Diesel power has changed dramatically in the last few years, but many consumers still harbor misconceptions about it based on dated information and experience. True, diesels used to be stinky, belching black smoke, noisy, sluggish, and slow. But automakers stepped up research and changed all that. Today’s diesel engines are not only environmentally clean, powerful, economical, and quiet - they’re also responsive and capable of delivering performance that exceeds that of their gasoline counterparts. Maybe it’s time to put diesel on your consideration list. The question becomes, is diesel right for you?
Brief Diesel Facts
While diesel engines first appeared in the United States in the mid-1930s, it’s only within the last 30 years that substantial improvements were made. The first such developments began in the 1980s – and they haven’t ceased since. Diesels today provide 20 to 40 percent better fuel economy and also provide more torque at lower revolutions per minute (rpm) compared to gasoline engines.
Due to a heavy emphasis on cleaning up diesel’s environmental concerns, automakers also worked on reducing the harmful emissions to the point where diesels today are clean and emissions-legal in 50 states.
Diesels Meet Same Emissions Requirements as Gasoline Engines
Diesels used to have different emissions requirements than gasoline engines. As of 2007, new federal legislation went into effect that required diesel-powered and gasoline-powered vehicles to meet the same emission standards.
It could even be argued that diesels are more environmentally friendly than gasoline engines, particularly in the area of carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge for automakers had been to overcome the challenges of pollutants like soot and nitrogen oxide.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandated that, beginning in 2007, diesel fuel be produced with lower sulfur content. New proposed rules for 2010 and beyond are currently in development for the EPA Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which was created under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The original RFS called for 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel to be blended into gasoline by 2012.
In 2007, the RFS was expanded under the Energy Independence and Security Act in several key ways. Important to this discussion, diesel was added to the program, the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into transportation fuel increased from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 32 billion gallons by 2022, new categories of renewable fuel were established with volume requirements for each, and lifecycle greenhouse gas performance threshold standards were applied. What does this mean to the consumer? Basically, it means that the diesels being sold today are emissions-legal in 50 states. And the diesel fuel available to power those engines is getting cleaner all the time.
Diesel Costs More
Clean-burning diesel engine-powered cars do cost more than their gasoline counterparts. Some of this has to do with offsetting the cost of diesel technology. Considering the performance improvements alone, not to mention diesel’s quietness, economy, and environmental cleanliness, diesel is proving an attractive option for many consumers looking for a new car.
While there is increasing interest in diesel-powered vehicles, there are still only a handful of automakers manufacturing them for sale in this country. And, as you might expect, these are the automakers that perfected and sold such diesels in Europe. They are also among the more expensive – or luxury – makes: Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen.
How much more?
Let’s take the Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC SUV as an example. The starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) on ML350 BlueTEC is $49,700, as compared to the ML350’s starting MSRP of $45,700. The ML450 hybrid starts at $55,000, while the most expensive model, the ML550, begins at $56,750. Using these as comparisons, the diesel model is actually quite reasonable. Of course, a base starting price is just that. Anything you add in options will cost extra. And you don’t pay MSRP anyway. But for comparison purposes, it’s a good start. Other makes for diesel vs. gasoline or hybrid counterparts will have similar price differences.
Then, there’s the cost of diesel fuel, which is generally a bit more than gasoline. The good news here is that some diesel-powered cars achieve fuel economy that’s comparable to hybrids – not an inconsequential feat. It’s certainly something to keep in mind when considering diesel vs. gasoline models.
Tax Credits for Diesel Vehicles
The federal government gives tax credits to buyers of so-called “lean-burn” vehicles – diesels and certain hybrids. The incentives have been in place for several years, and have been modified (reduced) somewhat since the high of up to $3,400 a few years ago. Interestingly, even though the legislation has been in place since July of 2005, no eligible vehicles were manufactured for sale in the U.S. until 2008. And credits will start to phase out once a manufacturer sells more than 60,000 diesel vehicles.
Still, for 2010, there are attractive tax credits available to consumers who buy diesel-powered cars. Consider it an incentive from the government to partially offset the additional cost of the diesel technology.
There are 12 diesel models with current tax credits, ranging from $900 to $1,800. Models include Audi A3 2.0L TDI automatic, and Q7 3.0L TDI, BMW 335d sedan and X5 xDrive35d, Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC, GL350 BlueTEC, and R350 BlueTEC, Volkswagen Golf 2.0L TDI (2- and 4-door automatic), 2.0L TDI (2- and 4-door manual), Jetta 2.0L TDI (manual and automatic) Jetta 2.0L TDI SportWagen (manual and automatic), and Touareg 2.0L TDI. See the IRS site for complete details or speak with your tax consultant.
Making Your Decision
In the end, whether diesel is right for you or not is purely a personal decision. Be sure to factor in the type of vehicle you want first and then search to see if diesel is even offered. More automakers are expected to come out with diesel models in the next couple of years, so keep attuned to new product announcements, especially around the auto shows. Also check the enthusiast magazines for reviews.
When you find exactly what you want, buy it.