blog:Diesels emerging as ‘economy cars’ in US |

blog:Diesels emerging as ‘economy cars’ in US

On a recent trip to Europe I came away impressed by how much Europe (especially Germany) is doing to go green.

I saw hundreds of windmills swirling majestically above acres and acres of what I think was flaxseed, a primary source for producing bio-diesel (Germany is one of the world’s leaders in bio-diesel production and consumption). I even saw bio-diesel for sale at a lot of filling stations, and it was always the cheapest offering at approximately a mere $4.35/gallon instead of the $5.00+/gallon for regular gasoline. I also saw lots of cute little efficient cars like the Volkswagen Lupo, or the ubiquitous Smart car.

There were plenty of big luxury cars (how could there not be in the homeland of BMW, Mercedes and Audi?), and even some SUVs, but they just looked out of place lumbering through the narrow little European streets. Indeed, even the big luxury cars were often equipped with smaller, more efficient engines than their American counterparts. New cars sold in Germany (and presumably other parts of Europe as well) include a CO2 emissions per kilometer rating right along with the horsepower and fuel economy ratings.

One thing I did not see in this carbon-conscious land, however, was a Toyota Prius. Well, I take that back; I did see one, but only one.

Although the Honda Insight was America’s first hybrid car, the Prius is what brought hybrid technology into the American mainstream. Since exploding onto the market with almost the same fervor as the cheeky little Mini Cooper did in 2001 and the New Beetle in 1998, the Prius has almost become synonymous with “green.” It has been snatched up in droves by environmentalists looking to save the planet, celebrities looking to make a statement, and even by people who simply want to squeeze more miles out of their dollars.

The Prius is seen by many as the answer to global warming and climate change, to America’s oil addiction, to the instability in the Middle East that is caused by oil dependency, and… well in short it seems that the Prius might just save the world. So why has it become so popular here, but in a country like Germany I only saw one single hybrid car (and that one I saw had Swiss plates anyway)?

BBC’s Top Gear television host Jeremy Clarkson summed it up nicely saying that the Prius is more expensive, more complex, and less fuel-efficient than diesel competitors. He cites one example where driving a diesel Volkswagen Lupo he got 75 miles per gallon compared to the Prius’ 45 miles per gallon on the same route. Even a more comparably-sized Jetta diesel gets nearly the same fuel economy but produces more horsepower and a lot more torque.

Now let me say that I like the Prius. One day when I drove a Prius down to Denver I found that my lead-foot had suddenly (and quite happily) become a feather-foot as I kept an eye on the drivetrain display trying to maximize my fuel economy. Normally I don’t like to be passed by other cars, but in the Prius I poked along in the slow lane quite contently. And although most Prius owners never get anywhere near the advertised 60+ miles per gallon, even getting 45 miles per gallon is a big improvement over similarly sized competitors. Even so, I think that Jeremy and the rest of the Europeans are right; diesel is better. Or at least it will be very soon…

It is unfortunate that in this country diesel doesn’t really enjoy a very good image. Most people associate diesel with big, noisy, stinky trucks or old Mercedes-Benz’s. Diesel has a lot of benefits over gasoline, though. The reason all modern big rigs have diesel engines is because they produce more torque per liter of displacement and per gallon of fuel than gasoline engines do.

Modern diesel engines are infinitely smoother and quieter than the old diesel engines of decades past too. As for the stinky part, that is also history. In recent years automakers have developed sophisticated exhaust scrubbing systems that bring emissions to levels comparable to gasoline engines that meet stringent California and European regulations.

European car makers have not sold any of their fancy, quiet, thoroughly modern diesel engines here in this country, however, because until recently US diesel fuel had a higher sulfur content than the higher-quality diesel fuel available in Europe. Putting our low-grade diesel into these high-tech engines would have quickly fouled their emission-control systems.

But get ready because in the next year or two the US is going to see a wave of new, quiet, smooth, clean diesel engines come to our shores. The next generation diesel engine for the Volkwagen Jetta should have nearly equal, or perhaps better fuel economy than the Prius, but will produce almost 200% more torque than a Prius and much better acceleration.

Honda has developed a darling little 4-cylinder diesel engine with even more torque than the VW one, yet should also return somewhere around 45 mpg, and it has pretty clean emissions too.

When you consider that these diesel engines will also happily burn biodiesel (high-quality though, maybe not the home-grown variety), owners will have the potential to lower their CO2 emissions even further. Plus, diesel engines are simply, well, simpler. They don’t have the fancy, elaborate, complex drivetrains of a hybrid and they don’t require the heavy, expensive batteries made from rare metals, so their long-term dependability looks better too.

The word Prius comes from the Latin word meaning something like “to go before” (I don’t speak Latin), and I think that is good to keep in mind. The Prius is really just one of the first steps towards the ultimate goal of a hydrogen-based economy. The Prius succeeded in proving that the American market was ripe for greener automotive technologies.

The Prius was key in spawning a whole crop of new hybrid vehicles, although “hybrid” is being used more and more as a marketing scheme these days as the technology is being used more to increase horsepower than to increase fuel economy. Nonetheless, while the Prius has been a great success story, I think that the next generation of diesel engines will prove more successful. Even still, these are both just transitional steps as we march towards mass-produced fuel-cell hydrogen technology which will be truly revolutionary. In the mean time though, I’ll be anxiously awaiting those diesels.

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