Rising gas prices lure drivers to diesels

The light-weight hybrid — especially Toyota’s Prius and Honda’s Civic — remains the popular choice of environmentally-aware car buyers, pushing annual hybrid sales to 345,000 (up 35 percent over 2006) and often leaving customers waiting for months for their green machine.

As pump prices continue to climb there’s a new entry vying for attention on the eco roadway. It’s the familiar diesel that’s been newly refined to reduce unwanted emissions while retaining its ability to squeeze the most energy out of every gallon in the tank.

A spot check of Twin Cities Toyota and Honda dealers revealed that new hybrids are available where you once had to wait for months. But things are different at Volkswagen, with its popular Jetta TDI (for turbo diesel).

“I don’t have a diesel available, but I’d be happy to put you on my list,” said John Sabastian at Schmeltz VW in St. Paul.

Recent events have brought new interest in the diesel:

First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) changed its fuel-efficiency rating to better reflect actual driving, and the hybrid took a big hit. Rather than achieving upwards of 60 miles per gallon (mpg) as previously and widely reported, EPA’s new ratings reflect what hybrid drivers were getting — from 40 to 44 mpg highway, but better in the city.

The hybrid is a gasoline engine and electric motor that are synced to shut off and turn on depending on energy requirements. Because the system relies on its electric motors in slower city driving while capturing energy from slowing and braking in stop-go traffic, its in-city mpg is better than on the road.

More power from diesels
Unlike the complicated and relatively new hybrid technology, the diesel engine is time-tested and simple. Its cylinders compress and superheat air so that fuel explodes as it’s injected. No sparkplugs are needed to ignite the fuel, which means no complicated electrical systems. Diesel fuel contains more energy per gallon than gas, so its in-city mileage tops 40 mpg with drivers often getting 45 mpg on the highway.

Diesels pack more power than their gasoline counterparts. Drivers report their small cars are zippy and the engine remains popular in large and small trucks that require power.

In Europe, where pump prices are three times higher than in the United States, the diesel engine is under the hood of more than 50 percent of the cars.

But in the United States, the diesel retains a negative image of a clanking engine spewing sooty exhaust. It didn’t help when in the 1980s General Motors produced a faulty diesel (its poorly designed engine block wasn’t capable of withstanding extreme heat) and left consumers wary about the engine’s worth in cars.

Growing market
Germany is the world leader in making quality diesels that more and more are finding their way into U.S. Today’s diesels are much less sooty and noisy, and even the problem of cold weather starts is a thing of the past.

In the United States diesel vehicles account for 3.5 percent market share, mostly because of trucks. That’s expected to grow to 5 percent by 2010. As Volkswagen struggles to keep up with demand for its Jetta TDI, other carmakers will join in: Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai all have reported they will produce diesels for the U.S. market. Increased marketing will naturally focus more attention on diesel engines.

The hybrid car market is expected to continue growing with at least seven new models challenging Prius’s dominance. J.D. Power foresees the gas/electric hybrid market to continue impressive growth to just under 5 percent of the U.S. market by 2010; it’s at about 3 percent now.

Meantime, what’s an environmentally conscious consumer to do?

Regardless of what’s under the hood, the key is to buy small. Weight and engine size, combined with things like tire size (and pressure) and aerodynamics, determine how much energy is needed to get down the road. Big and bulky requires much more fuel, which is why large SUVs and the Hummer are considered eco scourges.

Both the hybrid and diesel qualify for limited tax breaks.

For in-city driving, it’s tough to beat the hybrid. Sure, the technology is complicated, but favorable warranties show manufacturer confidence in their product (if you buy used, watch out for the replacement costs for batteries).

But if much of your driving is on the highway, the diesel is worth a look.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Scott Pollino on 11/20/2007 - 11:05 am.

    Diesel costs more per gallon than gas.
    Diesel has more power than gas.
    Gas costs more than E85.
    Gas has more power than E85.

    Would someone do an anlysis of miles per dollar? Or is that too many variables?

  2. Submitted by John N. Finn on 11/20/2007 - 12:34 pm.

    I’m aware of the benefits of diesel. However, I’m dreading their continued proliferation in pickup trucks. They’re worse than Harleys as far as extreme noise is concerned.

  3. Submitted by Francis Ferrell on 11/20/2007 - 02:01 pm.

    Diesel fuels [petro-based] at present cost more that gas but low cost bio-diesel and syn-diesel fuels are here but need to be produced in quantity. Otto Diesel built his first engine using peanut oil to power his new invention. Willy Nelson and company is producing a bio-diesel that is practically 100% vegetable oil!!! Recent experiments with recycled fast food fat and oil wastes show what can be done for bio-diesel and jet fuels. All this at less than $.75 to $1.00 per gallon!
    Diesel engines can be quiet, smokeless, and totally EPA certified regardless of size. Just ask the Germans and/or the Swedish engineers who are producing fantastic engineering results with bio/synthetic diesel fuels operating under autobahn and high mpg standards. The fastest diesel powered vehicle record [373mph] was done with a bio/syn diesel fuel! Also, new generation GE, P&W, and Rolls-Royce jet engines can run on variable high grade bio diesel fuels made from fast food restaurant oils and fats!
    I’ve been driving diesels for years; buses, tractors, and trucks. My last two of three light p/u trucks; VW, and Chevy LUV/Isuzu; gave me years of 50-53 mpg(hwy) with 38-44 mpg (city). This is with general preventative maintenance care with 225,000 to 280,000 miles on the odometer!!! In both cases, I could pass MN EPA auto emissions standards, which I did on several occasions, until I was diesel exempted. Also, my trucks were quiet, smokeless, and dependable for for about $.06-$.08 cents per mile ops costs. (This includes fuel, insurance, and maintenance.) In one instance, I carried in one truck 2800# cargo for 350 miles only using only 7-1/2 gallons of fuel!
    The future holds great promise for diesels and/or diesel-electric drives but let’s get the diesel production and education going. Most of the world has seen the light. Why must everything run on gasoline???
    I can’t wait to buy a next generation diesel vehicle when it comes out. Let’s go Detroit make those vehicles.

  4. Submitted by ralph propst on 11/20/2007 - 09:17 pm.

    Hi
    I used diesel in heavy equipment for many years and am glad I don’t any more. Maybe the new ones start better in winter but I am not willing to pay the price of a new vehicle to find out.

    I now use a bicycle in town and short country trips. I estimated that I get 500 miles to the gallon of human oil.
    I now drive a vehicle less than 3000 miles per year thru intelligent driving by planning all of my vehicle trips so that I run all of my errands and need only go to a larger city once a week. My car gets 30 mpg and so I only use about 250- 300 dollars for gasoline per year. No way I could justify replacing my paid off vehicle to gain afew mpgs per gallon with a diesel.

    But to all of you who need to travel a lot and need a new car maybe a nice modern diesel would work. Although many of my farm friends are seeing a shortage of diesel this fall so I have to wonder if we all switched to diesel if the supply could keep up with demand.

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