Subaru Diesel Cars: Why You Can’t Buy One in the USA

Subaru diesel wagon. You can look, but you can't buy! At least not in the USA.

The reason that you don’t see more diesels on US roads has to do with economics. Money makes the world go ’round, and as you’d expect, it’s the main reason for our “diesel deficiency”. In the United States, the federal government taxes every gallon of fuel sold. And historically, there’s always been a higher demand for gasoline here. So, our tax system is biased toward gasoline, making it cheaper to buy than diesel.

It’s the exact opposite in Europe. Diesel is cheaper to buy than “petrol”. However, cheaper means $6-7 per gallon, vs. $7-8 for a gallon of gas, so you can see why there’s more diesels over there.

European automakers simply responded to market demands, and came up with a wide range of diesel vehicles, allowing them to produce diesel engines at a lower cost. (For those who want to see what they’re missing right now, or plan a rental for their next European vacation, there are plenty of detailed reviews of current European models.)

In this country, gas is still (relatively) cheap. So a popular choice for an efficient vehicle is the hybrid. You may have noticed just how many hybrid models are available today. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the sporty Honda CR-Z to the massive Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid.

Diesel vehicles, however, still don’t make good business sense, like the hybrid. You’re asking the customer to pay an additional $5-7k for a diesel vehicle, then you’re asking them to fuel it with the most expensive fuel.

From an environmental standpoint, modern diesel engines emit a very low amount of NOx and CO2, and recent advances have made them much more efficient. and they top hybrids in the fact that certain materials used to produce various components on a hybrid have to be mined. When considering a green car, can you imagine the relative environmental impact of that nickel mine needed for the hybrid? Let alone the fact that all those hybrid battery packs may one day wind up in a landfill.

But back to the economics of diesels.

German automakers seem dead-set on exporting their “clean diesels” to the United States. However, to sell a diesel engine in this country, it must be equipped with an exhaust after-treatment system, and a special fuel injection system in order to meet our strict air quality rules.

European emissions rules allow a diesel to emit up to 0.29 grams of nitrous oxide (NOx) per mile — which is about what the typical diesel school bus or trash truck emitted 5 years ago.

US regulations on the other hand, only allow a diesel to emit 0.07 grams of NOx per mile, making compliance a costly effort.

Smaller firms like Honda or Subaru would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a compliant engine, for a historically small US market. So it’s tough for many of them to justify such a big investment.

The Germans however, seem willing to take this risk. And if history is any indication, they’re the ones that can garner mass public acceptance for a new technology.

Airbags, ABS — the Mercedes S-Class was the first car in this country to have them as standard equipment. As the old saying goes “if you want to see what tomorrows car will look like, just look at what Mercedes is doing today”.

The Germans were also involved in bringing us those annoying in-car command/infotainment systems. So, let’s hope they can work their magic again, and convince Americans to buy more diesels — with a big marketing campaign to sell the car to a potentially unreceptive public.

Want to make yourself feel sad and see what you’re missing? Check out this site with the 2011 European Subaru diesel models that we can’t buy here in the USA:

What’s your prediction? When will the first Japanese clean diesel make it over to the US market?

Teddy Field got his start in the auto industry at the age of 17. He is a recognized car dealer sales & management consultant, an automotive journalist, and a regular contributor to

calbearz April 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Wrong! the one main reason diesel is uncommon in the US is CARB (California air resource board) their arbitrary rules have made it much harder if not impossible to meet standards with diesels. Even if fuel is slightly more expensive, not always the case, the over all cost per mile is always less.

VW and Mercedes were selling diesels to the US in 1998-2000 but CARB shut them down, the diesel option was only $1000 more than gas. Diesel emission of that era were actually less harmful over all that gas cars, but CARB arbitrarily set the limit on NOx to low for diesels to meet.

All government medaling, NOT economics!

ergo April 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm

The engine is not the problem, the FUEL is.

The US has been slow in adopting the ULSD clean fuel widely available in Europe and Japan. As a result, diesel car manufacturers were left with the impossible task of meeting US emission rules with a fuel that is 10 times more polluting (and costs more to boot). Is it a surprise that many of them gave up trying to sell diesel cars in this country?

MR. K April 25, 2011 at 8:26 pm

It is pure economics. Lets do the math.
A simple formula; today I can buy a gallon of regular unleded for 3.09 a gallon and diesel at 4.54 a gallon. Your economy car on avarage gets a combined milage of 29 miles per gallon, and a diesel car gets 35. So take 29 gas and divide it by 3.09 and your cost is about 11.33 cents a mile, then take 35 and divide it by 4.54 and you get 7.71 cents per mile. If you drive 30,000 miles a year and the prices stay the same you can save $1,086 a year by driving a diesel car. If you drive mostly freeways the gasoline economy car will get as much as 30-36 MPG highway and the same economy diesel will get as much as 35-60MPG.
Hybrid cars will get 30-50MPG city and the fuel milege signicantly decreses once you enter the highway.
So it is all about the numbers. One has to do the math them self and figure out which is the better choice for them.

db cooper June 25, 2011 at 1:44 am

uh, mr. k, your math might be okay, but that doesn’t help you if you start out with the wrong numbers to begin with. at the end of april, when you wrote your post, unleaded gas was definitely NOT available anywhere for $3.09/gallon. also, diesel did not, and does not, cost anywhere near $4.54/gallon. where on earth do you get your numbers from?? the real difference is more like 30 cents per gallon, and for a 15-gallon tank, that amounts to $4.50 total price difference… with a jetta TDI, depending on how you drive, you can get almost 800 miles out of a tank (definitely 650+). You will come out ahead in the end, especially if you bought a stick. what’s more, the difference is fixed… because the taxes are fixed, per gallon. so the higher unleaded goes, the less is the PERCENTAGE premium one has to pay for diesel. in fact, back in april, i recall diesel actually being CHEAPER in my neighborhood gas station, than unleaded in some other stations… the two got very close, and it’s not always a given that diesel will cost more.

db cooper June 25, 2011 at 1:47 am

…oh and by the way, i’m getting 48.7 mpg overall (combined city and highway) with my 2010 Jetta TDI. I was getting 50.7 overall earlier this spring, but because of more city driving recently, I’ve lost some of the efficiency.

VWWV July 5, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Yeah, down with the CARB Diesel standard

Dan July 24, 2011 at 3:49 am

I know I’m jumping in late, but I think CARB does need to be defended.

Californians generally support CARB. We breathe much cleaner air today than we did even 20 years ago, let alone 30 or 40 years ago. Watch the L.A. skyline in the movie Chinatown when Jack Nicholson gets off the ferry boat to see how bad it once was. It is nothing like that today. CARB deserves a lot of the credit by forcing manufacturers to meet emissions requirements. All along, the auto industry said it could not be done but would still somehow complay. Or, they stay out of the market.

CARB’s aggressive stance is well deserved. California’s geography is well known for trapping various pollutants near ground level. And, as a result, we have high levels of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

That said, CARB does deserve blame for why more diesels are not sold in the U.S., after all 1 out of every 8 Americans live here, but its rules are not totally arbitrary.

And CARB does deserve most of the blame for why Subaru has chosen not to introduce its diesel products in the US. It is all about economics. A significant portion of Subaru’s sales occurs in California and excluding the California market would be pointless. Not only that, but several other states follow California’s emissions regulations. California is the only state with an exemption to the federal clean air act. Other states may not create their own regulations but may choose to enact California’s statutes/regulations.

Lastly, about arbitrariness. CARB recently rolled back some diesel regulations that had been based on flawed scientific reports. Those regulations were, in and of themselves, not arbitrary within context. But once the scientific reports were demonstrated to be flawed, the regulations became arbitrary and were rolled back to levels supported by research. I support those regulations and think they are reasonable.

Northerner September 8, 2011 at 10:56 am

@ Dan. 1 in 8 Americans live in Cali, but they are the majority of the market? I see many more Subaru density in places that actually need AWD, like Portland, Oregon. California seems more like a place for filthy hybrids (the batteries are made in other places, but they end up in our landfills).

AZ_Utilitarian November 30, 2011 at 12:18 am

Quote “Smaller firms like Honda or Subaru would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a compliant engine, for a historically small US market. So it’s tough for many of them to justify such a big investment.”

Hmmmm…..Say Whaaat ????

A. Honda…Small?

B. And you are aware that India based Mahindra(na) had their 2.2L Hawk diesel EPA certified last year? For about $250K?

C. This was really just a “filler” article, right? The real reason Subaru doesn’t bring over the diesel boxer is that they are afraid of sanctions from the other bigger automakers. Nobody is allowed to upset the high mark up, eternal dealer-only maintenance schtick of the hybrid car builder crowd. Our US lobbiest-written laws merely serve to keep out the AFFORDABLE, ECONOMICAL vehicles. There is ABSOLUTELY NO SHORTAGE of 20MPG +$60K diesel luxury SUVs, 20MPG +60K luxury sedans, or 15MPG +$60K 3/4 & 1 Ton pickups. But just try to buy a 60MPG D-4D powered $20K Yaris or $30K 35MPG AWD Ford Focus-based Kuga 2.0 L tdi. And if we’re REALLY worried about diesel emissions, ‘esplain to me why the railroads are absolutely untouched law-wise while Chrysler/Fiat isn’t allowed to bring over their Jeep Liberty look-alike 65MPG Panda Cross 1.3L Multijet TDI. The US public is being gamed and Subaru is being squeezed.

Bill December 2, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Well, I dunno about all that. Like anything, it requirs logic and economical savvy. I love and I mean love my Volkswagen TDI. Now I really don’t care about the fuel mileage, but the outstanding fuel mileage, combined with an interior and features I could have never afforded in another brand, sold me the car.

A nicely appointed interior (and mine is nicer than the comparable Mercedes)
Really screwed together nice (It’s really sweet)
All the electro-goodies…
Now, the regular Volkswagen had none of these things, but the TDI came with them all, and my car was about 25k (let’s call it that). The comparable Honda was a typical soulless Japanese generic car with none of the above features, for the same or a little more money.

And a Prius… you’ve got to be kidding. I’m American, I’m male, I’m over 6’2″… and that thing is just plain tooslow for me to tolerate even looking at for more than 8 seconds as I drive by one.

Now, let’s look at fuel use and economics. My last vehicle was a Jeep and it really was the minimum I needed to haul around stuff and kids and etc. I like my space. It got (if I was lucky) 19MPG on the freeway. The two hybrids I like are the Prius and the Fords. The Prius was like a clown car and the Ford was brutally expensive and still didn’t have all the goods.

For 25k I got a sleek, swoop European wagon with room for my stuff and (are you ready for this) 45+MPG on the freeway! Now compare that with the overpriced fuel guzzling rattletrap from Jeep. Now let’s look at the economics: The vehicle that suited my needs before got 19, the other vehicles do not suit my needs, the Germans got me a vehicle that not only suited my needs, but handles and rides better than anything but another very expensive German car, has all the comfort goodies AND gets 45MPG (and I’m all freeway, only about 10,000 miles per year.

It was a no-brainer, and would be for anyone who still wants a right sized vehicle… the best part is who cares about the fuel mileage:
Leather that’s easier to clean than Leather.
Real nice hefty German interior packaging, very elegant but still way affordable.
German precise handling, reasonably quiet (in comparison to what I’ve been driving, and way better than a comparably priced Japanese Car)
German safety (Air Bags, Cruise, ABS, dynamic traction control, etc) Snow-Ready!

That’s all without mentioning the fact it gets astonishing fuel mileage, double that of its other competitors… for about 25k!

Now let’s talk about the other car, a 2011 Subaru Forester. Same Length and Width. Plush seats designed by the Spanish Inquisition, it sounds like you’re operating a locomotive on the freeway, crappy stereo, interior by Fuji Heavy Industries that would not look out of place on a yard tractor and at best, 25 MPG.

Don’t get me wrong, I love it for its utilitarian safety, reliability and all wheel drive (I live in Cleveland) and cheapness (and my wife is a cheapskate). But if you have the 5 grand extra, the Volkswagen is just… better, in every way except the AWD… and double the fuel mileage.

If you’re going to be really smart, you have to do economic comparisons apples to apples. And the Germans are smart, the TDI wagons are flying out of dealerships and they are magnificent cars. And not just the VW, the Audi and the Benz are both super sweet. Now forget comparing them to any hybrid on the US market… because the Prius just simply could never meet my needs or wants, it’s just too much a crackerbox of a car. The Ford’s are better, but none of them are built like the German car. Finally, look at Gas powered cars in the same price range… yuck.

So really, I save vast sums of money in comparison to the other 20MPG cars that meet my needs AND I get the better car.

I want a Subaru diesel. I just want one.

editor January 20, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Lots of big errors here!! I believe current VW diesels are less than $2K more than gas engine in the US – it’s hybrids that have a higher surcharge of $5K or more over gas engines.

Checking Mr. K's Math March 5, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Mr. K, regardless of gas vs diesel price per gallon, your basic math is entirely wrong. You arrive at miles per $1 of fuel. Flip your division to correct your units and arrive at cost (in cents or dollars) per mile.

I’m glad I paid attention in high school physics class.

Anonymous April 27, 2012 at 3:19 pm

The reason is that we have envirowacos that have the environment as their religion. Combine that with they are functionally illiterate and are devoid of any scientific understanding. If you believe in man made global warming this just meqans that you are a MORON that has replaced ALGORE as your god over Jesus. I would rather follow a man risen from the dead instead on one PROVEN to be braindead.

Vote republican and get your SUBBIE DIESEL. Vote Dem and die in their next reeducation camp. AKA Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol pot qand all other Dems run wild.

dubbya dubbya dubbya June 28, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Anonymous proclaims people being “devoid of any scientific understanding” yet believes a man ( for whom he follows ) can rise from the dead ? Ummm, you sir are an oxymoron.

The US suppression of ULSD is utterly nonsensical. There is virtually no carbon emission. The fuel economy is superior to Hybrids while yielding greater HP and torque. The engines live longer. Bio -diesel can be utilized as supplementary. Faced with the imminent depletion of oil its a no-brainer.

Noah Lemelin September 13, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Everyone please call 1-800-Subaru3 and voice your opinion. They will listen to us if we all call. They are missing out on a huge financial opportunity by not bringing the diesel line to the U.S.. As others have said, “it’s a no brainier”, but that’s the problem with marketing teams. They having little to no brains. lol. Sometime in life we must take chances if we seek big rewards. Take a chance with us Subaru. Give us a chance to own a Subaru Diesel. I’ll be waiting.

Jason Carpp October 16, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Bring the Boxer Diesel to the USA! Never mind CAFE, Never mind CARB. Never mind what the marketing people say. They say that demand isn’t enough to warrent offering the engine to American customers. Yeah, right! The problem is that Subaru doesn’t listen to what we, the customers want.

Robb November 25, 2012 at 10:34 am

Ok, so lets assume that this blog is correct. Then why do old VW TDIs cost more than they do in europe? An old rusted out Jetta is $800, unless it is a TDI, then it’s $1500? Why is it up until a few years ago you couldn’t legally buy a new diesel car in NYS? Why is it that a new VW TDI is about the same price as one that is a few years old? I would LOVE to see the new Subaru or Mazda or Toyota diesel in this country.

This is right about one thing, it is economics. The economics of greed.

Me December 13, 2012 at 10:20 am

Main mistake in the article:

Diesel is more expensive in Europe to buy than the petrol. It’s been like this for more than a decade now. Difference is not huge, but still. Please, check your fact before writing. (GBP1,40 per litre of petrol vs 1.47 per litre of diesel)
People buy diesel car for lower Tax based on emission and better economy in a long term with great yearly mileage.

Nils H October 13, 2013 at 6:05 pm

The article is misleading and based on the wrong figures:
Diesel price is about the same for gasoline and diesel cars even in Europe.
The NOx regulations since September 2009 have been 0.068g/km (0.096g/mile), which is pretty close to the 0.07 g/mile stated for the US and well within reach.

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