?Diesel or Hybrid – Which Fuel-Efficient Car Solution Is Right for You?
The world is getting greener – or at least that is the impression as the car manufacturers seem to be launching new, more environmentally-friendly models on an almost weekly basis.
But however much you want to save the planet, the main deciding factor when you buy your next new car will usually be financial. The more fuel you save, the more money you keep in your pocket. So how do hybrids and diesels, the great rivals in the race to better fuel consumption, compare? And how do you choose which is right for you?
Let’s take the older of these two technologies first: Diesel gets its name from Rudolf Diesel, who developed the basic processes used in the engines that bear his name way back in 1897.
Although diesel engines have a very long history, it is fair to say that over many decades, they did not really change very much. In fact until the last 15 years or so, diesel engines have been associated with noise and black exhaust smoke, and it was beginning to look like they should be consigned to history.
The black smoke that older diesel engines are responsible for is actually made up of very small particles of soot, called particulate matter (PM), which can cause respiratory illnesses. This resulted in some countries, such as Japan, imposing increasingly strict regulations which all but removed diesel vehicles from the roads.
However, in recent years, diesel has made a comeback. Now championed by such companies as Audi and Mercedes Benz, diesels have become increasingly refined, and the “”common rail”” fuel injection system first commercialized by the Denso corporation in Japan in 1995 has also resulted in lower emissions. It is not just trucks and tractors that use diesel engines now – you can find them in many refined luxury vehicles such as Mercedes, Jaguar and BMW also.
Now, you many be surprised to know that hybrid drivetrains also have a long history. The founder of Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, built a hybrid called Semper Vivus all the way back in 1900. However, unlike diesel, hybrid powertrains did not take off back then. Perhaps it was the complexity and cost of this solution? Anyway, for years the hybrid looked like an evolutionary dead end – an interesting anomaly in the history of the automobile.
And then came the Prius. First launched in Japan in December 1997, this first full-on commercialization of the hybrid system in a passenger car could also have withered and died on the branch. Back in the late 90s when I had my first ride in this first-generation Prius, it seemed like a technical tour de force, but there was always a question as to who would be buying one?
A lesser company would have let it expire, but not Toyota. They say that Japanese corporations have a much longer planning horizon than western companies, and Toyota is no exception. This first-generation Prius was just part of a long-term strategy – not only to create a specialist hybrid model, but also for the hybrid powertrain to be offered across the model range.
Now, 14 years later, Toyota’s foresight and dedication to the hybrid cause is bearing incredible fruit. One major benefit for them is that “”hybrid”” as a concept is very closely associated with the Toyota brand in general, and with the Prius model in particular. It is no surprise that over 3 million Prius have been sold worldwide, with one million sales in the US alone.
What is interesting to me is how the history in the development of these two different approaches to powering cars actually has a very important bearing on which is going to be best for you when you buy a new car.
As you can see, the diesel solution was born in Germany and it is the German manufacturers who have pushed development furthest. The hybrid, on the other hand, did not make it very far in Germany, but has been championed by a Japanese car maker.
So why is this significant? Well, you just have to look at the driving situations in these two countries to see why their engineers have preferred these different solutions: Germany is famous for the autobahn – wide, fast highways with sections that have no speed limits. Japan, in contrast, has congested roads with innumerable stop lights.
This background actually gives you a very big clue as to which will most suit your driving style and situation: If you tend to do longer, highway-cruising journeys, then the diesel option will be best for you. (After all, a hybrid at speed is just a regular petrol-engined car lugging around a lot of extra battery ballast.) On the other hand, if you do a lot of city driving, then you need to opt for the hybrid powertrain which revels in stop-start driving conditions.
In the future, this choice between diesel and hybrid is likely to end: Volkswagen is leading the way with its XL1 two-seater commuter car coming in 2013. This car combines an 800cc diesel engine with a hybrid system to produce a car with an incredible fuel economy of 313 miles per gallon.
Until then, the frugal car-buyer needs to make a choice: And which way you should go is best answered by looking at the kind of journeys you do.