Diesel deliverance in 2007?
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

They say you can't have your cake and eat it, too -- especially when it comes to high-mileage cars. The price you pay for passing the pump (or at least, stopping less often) is a downsized, down-powered ride that's not as roomy -- and definitely not as quick.

But "they" are misinformed.

Diesel-powered passenger cars offer fuel-efficiency comparable to the real-world performance of gas-electric hybrids -- typically, 40-something mpg on the highway and 30s around town -- in a larger, more satisfying package and without the high cost or the technological complexity. And they do so with superior, built-in longevity than either hybrids or conventional, gas-powered cars.

A well-cared-for diesel should run reliably for at least 200,000 miles; many routinely go 300,000 or more miles before requiring significant repair work. Few gas-powered cars reach 300,000 miles without some significant rehab. Most are getting tired around 150,000. And the "best case" life of a hybrid vehicle's battery pack(s) is about 8-10 years. Since hybrids are relative newcomers to the market, it's unclear what the cost will be to replace those battery packs when they are no longer able to hold a charge -- but the low end estimates are at least a few hundred dollars, or comparable to the cost of a transmission rebuild or major brake work.

If you factor in the longer service life/lower "over-the-road" upkeep costs of a diesel-powered vehicle vs. the more frequent repair/replacement costs of buying a new gas-powered (or hybrid) vehicle, the overall savings can be considerable.

Modern direct-injection diesel passenger car engines are also remarkably quiet, don't spew noxious clouds of sooty smoke -- and are capable of impressive high-power/performance. For example, the mid-sized BMW 330d turbo-diesel sport sedan offers 231-hp -- and nearly 400 lbs.-ft. of torque at 1,700 RPM. It can accelerate from 0-60 in just 6.7 seconds and has a top speed of 155 mph. It also returns as much as 43.5 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving. That's better mileage than most gasoline-fueled compacts -- and 10-15 mpg better than an otherwise similar in size/power/performance mid-sized sedan.

Unfortunately, the 330d is not yet available in North America. In fact, only a handful of diesel-powered passenger vehicles are currently offered for sale in the United States. These include the 2006 VW New Beetle TDI (base price $18,390) and Jetta TDI (base price $21,605) -- and alone among large luxury cars, the Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI (base price $51,050).

BMW does not offer the diesel versions of any of its passenger cars in the U.S. -- although they are widely available in European and other markets. Ditto Land Rover and several other automakers, who sell diesel-powered versions of many of their most popular models outside the United States. But not here.

The reason? The low quality of currently available diesel fuel in this country -- which has a high sulfur content relative to what's available in Europe. This makes it harder for modern passenger car diesel engines to pass strict emissions control requirements.

In addition to the federales, there are related concerns having to do with warranty/drivability issues.) Diesel fuel can also be harder to find in some areas of the country -- especially areas that aren't near major highways (and truck routes) or agricultural locales.

As a result of these factors -- and also because diesels have an undeserved "rep" for being noisy, slow-moving stinkpots (thanks, GM) -- automakers have been reluctant to offer them for sale here in large numbers.

The good news is the EPA has mandated that low-sulfur diesel fuel be available in the United States for air quality reasons beginning next year (2007). So that issue should be solved. And the escalating cost of gasoline (and the price gouging that's taking place on hybrids owing to their current popularity) means market conditions have never been more favorable for diesels. The keystone is the night and day difference between the diesel engines of the past and modern diesels -- which start immediately, even on cold days (no more waiting for the glow plugs to heat up) and are so smooth and quiet it's hard to even tell they're diesels without popping the hood.People who try them generally love them.

You probably will, too.

Expect to see a wider selection of diesel-powered passenger vehicles in all categories over the next few years. The economics are enormously appealing; the cars themselves, even more so. Excellent fuel economy; superior durability -- and power/performance every bit as good (if not better) than their equivalent gas-burning counterparts. It's a win-win deal.

They'll be well worth the wait.