to 21 city, 29 highway for the gas version.) You also get a $1,300 fed tax credit if you are one of the first 60,000 people to buy the car.  But wait a year or so, and there will be a lot more choices.

Of course, diesel car fuel is now more expensive than gasoline. But the difference in price, at least in my corner of Long Island, New York, is no more than 15 percent. (About $4.55 a gallon versus about $4, or a bit less, for regular gasoline) Diesels extract a lot more than 15 percent more miles from a gallon, so you're still way ahead. Beyond the dollars, however, you'd also be conserving a great deal of oil and cutting CO2 emissions 20%. The same model car with a diesel engine instead of gas gets between 20 and 40% better mileage. Furthermore, diesel engines just run and run and run, often to 200,000 or 300,000 miles.

Of course, it was my hope that I'd be filling my car with truly clean biodiesel now; that prospect is what tipped me into buying my used Jetta. That hasn't happened yet because this alternative fuel is still scarce in my part of the world. But that's another story...


Allen Schaeffer said...

Bravo on this piece! - With one additional perspective -- diesel cars have never been banned for sale in California or the US. Manufacturers made a business decision to bring them to market only when cleaner diesel fuel became available and when they could meet vehicle emissions standards in all 50 states. That time is now -- the new diesels are 50 state certified and have federal tax credits $$$$$ for their takers.
See the new models at

TQ said...

Thanks for the info, I'm opposed to the hybrids because of EMF concerns, so diesel would make a nice compromise for someone like me. Right now I'm enjoying a brand-new Passat (non-diesel), but now I have an alternative to look into.