AutoWeek: Day of the Diesel

October 14, 2008
Somebody must've spilled a drum of ULSD at AutoWeek's headquarters this morning, because we were graced by not one, not two, but three back-to-back articles singing the praises of Rudolf Diesel's oil burner. All well written and quite pointed, there was a stinging criticism of Ford's refusal to bring its passenger car diesels to the United States, a summary of Japan's gradual embrace of the diesel, and a drive/critique/tease of Subaru's new boxer turbodiesel set to come stateside (maybe) sometime after 2010.

Denise McCluggage excoriates Ford's Mark Fields' lack of leadership, calling him "a wuss." She sat through a recent Ford briefing on new drivetrains, claiming she endured 45 minutes of "droning before 'diesel' was mentioned, and then only in relation to trucks." She has a hard time understanding why Ford simply listens to market surveys and relies on hastily assembled PowerPoint presentations that claim low public opinion for diesel passenger cars. She believes that Ford should show some guts and lead, bringing its 65 mpg diesel Fiesta to America rather than letting Volkswagen, Audi, BMW, Honda/Acura, and perhaps Subaru lead the diesel charge and then playing me-too if those ventures succeed.

Next up, Dino Dalle Carbonare explains that even notoriously anti-diesel Japan is getting in on the sparkless bandwagon. Despite very slow sales of Mercedes E-Class CDI diesel since its intro in Japan in 2006, and a 2005 Tokyo ban on diesel passenger cars to limit city pollution, Nissan just introduced its new X-Trail 20GT with a 2.0-liter turbodiesel four. With this powerplant, the X-Trail is the first vehicle to meet Japan's new emissions standards (supposedly the strictest in the world) going into effect October '09. This engine also yields 30 percent better economy than the X-Trail's gasoline version (36 mpg vs. 27), and combined with diesel that sells for about 20 percent less than gasoline in the Japanese market, Nissan believes this compelling economic argument will force Japanese buyers to take a second look at diesel vehicles. Honda apparently feels the same way, and it is bringing a diesel to the Japanese market in '09.

The final piece of Autoweek's diesel triple-threat is Natalie Neff's article on the Subaru Boxer 2.0-liter turbodiesel, for sale in the European market in multiple models and just added to the European Forester SUV line with a six-speed manual for '09. With power numbers very similar to VW's 2.0 TDI unit (145 horsepower, 258 pound-feet), the Boxer is unique in that its horizontally opposed design eliminates the need for space-robbing balance shafts, the exhaust routing enables turbo location extremely close to the exhaust valves minimizing thermal losses, and the whole project marks the very first horizontally opposed turbodiesel engine for a production automobile. Neff claims the Forester with this diesel "never feels short of breath," and praises its smooth and quiet operation. Speaking to this engine's possible appearance in Subaru's North American lineup, she reports that Subaru says "we shouldn't expect it before 2010."

Disclaimer: Clearly, I am biased. I switched from my dream ride, a 1991 Toyota MR2, in favor of a crusty 300,000-mile Benz diesel wagon two years ago--not sexy, lean, or mean, but a relic from diesel's last heyday in America. Weekend work to get this 3,900-pound beast from rough to running has given me extreme respect for German engineering and appreciation for the longevity and durability of the diesel engine. Parts like $470-a-piece self-leveling rear shocks have kept me in local junkyards scavenging for $20 replacements to keep it all in working order. But to me, the icing on this rusty cake is the old Benz engine's ability to run on just about any oil you can throw at it, most specifically used vegetable oil. To prove a point about recycling used vegetable oil as a clean-burning alternative to ULSD, I'm traveling from Atlanta to L.A. in December on nothing but used veggie oil. And while I'm out in L.A., I'm finally getting the crusty, tri-color wagon a fresh coat of paint at a considerable discount.

Gas prices and economic woes are forcing automakers and backyard mechanics across the country (and the world) to consider new ways of powering automobiles. Diesel's resurgence is an interesting chapter in the quest for greater fuel economy, and with VW and Audi having set some mighty impressive fuel economy records as of late, the battle between gas/electric hybrids and ultra-efficient clean diesels has gone yet another exciting round.

What's your take? Should a cash-strapped Ford take a risk and bring passenger car diesels to America? Have you ever owned or driven a diesel, and if so, how would you describe your experience? Finally, do you think VW, Audi, BMW, Subaru, and Honda's diesels will change American opinion regarding the diesel, or is this popular-in-Europe engine a poor fit for American drivers?--Colin Mathews

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