Update: Our 2013 Diesel Cars in the USA article is now available!
In the market for a vehicle and thinking about buying a new diesel car in 2012? It’s an idea worth considering.
From images of long-haul trucking, to nightmares of sitting in the back of a grandparent’s noxious Olds vista cruiser diesel, Americans haven’t shown too much interest in diesel cars in the past. Yet with the economy still in the doldrums, and gas prices rising faster than an express elevator, diesel cars are suddenly getting a lot more attention.
The good news is that many of the world’s manufacturers make great diesel products. The bad news is that lack of domestic demand and tightening budgets mean that few have been certified for sale in the U.S. The EPA has more stringent requirements than Europe does for controlling NOx – Nitric Oxide, the key compound that produces smog. The technology to meet these standards exists, but it’s expensive (to develop, manufacture and certify), which is why many of the diesels you see on the market in the U.S. are at the high end of the price range.
This issue is also the reason why there are so many diesel cars available in other countries that are not available in the United States. Simply put, it’s so expensive to develop a diesel engine that meets US emissions standards that most manufacturers don’t bother. Particularly since diesels have never been a popular engine choice in the US market.
It also doesn’t help that the average price per gallon of diesel in the U.S. (as of June 2011) is 25 cents more than gasoline. However, a diesel’s increased miles per gallon means that it usually comes out ahead on overall savings, thus the new surge in consumer interest. Check out this article for more on the differences between American and European diesel markets.
Nonetheless, there are some excellent diesel alternative cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks for sale in America right now.
Here’s the lineup. We’re still adding photos of these cars as the 2012 photos become available.
Audi is a marketing leader when it comes to diesel, despite having a small product offering in showrooms. Recent Superbowl ads, dominance in sports car racing with diesel-engined winners, and several global awards have put Audi TDI Clean Diesel Technology in the forefront of many shoppers minds. Availability is a concern, as evidenced during a recent trip to a local Audi dealer when a dealer informed me earliest delivery would be in 4 months. However a quick search on cars.com and autotrader.com showed there are indeed TDIs available — you just have to be prepared to take a drive to get one.
A3 TDI – The A3 currently for sale will be replaced by an updated model for 2012. Expect the same award-winning handling and performance/economy balance. New will be a fresh interior, bringing the A3 up to date with the latest Audi A8 and A6 designs. The exterior too will be new, and offer for the first time a sedan variant (the current model is offered only as a compact wagon). Fuel economy will likely remain unchanged as Audi has not indicated the current TDI engine will be replaced by a vastly different unit. MSRP of the 2011 A3 TDI is $30,250, and a slight increase in price is likely for the 2012 model. Fuel economy is the A3’s strong suit, and it’s doubtful that the 30 city/42 highway MPG figures will decrease at all.
Q7 TDI – The Q7 will remain unchanged for the 2012 model year. Unlike the much smaller A3, the Q7 is a full-size luxury SUV. The engine up front is bigger, while performance is similar. Fuel economy however drops considerably from its little brother. Car & Driver magazine observed an average of 22 MPG in testing. Prices start at $51,450 for a TDI Q7.
BMW is well-known in Europe for their sublime diesel engines, and we’ve been enjoying one of those engines in several models here in the U.S. for the past few years. BMW is planning a replacement of the 3 series for 2012, with no indication if a diesel model will remain available. The rumormill is rife with stories of the 3.0 diesel currently offered making its way into other models, but there has been no confirmation from the manufacturer.
3 Series – What is certain is that BMWs bread-and-butter 335d model is getting replaced for 2012. Expect new styling, new interior design, an optional turbo 4-cylinder gas engine and an 8-speed automatic. What is unclear at this point is whether the 335d engine from last year will continue, or if we will get a new diesel engine, or if the diesel option will be discontinued altogether. A hybrid is also rumored. The current 335d gets 23/36 MPG. Expect the new model to improve upon that figure. MSRP is not available.
X5 xDrive35d – Refreshed for 2011, the X5 family of SUVs soldiers on with few significant changes for 2012. The well-regarded diesel option remains 19/26 MPG for close to the current MSRP of $51,800. Buyers love the regular X5 for its uncanny mix of road car smoothness and handling, with the high seating position and cargo room of a crossover. The 35d keeps the fuel bills reasonable.
Chevy hasn’t made a diesel passenger car in years, but they do offer the GM family Duramax 6.6L V8 turbodiesel in several full-size trucks and vans. Fuel economy is improved slightly from the standard V8 models, but the real draw here is monster torque to haul serious cargo. If your primary focus is hauling and you love the Bowtie brand, look no further. Update: Chevrolet has announced they will release a diesel version of the Cruze in 2013.
Express Cargo & Passenger Van - Prices start at $38,000 for the Cargo model, $44,000 for the passenger version. These vans are large, sturdy traditional full-size vans. Minivan shoppers won’t be able to fit these in a typical garage. However, if you own a small business the Express family of vans are a good value for hauling maximum cargo. Mileage figures were not given by Chevrolet.
Silverado 2500/3500 – Pickup trucks for power users, the Silverado 2500 is the smallest truck buyers can get with the optional Duramax diesel. Power is king with this admittedly pricey option (which must be bundled with a heavy-duty Allison automatic transmission) bringing the entry price to $37,800. However 765lbs/ft of twist is enough to haul a 30-foot boat, or yank stumps from the ground. According to Chevy, expect fuel economy improvements of 15% or greater with the Duramax diesel engine.
Dodge / Ram Diesels
Dodge has recently spun the Ram brand off as a separate entity, encompassing its full range of pickup trucks. The idea was to distinguish Dodge products in the showroom as sporty, powerful cars, while the Ram brand could focus on a full range of truck products.
Ram Pickup 2500/3500 – The Ram 2500 is the starting point for diesel Ram trucks. A 6.7L Cummins turbo diesel engine that hits the pavement with 350hp and 650lbs/ft is optional on the 2500 and standard on the 3500. MPG figures are not given by Ram, but the manufacturer cites a 15% improvement over the standard engine when towing, hauling or traversing challenging terrain. MSRP for a base Ram with the Cummins package is $35,400, but can vary by region.
Ford is another player in the diesel pickup market domestically. Overseas, however, buyers of smaller Fords have enjoyed diesel engines for years, including in the Focus and Mondeo mid-size sedan (which is not sold here). Unfortunately, that trend doesn’t look to be changing any time soon, as Ford US has committed to investment in hybrid and electric technology for domestic cars. Nevertheless, these technologies are far too young to replace the big diesel V8s in Ford trucks for the foreseeable future.
Superduty F250/350/450 – Powered by a Ford-designed 6.7L engine marketed as the Powerstroke, the Superduty line of Ford trucks was designed to maintain Ford’s market dominance. Offering buyers the most power and ability in their class, the 400hp and 800lbs/ft of torque neatly wins numbers bragging rights. Ford claims a 20% fuel economy improvement over their previous diesel. Count on stylish interiors, and class-leading options packages. Prices start at $36,550 for a base F250XL with the Powerstroke diesel.
What goes for Chevrolet goes for GMC. The GMC brand exists as a truck-only division of GM (much like Ram for Dodge Chrysler), many of which are rebranded Chevrolet products. So the Chevy Express van becomes the Savanna, and the Silverado 2500/3500 are the GMC Sierra 2500HD and 3500HD.
Where GMC pulls ahead is a focus on luxury, offering Denali versions of the Sierra trucks. The focus in the Denali models is interior features, additional sound deadening, exterior styling improvements from the regular models, and standardization of many desirable features and packages. For 2012 the GMC diesel lineup remains unchanged. Prices are similar to comparable Chevy models, while the Denali line with the Duramax diesel starts at $44,000.
Part of Honda’s global strategy is to provide engines appropriate to each market. As a result, Honda Europe offers a 2.2L turbo diesel in the Accord, Civic, and CRV. Despite interest from diesel fans stateside, Honda continues to pursue an exclusively hybrid and fuel cell strategy in the United States, and is likely to discontinue diesel development altogether globally.
With each successive generation, Hyundai’s offerings only get better. In the rest of the world, Hyundai does offer diesel alternatives to gas and hybrids. For the foreseeable future that looks unlikely to change, especially given Hyundai’s introduction of the Sonata Hybrid and several electric concepts at recent domestic auto shows.
Nissan’s luxury brand has expanded into Europe recently, and now offers a diesel V6 engine for the complete range. There are no plans to bring that engine here.
The Jeep brand has had diesels engines up until recently, when the Liberty and Grand Cherokee models were redesigned. Jeep will not have any diesel models for 2012, but the big industry buzz is on the 2013 introduction of a brand-new diesel engine for the Grand Cherokee. Prices have not yet been released. Jeep is now part of the Fiat empire, so the engine is sourced from VM Motori, another Fiat division. Early tests of the powerplant are promising, showing 20/26 MPG. The Wrangler and Liberty models are available overseas with smaller diesel engines, but Jeep has not confirmed that either will be available in the U.S. by 2013.
Jaguar / Land Rover Diesels
One brand that has had much success in Europe with diesel is Land Rover / Range Rover. That trend continues for 2012 with the new compact Evoque. The U.S. will be getting the new baby Range Rover, but not the European diesel option. The 2.2L diesel introduced with this compact crossover is also going to be available on the Jaguar XF, however there are no plans for a U.S. introduction at this time. The rest of the Land Rover European family continues with a range of efficient, powerful and reliable turbo diesels. Hopefully Land Rover and Range Rover will see fit to offer one of them optionally in the U.S. in the future.
The zoom-zoom brand is slated to introduce the Skyactiv engine family next year. These economical gas engines are tipped to provide diesel-like economy while burning regular gasoline. In the interim, Mazda Europe has developed diesels for all models aside from the RX8 and MX roadster. None of these diesels are for sale in the U.S. now, but there are rumors that a 4-cylinder diesel engine could be hitting our shores in late 2012 — possibly for one of their SUV models.
Mercedes Benz Diesels
If any company has kept the glowplugs lit for diesel it has to be Mercedes Benz. They have offered a diesel engine in their domestic lineup for decades. Thankfully, the 2012 Mercedes lineup doesn’t show that changing. The core of their diesel family is the 3.0L V6 BlueTEC engine. This sophisticated powerplant manages to earn its “clean diesel” name from use of AdBlue, an additive that helps reduce NOx emissions. The only downside to the BlueTEC engines is the tank of AdBlue needs replacement every 15,000 miles, and the car will not run if it goes dry (Audi and VW clean diesel engines also require an additive for maintaining their emissions compliance). What might stretch that tank of AdBlue out double or triple the distance is the rumored 2013 introduction of Mercedes’ first diesel hybrid: the E300 BlueTEC Hybrid. Concepts of the powerplant have been shown recently, so it is only a matter of time until it is available for customers to take home.
E350 BlueTEC diesel car – With class-leading dynamics, timeless design and refined engineering the E has been a critical car in the Mercedes Benz lineup. Redesigned in 2011, the 2012 E Class remains unchanged. For $50,900 buyers get 24/34 MPG rating in a true luxury sedan. Sadly the wagon no longer gets the diesel option as most domestic buyers gravitate to the ML and GL SUVs. Acceleration belies the oil burner underhood, getting to 60 mph in quick 6.4 seconds.
ML350 BlueTEC diesel SUV – For $410 less than E350, buyers can choose the ML BlueTEC SUV. For tradeoffs in economy (figures drop to 18/25 MPG) owners get to enjoy all-wheel-drive, a cavernous trunk and a high seating position. MLs drive similarly to the BMW X5 – which is to say car-like and agile. I can personally attest to the exceptional performance of the ML350 diesel, having driven one on the German autobahn.
GL350 BlueTEC diesel SUV – Lovers of large cars, German luxury and SUVs will find plenty to appreciate in the GL350. Trading a bit of car-like athleticism for massive presence might not be to every buyer’s liking, but seating for seven and a 7500-lb tow capacity might prove to be the hot ticket for buyers willing to part with the $61,000 base MSRP. Fuel economy is class-leading, at 17/21 MPG.
R350 BlueTEC diesel crossover wagon – For $9,210 less than the GL, Mercedes offers one of the world’s few luxury crossover vans in the R-Class. With seating for 6 or 7, 18/24 MPG and All Wheel Drive, the underrated R350 might be the sweet spot in the Mercedes diesel lineup for buyers who put a premium on space. Contemporary road tests laud the R’s comfortable ride, quiet interior, and sedan-like layout. If you can live with the van shape, then you might find a lot to love here too.
Mini offers diesel cars in its complete range in Europe, and has recently introduced for 2012 “S” models in diesel, bringing the fun of the Cooper and Clubman S models to the frugality of the D models. The new for 2011 Countryman crossover is available with a diesel as well. But Mini has not announced any plans to make these diesel models available in the U.S.
Nissan CEO Carlos Gohsn announced back in 2008 that Nissan would be bringing a clean diesel engine to the United States in the 2010 Maxima. With that date come and gone, the future looks uncertain for a return of diesel in domestic Nissans. They are available overseas however, and perhaps the recession only delayed a launch. But with the introduction of the Leaf, and a redesigned Altima Hybrid due next year, Nissan may be banking on electric and hybrid models for the U.S..
The seminal sports car (and now SUV and sedan) brand offers diesel engines in the Cayenne SUV and Panamera sedan in Europe. And we might just be lucky enough to get them here in the United States. “We are discussing internally if we should introduce the Cayenne diesel in the U.S. this year. Also a Panamera diesel is an option,” Bernhard Maier, the brand’s sales and marketing chief, told Automotive News Europe in February.
Saab is still with us, after a tumultuous saga that nearly ended with the brand’s death in 2009. The diesel Saab cars offered overseas will remain just that, as Saab focuses on new products to grow their small lineup.
After initial excitement faded, the Smart microcar has struggled to find buyers. Of concern for most would-be buyers is the disappointing fuel economy of the gas-engined version. The diesel Smart Car, available since the brand’s introduction in Europe, returns outstanding mileage. Sadly, there are no current plans to bring that engine to the U.S. for its 2012 redesign.
Subaru is a brand loved by fans of the outdoors and the environment, so it is a shame they have not yet brought the Europe-only green diesel engine available in their Impreza, Legacy, Outback and Forester models to the U.S. The Impreza compact has been redesigned for 2012, so it is possible that the engine may make it here in that car at a later date. For now, Subaru has not confirmed or denied that possibility.
Toyota / Lexus Diesels
Toyota continues to pursue its all-hybrid strategy in the United States, despite offering Toyota diesel cars in Europe. For 2012 the focus is on the new Prius models, so a diesel reveal is unlikely. The Lexus brand offers diesel versions of their IS and forthcoming GS models in Europe but shows no sign of bringing them to the U.S.
Volkswagen is the only manufacturer that currently offers affordable diesel cars in the United States. Thankfully, it has made sure to offer a wide range of products to appeal to a variety of buyers. From the compact Golf and Jetta to the luxurious Touareg SUV, VW’s TDI clean diesel range offers the best alternative to hybrids, electrics and compact-engined small cars.
Beetle TDI – The Beetle TDI is expected to arrive in Spring 2012. It will be powered by Volkswagen’s efficient 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine with 140 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque. Fuel efficiency is expected to be about 40 mpg highway. The 2012 Beetle has an updated style that has been described as “bolder” and “more masculine.” The price has not yet been announced but is expected to be around $23,000.
Golf TDI – A bestseller and award winner in Europe, VW’s compact Golf hatchback has been the smart buyers diesel choice. The current design Golf dates back to 2010, and has been available in relatively limited supply with the TDI engine. Equipped with either a manual or 6-speed automatic dual-clutch transmission, the Golf TDI is zippy and entertaining with a standard sport suspension and grippy seats. Options do drive the price up rapidly, but a base 2-door Golf TDI starts at a reasonable $23,225 and it delivers 30/42 MPG.
Jetta TDI – The cheapest way to get behind the wheel of a 140hp VW TDI engine is the Jetta, which starts at $22,995. Redesigned for 2011, the 2012 model will be unchanged. Critics pan a recently downgrade in finish and quality, with a less sophisticated chassis than the Golf TDI. Nevertheless, the Jetta offers excellent value for buyers who put a premium on efficiency.
Jetta Sportwagen TDI - While same in name to the 2011 Jetta, the Sportwagen is crucially similar to the Golf. Being based closer to the Golf means it has a higher quality interior, and more sophisticated rear suspension than the 2011 Jetta. Softer suspension tuning however means this is not one for enthusiasts. Instead, buyers will find a versatile interior with ample cargo space out back. Options like a panoramic glass sunroof and upgraded stereo mean buyers can enjoy taking it easy on the open road. At $24,995 and the same excellent economy of the the Jetta and Golf, buyers will find they’re getting a lot of car for their money.
Passat TDI – VW’s full-size offering was redesigned for 2012, and has been sized and featured more like a full-size family car than ever before. While this may disappoint buyers used to the Audi-on-a-dime Passats of old, it will likely appeal to a wider swath of the population. The 2.0L TDI engine returns here to offer a great mix of mainstream sedan with Germanic efficiency and character. Fuel economy is excellent at an EPA estimated 43 MPG highway. MSRP starts at $25,995 for the sedan-only model, as the wagon variant has been discontinued.
Touareg V6 TDI Sport SUV – The only Volkswagen to offer a 3.0TDI diesel engine (shared with the Porsche Cayenne diesel, Audi A4 and A6 overseas exclusively) the TDI Touareg is as economical as the compact Tiguan crossover. For 2011 the Touareg has been redesigned, and offers a sumptuous interior and a refined ride rivaling the best German luxury crossovers on the market. At $47,950 it undercuts their pricetags too. A hybrid Touareg will be new for 2012, but the TDI remains the more economical alternative at both the dealership and the pump. EPA estimates the economy at 19/28 MPG. As ever, your mileage will vary.
Volvo offers diesel cars in the European market, but as of yet has not seen a strong case for certifying one for U.S. sale. By 2013 the V60 wagon is rumored to be introduced with a diesel plug-in hybrid, which should radically blend the best elements of diesels, hybrids and pure electric vehicles. U.S. sales look unlikely at introduction, but expect an evolution of this innovative platform to make it to our shores in the future.
So there you have it, the diesel car, diesel SUV and diesel truck and pick up lineup in the USA for 2012.
Did we leave anything out? Did we make any mistakes?
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About the author: Jonathan Eziquiel-Shriro is an industrial designer specializing in transportation and product design, and an automotive industry pundit with over a decade of blog and magazine experience.