Why Buy a Diesel Car? Get the Facts, Know Your Options

Sami Haj-Assaad
by Sami Haj-Assaad
Rear model badge view of the Volkswagen Jetta TDI at the Chicago Auto Show on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012 in Chicago, IL. (Ross Dettman / AP Images for Volkswagen)

Price, looks and size… these are the few factors that used to decide what vehicle you’d park in your driveway. Looking for a cheap and small car? A Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic will do. Need something bigger, perhaps a mid-size Hyundai Sonata or an SUV. Things used to be pretty easy.

With increasingly high gas prices and an overall movement towards green, fuel efficient vehicles, fuel economy has become more important. In fact, for many price, looks and size are now completely trumped by fuel economy.

“Buyers just look at the MPG on the sticker,” says IHS Automotive Analyst Devin Lindsay commenting that car buyers are now completely mesmerized by the EPA sticker label.

Take a look at the Toyota Prius, for example. It’s not terribly big, is fairly expensive, and looks… well… weird. But that didn’t stop three million of them from being sold, all thanks to a hybrid gas-electric engine that provides excellent fuel economy.

The Prius isn’t the only option for someone looking for a fuel efficient car, however; especially those in search of a more engaging driving experience. If you want to cut down on trips to the pump, and still drive a fun, powerful, good looking car, your best bet might just be in a diesel powered vehicle. That does mean you’ll almost certainly have to drive German, although a flood of new diesel-powered vehicles are about to hit our shore.

Despite the popular misconception, diesel fuel is readily available at numerous gas stations with most of the major chains dedicating at least one pump to diesels. “Finding diesel is not really a big problem anymore,” says Lindsay. “If one station doesn’t have it, the one across the street certainly will.” And there’s a good reason for the popularity of diesel pumps too. Ford, Chevy and Ram easily sell in the tens of thousands of the diesel versions of their popular pickups each year.

Historically, diesel cars were known for being smelly, hard to start in cold weather and not environmentally friendly. For those most part those issues have been solved, with improvements made to quiet the engines (though they are still noticeably louder than gasoline engines), while special emissions filters and exhaust after treatment systems have been devised to reduce pollution – though at an expense that’s handed down to the consumer.

Volkswagen has been offering diesel options for years, and in key areas, their diesel vehicles are better than the gasoline powered ones.

Take for instance the Golf. The TDI diesel option offers 6 more miles per gallon in the city over the gasoline model (30 mpg vs. 24 mpg) and 11 more miles per gallon on the highway (42 mpg vs. 31 mpg) all while still looking great and keeping its trunk space (something many hybrids can’t say.)

In defence of hybrids, average fuel economy on a Civic Hybrid is 44 mpg while the Prius is 50 mpg. The Golf TDI may have a solid 42 mpg highway rating, but average fuel economy is a less impressive 34 mpg.

Volkswagen sees diesel as an important part of becoming a more environmentally friendly car company. Mark Gillies, Product and Technology PR manager at Volkswagen America tells us “Diesel is part of our future powertrain strategy and you will likely see more models with a diesel option in the future.”

He explains that diesel can appeal to many drivers “The more practically minded will love the excellent highway mileage and range, which are perfect for the way that so many Americans drive.”

Gillies also explained his personal preference of diesel powered cars “As a car enthusiast, I love the torque of a diesel, which is perfect for mid-range passing performance, merging onto on-ramps, and for towing.”

Gillies’ torque-love is well-founded. The TDI Golf makes a noticeable amount of additional torque: where the normal gas Golf makes just 177 lbs-ft of torque at 4250 rpm, the TDI model makes 236 lbs-ft or torque at 1750-2500 rpm.

All that extra diesel-y goodness comes at a price though. Literally. Diesel fuel costs slightly more at the gas station and most diesel cars are more expensive than their gasoline stable mates. In the case of the Golf, a gasoline model starts at $17,995 while the diesel version costs $24,235, a difference of $6,240. To help off-set this cost, VW tends to better equip its TDI models. If you’re on more of a budget, Volkswagen also offers a Jetta TDI for about $2,000 less.

As mentioned, diesel models often require expensive emissions systems, which can also result in added maintenance, and cost. Two of VW’s models use what the company calls AdBlue, a chemical solution (often generally referred to as DEF or Diesel Exhaust Fluid) used to help the vehicles’ emissions stay environmentally friendly. The AdBlue liquid must be refilled at regular service intervals (every 10,000-15,000 miles) and are covered under VW’s three-year/36,000-mile Carefree Maintenance Program.

But it is something to keep in mind, as prices of refilling a car’s DEF vary between manufacturers. Consumer Reports has mentioned paying $241.50 to refill 7.5 gallons of DEF for a diesel Mercedes-Benz GL Class. That’s $32.20 per gallon! Volkswagen apparently sells the same solution for much cheaper, with reports of customers paying just $5.40 per gallon.

Other automakers take a different approach to their diesel powertrains. Take a look at Mercedes-Benz’s E350 models, which are also available with either a gas or diesel engine. The diesel version gets only meager gains over the gasoline engine, earning one more mile per gallon in the city, and two more on the highway. That’s far less impressive than the difference on VW models.

However, in comparison to the Volkswagen vehicles, the diesel E-Class isn’t much more expensive than the gas version. In fact, it’s just $1,200 more, a much more favorable price difference. While the fuel economy doesn’t significantly favor the diesel E-Class, the torque numbers are eye-opening: 400 lb-ft of torque in the diesel compared to 273 lb-ft in the gas model.

All-New 2012 ML350 BlueTEC 4MATIC.

As a result, Mercedes markets its diesel models as more of a V8 than a V6 alternative. In Mercedes’ SUVs this means that buyers can enjoy the high torque of a V8, but with the fuel economy and environmentally friendliness of a V6. Mercedes’ offers diesel engines for its ML, GL and R-Class trucks.

The selection of diesel offerings is expanding, and not just by German automakers either, with both domestic and Japanese manufacturers preparing to launch diesel vehicles in the next few years. Among the planned arrivals is the Chevy Cruze diesel, Cadillac ATS diesel and the return of the Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel. Mazda has also announced it will offer its new Skyactiv-D engine in the near future, though isn’t saying what car (or cars) it will power.

For those who want a fun and powerful car, but one that also visits the pump less often, a diesel can be a viable option. Like hybrids, they carry a price premium over their gasoline powered brothers. Unlike hybrids, particularly ultra high efficiency ones like the Prius, they’re peppy around town.

The price of gas is quickly reaching the price of diesel gas, helping make diesel an attractive alternative for prospective car buyers. Another factor that might make diesel a more attractive option is the fact that they tend to fetch a better resale value than their gas powered counterparts.

Ultimately it’s a question of driver preference, before buying a diesel it’s important to make sure it suits you driving style – and your commute.

Sami Haj-Assaad
Sami Haj-Assaad

Sami has an unquenchable thirst for car knowledge and has been at AutoGuide for the past six years. He has a degree in journalism and media studies from the University of Guelph-Humber in Toronto and has won multiple journalism awards from the Automotive Journalist Association of Canada. Sami is also on the jury for the World Car Awards.

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  • Davpearn Davpearn on Nov 30, 2012

    You Americans are going to have to learn new words to avoid confusion when referring to different fuels such as LPG CNG LNG all used by automobiles/trucks and busses in the 'other' world, but coming to you eventually. Then there is diesel and diesel combined with gas (LPG) then in 'your' words - diesel gas......oops. We in the rest of the world don't 'gas up' our cars unless like me it's LPG. We in Australia (not Austria) gave up the ridiculous imperial measurement system decades ago - isn't it about time you entered the modern world? Your scientist have had to, even Wall St has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 'global' world you're school kids will be so grateful if you do!

    • See 2 previous
    • DSS DSS on Aug 31, 2013

      Yawn. Can anyone besides "down under" tell me where the "gas up stations are" in the US? It is get gas or get fuel. We don't get suckered at the pump with BS metric measurements like a liter. $1.60/L X 3.78 still means $120/75.6L tank is Aus. But hey atleast a liter is cheaper. That's $3.60 for 3.78 liters in the US @ $78/20 gals. Metric vs Standard = boned at the pump down under. And what the.... is a 15 oz pint anyway? Ya'll even getting shorted on your beers. Astronauts and astronomers use the Standard system. Light Speed/186,000 MILES per second and an AU is 92,955,807.3 MILES. Opps, you've only had 3 from Australians make it into NASA, never mind. That's over your head. The metric system is so easy a caveman can do it. Duh umm. what comes after 2? anything in metric...er um 3...goodie mate here is a cookie. A 9/16" socket will fit a 13 MM socket any day of the week. If we want really metric, we'll buy a tool that fits both. Oh and we have all of the important acronyms down. KFC, MPH, TGIF, BRB and DILLIGAF.

  • I'm a South African lady driving 2005 corsa cdti 1.7, it recently broke a Cam belt and the quotation to get it fixed goe's around +- R12 000, is this price reasonable as I don't know much about these things?