When people think of diesel engines what they usually think of is a loud semi rumbling by, emitting foul-smelling, thick, black exhaust. So why is diesel fuel now being called a clean alternative to gas? Simply put, the diesel fuel of today is much different than the diesel fuel of yesterday. Because of new clean-diesel technology — the introduction of ultra low-sulfur diesel fuel — diesel is now as clean as gasoline. Because of the low-sulfur diesel fuel, cars powered by diesel can now employ the use of catalytic converters, filters and other exhaust treatments, stripping diesel of foul-smelling pollutants. What makes diesel engines better for the environment than gasoline powered engines is the better mileage provided by diesel. Diesel engines are on average roughly 30% more efficient than gas engines, which means if you own a diesel powered car or truck you burn 30% less fuel. Given the marked difference in mileage, buying a car or light truck powered by diesel as opposed to gasoline seems like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, there are other considerations that make the decision much more complex; specifically, the cost of diesel-powered vehicles, the difference in the fuel cost of diesel versus gasoline, and the availability of diesel powered cars and light trucks.
Vehicle Cost: Because diesel engines need to be modified to meet EPA standards to burn fuel more cleanly you can expect to pay a premium for diesel powered vehicles compared to similar gas powered vehicles while also sacrificing horespower. Based on data from Edmunds.com as of July 1, 2010 you will pay a sizable amount more for a diesel than a gas-powered vehicle. The 2010 Volkswagen Jetta TDI is the most reasonably priced diesel on the road today with an MSRP of $22,830. This is over $600 more expensive than the gas-powered 2010 VW Jetta, and you are sacrificing horsepower, but you will get on average 8 more miles per gallon. If you are on the market for a diesel SUV, the 2010 Audi Q7 diesel will cost you $4,000 more than its gas counterpart, and has 55 less horsepower. You can expect to average 4.5 more miles per gallon with the diesel version.
Clearly, you will pay more for diesels, but diesel engines will last much longer than gas engines. For those planning on unloading the car or truck in 3 to 5 years this means that diesels depreciate more slowly, so you can sell the vehicle for more. For those that plan on holding onto their diesel until it dies this means reduced maintenance costs and a longer life expectancy as it is not unheard of for diesel engines to last for 250,000 miles or more.
Fuel Cost: Because of the better fuel efficiency diesel engines provide you will save money on fuel, but if you are considering a diesel because of its fuel efficiency you will need to factor in the cost of diesel fuel as opposed to the cost of gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), diesel fuel prices are roughly $0.20 per gallon more expensive than gasoline. Part of the difference in price is due to the fact that diesel fuel is taxed at a rate about 25 percent higher than gasoline. Federal taxes account for 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel but only 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline. The higher price for diesel fuel partially offsets the cost savings you will have from the better mileage. If the prices of gas and diesel fuel were the same you would pay $400 more per year for gas for an Audi A3 driven 12,000 miles, but because of the fuel price difference the diesel fuel savings amount to only $300 per year.
Another consideration related to fuel cost is the proximity of the nearest diesel pump. According to the Diesel Technology Forum, fewer than half of the local gas stations in the United States also offer diesel fuel. This means potentially having to drive an additional mile or two to fill up your tank, which in turn will offset some of the fuel efficiency savings.
Vehicle Availability: According to practicalenvironmentalist.com there are a limited number of 2011 diesel models available. For car shoppers with budgets of less than $20,000 they will have to wait at least another year before a vehicle in their price range becomes available. In addition, families craving a diesel minivan will also have to wait until 2012 and beyond. The reason there are not more models available is that it is expensive to upgrade a standard diesel engine so that it meets US “”clean diesel”” standards. The most popular models available are the Audi A3, the Audi Q7, the BMW 335d, the BMW X5 xDrive 35d, Dodge Ram 2500, Dodge Ram 3500, Ford F-250 Super Duty, Ford F-350 Super Duty, Ford F-250 Super Duty, GMC Sierra 2500 HD, GMC Sierra 3500 HD, Mercedes-Benz ML350, Mercedes-Benz GL350, Mercedes-Benz R350, the VolkswagenTouareg TDI, the Jetta TDI, The Jetta SportWagen TDI, and the Volkswagen Golf.
Until the cost of developing diesel engines that comply with the EPA’s clean diesel standards comes down and the government removes the tax disadvantages on purchases of diesel fuel, car and light truck manufacturers will not produce diesels on the same level as gas-powered vehicles. But for those people that want a reliable car that will last 10+ years diesels are a great alternative to gas or hybrids because of their lower maintenance costs and longer life expectancies.