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The pros and cons of going diesel

Looking for a car with super fuel economy? You may want to consider a diesel.

Diesel cars and trucks deliver great fuel economy, 20 to 30 percent better than comparable vehicles with gasoline engines.

And while today's diesels may not be squeaky-clean, they're a far cry from the noisy and smelly pollution hogs that they used to be.

Here's a closer look at the pros and cons of going diesel on your next auto purchase.

One of the biggest advantages of choosing a diesel car or truck is fuel economy. A diesel's extra 20 to 30 percent of fuel efficiency makes a difference. You'll use less fuel as you drive and fill up your tank less often. Fewer trips to the pump means more money stays in your wallet. Just ask any diesel driver.

"People that own them love them and tend to spread the gospel about them," says Tony Fouladpour, a spokesman for Volkswagen of America.

"First and foremost, it's the fuel economy. On the New Beetle it's almost 50 miles per gallon. You can drive from Chicago to New York without stopping for fuel. They've got tremendous driving range."

The fuel savings on a diesel is so impressive that you'll make up the extra cost of the engine in just a few years.

Take a look at this example from Walter McManus, an auto analyst at J.D. Power and Associates. He compared the cost of buying a 2004 Jetta GLS with a 2.0-liter gasoline engine and the cost of buying a 2004 Jetta GLS with a 1.9-liter turbo diesel.

The price of the gasoline Jetta is $19,460. The cost of the turbo diesel Jetta is $20,480, a difference of $1,020. But the turbo diesel Jetta gets much better fuel economy, 46 miles per gallon, compared to the gasoline Jetta's 31 miles per gallon.

Let's say you drive 15, 000 miles a year. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, (week of June 21, 2004), the national average cost per gallon of diesel was $1.90; the average cost per gallon of regular was $1.94.

Driving the turbo diesel Jetta, you'd save $383 in fuel costs each year. In three years, you'd save $1,149 in fuel costs, $129 more than the cost of your diesel engine.

Here's one more thing to consider. A turbo diesel Jetta holds its value better than a gasoline Jetta. McManus estimates that a 3-year-old turbo Jetta will be worth nearly $300 more than a 3-year-old Jetta with a gasoline engine.

So even if you only owned your turbo diesel Jetta for three years, you'd save $1,149 in fuel costs and pick up an extra $300 when you sold the car. Your total savings for going diesel after just three years is $1,449, which more than makes up for the extra $1,020 you paid for the engine.

That's pretty impressive. But many diesel car drivers would balk at the notion of keeping their cars for a measly three years.

With proper maintenance it's not unusual for a diesel engine to run for 250,000 miles. And some diesel car owners are determined to get every penny of fuel savings out of their never-say-die engines.

"You'll see these ancient Mercedes diesels that just don't quit. They keep running and running and running," says Paul A. Eisenstein, publisher of the automotive Web site, TheCarConnection.com. "It's almost a matter of pride for diesel owners."

Another advantage of buying a diesel is driving performance. Anyone who likes to zip away from a stop sign will like a diesel engine's pep.

"You take off quicker," McManus says. "It will be noticeably peppier and more fun to drive. So not only do you have better fuel economy, you have better performance, more of a sporty kind of drive."

Diesels are also great at towing. So if you need to haul heavy loads with your car or truck, you may want to consider a diesel. A diesel handles a heavy load a lot better than a comparable vehicle with a gasoline engine. And that's why larger, heavy-duty pickup trucks from Chevrolet, GMC, Dodge and Ford are available with diesel engines.

If you're worried about the noise associated with driving a diesel car, don't be. Modern diesel engines are a lot quieter than diesels 20 years ago. Today's diesel engines are almost as quiet as gasoline engines.

"The engine is slightly noisier than a gasoline engine but they're getting real close now. It's really tough to tell," says Robert Larsen, director of the Center for Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratories.

The biggest downside to driving a diesel car has to do with emissions. Diesel cars may be cleaner than they used to be but they're still dirtier than gasoline cars, and a whole lot dirtier than a hybrid. And there's still a bit of a smell.

"What you see and smell out of the tailpipe is typically worse than with a gasoline engine," says Larry Webster, technical editor at Car and Driver.

Diesel cars spit out more particulates -- tiny particles of soot -- and more oxides of nitrogen (NOx), which contribute to local smog.

But because of their excellent fuel economy, diesel cars also burn less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) than gasoline cars.

"There's a trade-off. You emit a little more particulate and oxides of nitrogen, NOx, but a lot less C02," Webster says. "Burning less fuel is better in the long run, but some people are worried about NOx and particulates contributing to smog."

Here's another thing you should think about before you buy a diesel -- where will you buy fuel?

Fueling up on the highway is easy -- all you have to do is find the nearest truck stop. Finding a neighborhood service station that sells diesel fuel may be more difficult. According to Diesel Technology Forum, only 30 percent of neighborhood retail service stations sell diesel fuel.

"If you buy a diesel, make sure diesel fuel is conveniently available in your area," Eisenstein says. "A lot of people don't like to go to truck stops because that means they have to gas up in line with big 18-wheelers."

A final downside to buying a diesel is you don't have that many vehicle choices. Only 3.6 percent of passenger cars in America are available with diesel engines. They include the Volkswagen Golf, Jetta, Jetta Wagon, Passat and New Beetle. And Mercedes, which stopped selling diesel sedans in the late 1990s, launched a diesel version of its E-320 sedan.

Early in 2004, Volkswagen rolled out the Touareg V10 TDI, a diesel sport utility vehicle. Chrysler Jeep Liberty will be available with diesel engines this fall.

  1. What is the difference between diesel fuel and gasoline?
  2. What are the benefits and problems with diesel fuel?
  3. The pros and cons of going diesel
Diesels in America

Passenger cars
Volkswagen Golf
Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Jetta Wagon
Volkswagen New Beetle
Volkswagen Passat ( April 2004)
Mercedes E-320 sedan (April 2004)

Sport utility vehicles
Volkswagen Touareg SUV (2004)
Chrysler Jeep Liberty ( Fall 2004)

Pickup trucks
Chevy Silverado
GMC Sierra
Dodge Ram
Ford E-series, F-series