To the average American car buyer, diesel is synonymous with truckers, farm equipment, and an upscale clothing brand. For Europeans however, diesel is the must-have fuel for those who can’t stomach the $8.70/gal (current average price in Germany) for gasoline. With diesel selling for $1 less per gallon and providing greater fuel economy, it’s no wonder more Europeans prefer diesel cars. While American fuel prices remain far cheaper, recent price hikes have had more people asking: where’s our diesel option?
A host of factors have contributed to the dearth of diesel cars here in the United States. Until 2007, the allowable sulfur content in American diesel fuel was far higher than in Europe, requiring manufacturers to completely re-engineer engines for our market. While the sulfur content is now the same, American limits on NOx and NO2 emissions are still significantly lower than their European counterparts, demanding use of an expensive urea-injection additive such as AdBlue to meet standards. Higher labor costs have also been an issue, as most diesels built in European countries suffer from unfavorable exchange rates when exported overseas. Building a diesel engine factory in either the U.S. or Mexico would reduce labor cost – if buyers can be found for the 350,000 units a year a typical $350 million factory puts out. Finally, EPA certification for a new engine adds even more to the bottom line.
These issues have understandably risk-averse car makers asking: will our diesel cars sell? Can we recover costs and make a profit? Even in Europe, the diesel engine option still adds $1,500 – $3,000 to the sticker price. Until recently, few Americans would’ve swallowed that bitter pill at purchase time. But times may be changing.
Wondering what we’re missing? Here’s a look at five great diesel cars we can’t get here in the U.S.A. (and two we very well might).
1. Volkswagen Polo BlueMotion
Volkswagen’s Polo is a small hatchback that looks a lot like a shrunken Golf. Indeed, it does share some of the same basic hardware underneath its familiar skin. BlueMotion is the brand VW has created for its most frugal line of vehicles, and the Polo BlueMotion delivers. With a tiny 1.2 liter turbodiesel engine to move the lightweight Polo, the BlueMotion just barely gets out of its own way. Getting to 60 mph in 13.6 seconds might be laughable to some, but the stellar 71 MPG it gets on the European combined cycle proves that there are some races the tortoise does win.
2. Ford Fiesta Econetic
With a 90 hp diesel engine, subtle aerodynamic tweaks and low rolling resistance tires, the Ford Fiesta Econetic scores big on efficiency earning a high 63.5 MPG on the Euro combined cycle, and an impressively low 98 grams per kilometer release of C02. Unfortunately, the British-built hatchback would sell for $22,000 at current exchange rates. With a base Fiesta sedan starting at $13,800 there’s little chance savings at the pump could ever get your initial investment back. Hopefully Ford will find a way to build diesel engines in North America for the next generation Fiesta Econetic.
3. Mini Cooper D
Mini has already won hearts and minds the world over with its mix of funky style and effervescent personality. The base Mini Cooper is widely recognized as a fun and efficient commuter with nimble handling and a healthy 32 MPG average economy figure. The European Cooper D improves on that performance with a commendable 65 MPG combined. The sparkling torque figure of 188lbs/ft – more twist that the sporting Cooper S puts out — gives the Cooper D a satisfying shove in normal driving, and makes it quick off the line. Shame we haven’t received the diesel option… yet. Mini is still considering offering a diesel option here in the future.
4. Volvo S40 DRIVe
While long associated with industry-leading safety innovation, Volvo had languished a bit in the efficiency department. That is until the S40 DRIVe debuted in 2009. With carefully massaged aerodynamics and suspension, stop/start engine hardware, an electric steering pump, and a keen 1.6L turbodiesel engine, the most efficient Volvo returns a very respectable 62 MPG on the European combined cycle. Equally as impressive is the low 99g/km CO2 emissions rating. However what makes the S40 DRIVe more compelling than its conventional diesel siblings is outstanding handling — a happy byproduct of the aero and suspension tweaks. Who said efficient cars can’t be fun too?
5. Subaru Boxer Diesel
Loathe to adopt another manufacturer’s conventional diesel engine, Subaru took years to develop an industry-first boxer configuration diesel. Typically pistons are arranged either in a line, or a V shape. Subaru’s pistons lay flat, 180 degrees apart – and punch out, hence the boxer name.
The appeal of the boxer diesel is the efficiency it delivers, while keeping the core Subaru traits of all-wheel-drive security and stability intact. In the Forester for instance, the boxer diesel can get up to 37 MPG highway, while providing enough torque to keep performance on par with the regular gas version. The big hurdle for Subaru has been getting the AdBlue system into their cars while keeping costs down. If you like the idea of a Subaru diesel, click “like” on their fan page on Facebook — maybe fans on social media can help bring these engines over.
6. Mercedes Benz S350 BlueTec
Now for some good news: after a 15-year hiatus, Mercedes is bringing back the S-Class diesel for 2012. Powered by the same engine in the E, GL, ML, and R classes, the S350 BlueTec will be the “entry” model in the luxurious S-Class range. Offered exclusively with Mercedes’ 4-Matic AWD system, the torque-tastic oil burner will roll to 60 in a fleet 7 seconds flat while returning an impressive 31 MPG on the highway. Perhaps the only thing not fantastic about the diesel Benz luxury liner will be its $70,000+ price tag. Nevertheless, diesel S-Class Benzes have been long sought after on the used market by savvy buyers seeking an unrivaled blend of luxury and economy. In a few years time expect the same cult following around this model.
7. Audi A6 TDI
Audi is no stranger to fitting oil burners to its cars. Indeed, in Europe you can get every Audi model bar the R8 supercar with a diesel engine. Yet back in the U.S., Audi’s diesel family is limited to the A3 hatchback and Q7 SUV. In response to vocal customers and dealers, Audi is close to releasing the 2012 A6 with a TDI option. Using a new turbocharged and intercooled V6, the diesel will pair performance with frugality. Expect a 0 to 60 sprint in a Boxster-rivaling 6 seconds, standard Quattro all wheel drive, an 8-speed transmission, and an average fuel economy figure in the high 20s. Whoever said “you can’t have it all” never sampled an Audi diesel.
These are just some of the great diesel models not available to American buyers. Nevertheless, the advantages to diesel are numerous — so make sure to let your favorite car makers know that you’re interested!