Are Diesel Cars Less Relevant Than Ever In The U.S?

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diesel badge on 2011 Porsche Cayenne (euro spec)

diesel badge on 2011 Porsche Cayenne (euro spec)

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Spend time in any European city, and you'll quickly become used to two sounds.

One, is the constant buzz from thousands of mopeds, by far the quickest way of navigating the tight streets. The other is the subdued rattle of diesel engines.

While Europe has wholeheartedly embraced diesels, they've never really caught on in the U.S.--though the range of diesel models on offer is slowly increasing. And with hybrids becoming cheaper and regular gasoline cars more efficient, will diesel ever make sense as an alternative fuel?

Cost and availability

You won't have failed to notice the extra price of diesel over gasoline fuel when filling up your car.

Based on the most recent figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, a gallon of gasoline costs around $3.44 on average. A gallon of diesel will set you back $3.85. While $0.41 doesn't sound like a great deal, it's clearly going to be a cost that adds up, the more of it you use.

In Europe, this isn't the case in many territories. While diesel is around $0.50 per gallon more expensive in the U.K. than gasoline, the relatively high EU fuel economy figures and CO2 outputs are used to calculate annual registration taxes for cars. That means diesels can often be a hundred dollars or more cheaper each year to tax.

In other countries, such as France, diesel is as much as $0.80 a gallon cheaper than gas, which makes diesel cars significantly more cost-effective to run.

Unlike Europe, compared to gasoline filling stations, diesel pumps in the U.S are more sparsely distributed. So not only is diesel more expensive, but comparatively harder to find.

Cost of diesel vehicles - and cheaper, more efficient gasoline cars

While diesel fuel does cost more than gasoline, for many the cost can be offset by the extra economy of diesel engines. That $0.41 doesn't look so bad if you're going to be using far less of the fuel every time you travel.

In particular, diesels excel on the highway, where strong torque at low revs allows them to cruise using very little fuel without feeling underpowered.

Unfortunately, diesel cars also typically cost more to purchase in the first place. That means you really need to cover high mileage to make the most of them, to offset not only that extra cost of diesel over gas, but to justify the extra purchase price.

This would be easier to justify had regular gasoline cars not improved significantly in recent years. Now, it's quite possible to buy a relatively inexpensive car that does 40 mpg or more on the highway - in fact, we found ten of them for under $20,000.

The 2012 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, one of the more popular diesel models, has an MSRP of $22,775, and EPA highway economy of 42 mpg. The similarly sized 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco also manages 42 mpg highway according to EPA figures, but retails for only $19,175. At over $3,500 less and with cheaper fuel, you'd save money on every journey with the Chevy - and pay over the odds with the VW.

Clean air regulations

Though diesel vehicles have improved significantly in recent years thanks to particulate filters and urea injection, the gases emerging from their tailpipes still aren't as clean as those from the equivalent gasoline car.

With particularly tight regulations on clean air, particularly in states like California, that requires carmakers to spend even more ensuring their cars are clean enough - and that cost is pushed on to consumers.

Some manufacturers, knowing this, simply don't bother importing the wide range of diesels they sell elsewhere in the world, as the limited sales couldn't justify the extra cost.


Depending on what you're looking for in a car, diesels do offer a wide range of benefits. Heck, some recent diesels are even quite good fun to drive, certainly more so than many hybrids.

Performance is often relatively effortless, thanks to modern technology and turbocharging, and refinement is far beyond the image of the rattly, sooty diesel that many people hold - particularly with expensive, multi-cylinder units from BMW, or Mercedes-Benz.

Highway economy is also strong, and it's worth highlighting that although the VW Jetta TDI is quoted at only 42 mpg highway, several owners seem to be getting significantly more - figures into the 50s aren't unheard of.

However, people are more likely to use the EPA figures as a measuring stick, and on those numbers alone, diesel seems pointless.

A relative lack of pumps and the increased price when you get there, as well as high purchase prices, mean that as gasoline cars get ever more efficient (and hybrids increasingly affordable), the U.S. market for diesel cars could remain as limited as it is today.


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Comments (14)
  1. Diesel is and has always been even a more dieing breed than ICE vehicles in America, and with the coming of electrics, both breeds are going to why keep holding onto a dead horse and trying to beat it back to life?

  2. Diesel and gasoline are both ICE.

    I agree that EVs will eventually replace diesel and gasoline vehicles, but that's decades away. Via Motors will soon be selling a plug-in hybrid version of the Chevy pickup truck. Battery costs help to drive the price of this truck up to $79,000. To make a pure EV version would cost even more.

  3. Trucks and heavy-towing vehicles will always use diesels and those are obviously not going anywhere.

  4. I use diesel (home heating oil) to heat my house.

  5. FYI . . . from the Diesel Technology Forum:
    Washington, D.C. – The sales of new clean diesel automobiles in the U.S. increased by an impressive 27.4 percent in 2011 over 2010, according to updated sales information compiled by HybridCars.Com and the market research firm Baum and Associates.

    “Without a doubt, 2011 was a key year for the industry’s effort to reestablish clean diesel automobiles in the United States,” said Allen Schaeffer, the Executive Director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

  6. Diesel cars would sell better in America if EPA would fix their testing to accurately show the difference between diesel and gasoline efficiency. I'd bet a paycheck that in an apples vs. apples highway test, the Cruze Eco couldn't come close to the Jetta TDI, even though both are EPA 42 mpg highway. It's not just "several owners seem to be getting significantly more" than the EPA ratings in their Jetta TDIs and other diesel cars. Almost nobody seems to average only 34 mpg combined in a Jetta TDI as EPA claims. My 2009 Jetta TDI Sportwagen was averaging 41-42 mpg combined until I slowed down to the speed limit and weaned myself off the heavy foot (a habit from owning an RX-7 years ago). Now I'm averaging 47 mpg combined.

  7. While a Gen III Prius might do a bit better than the 47 mpg I'm averaging in my Jetta TDI Sportwagen, the Prius has less useable cargo room (large dog crate wouldn't fit) and the Prius is also less fun to drive. To match the Jetta Sportwagen in cargo room I'd have to get a Prius V, which apparently would not beat the Jetta TDI in real world cost of fuel.

  8. I'm a car dealer and I own an interest in dealerships representing a number of different brands including Volkswagen. The author makes some very valid observations. The number of gas vehicles achieving over 40 miles per gallon has really increased over the last few years. Hyundai, in particular has some great offerings in that category. To me the choice really comes down to the type of driver you are. If you like a tight handling German suspension and you want some torque of the line in your 40+ mpg vehicle, there's nothing else in the category that drives the same as the VW. On the other hand if it's pure economics and you drive very conservatively, you'll likely gravitate toward some of the less expensive gas engine vehicles.

  9. "Volkswagen Sales Rocket" from DriveOn - USAToday Feb. 1 2012
    "And on and on it goes for Volkswagen. The German automaker reported a 47.9% jump in new vehicle sales in January, in what's become a commonplace accounting. Best January since 1974, VW says.
    Sales of VW diesel models were up 30.2% and accounted for
    17.6% of all VW sales."
    Apparently diesel is relevant to some buyers.
    Right now VW cannot keep up with the demand for TDI's.

  10. How about 53-54 mpg (admittedly larger UK gallons) from a Renault Scenic dci. Its like a taller more spacious Golf. My daily commute is 26 miles, half motorway, half more or less nose to tail. I've seen 73 mpg on a 250 mile mainly motorway run. Our other last car - Renault Megane 1.4 16v petrol averaged about 38 mpg. Its a no brainer. And with the torque and higher gearing its nicer to drive.
    Yes, I'd like an electric but I'm not keen to be an early adopter or pay the current prices for batteries. cp

  11. Where this article is flawed is that EPA highway figures for all cars are not real life fuel consumption figures. Diesels, while delivering outstanding fuel economy close if not better than the EPA figures, I would like to see a gasoline car that even comes close to the advertised Highway fuel consumption ratings. In fact, if you read articles from auto journalist who take some of these cars for long term tests and use them every day, you will see that figure is actually closer to its city driving. Therefore, in fact, Diesels consume much much much less and are worth the extra couple of thousand. On top of that torque, which is more significant and a much more important figure than HP.

  12. As this author built his argument and cited numerical stats, he should have not forgotten to include projected resale value. Diesel cars have higher resale values, which would push this comparison of the Jetta TDI with the Cruze Eco to a draw.

  13. Enjoyed your article, but statement that diesel have never really taken off. I question this. Diesel's have never been really offered in the US. Europe has had diesel's in cars for decades. Many models. Here it is VW, Mercedes. The only low price one is VW. So it won't happen until they do really offer it here.

  14. This report must be the reason why Volkswagen's sales were the highest they have ever been since 2003 in the us.The major player in VW's line up is the Jetta, and with a 40/60 TDI/Gas ratio, diesel cars must be "Less Relevant then ever in the US" right that makes a lot of sense.....

    How can you even begin to compared a Jetta TDI with a chevy cruze? If you drive 20-30k a year your Cruze will last you about 4-5 years (if that) while a TDI is known for going to at least 300k. I have seen TDI's with 400k on them, that means your jetta with last you at least 3 times as long.

    I know it costs more but your mpgs will be high 40s to 50s.For a person that does a lot of driving there is no other car that is a better driving experience to mpg ratio.

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