Sometimes prayers are answered. The rest of the world has had the pleasure of powerful, clean and ultra-efficient diesel engines for decades. The Germans, masters of diesel technology, steadfastly refused to bring diesel power to the U.S. market because they don’t think that we will buy them.
They do have a point. I mean, ask the average American driver about diesel and they conjure up images of billowing clouds of black, noxious smoke, belching trucks and busses and the dreaded diesel chatter. Even people not alive during the 1970s or 1980s have a visceral negative reaction to diesel, probably a byproduct of their parents’ prejudices or maybe from getting stuck behind a diesel school bus on a two lane road with no passing possibilities. Roll up the windows and press the recirculation button.
But the whole diesel question kind of goes back to the chicken and the egg paradox. We aren’t going to buy diesel-powered cars if they aren’t available, right? And what do we make of the fact that, for many years, Volkswagen dealers have been quietly selling out of every TDI (VW-speak for turbo-charged direct injection diesel technology) model they can get in inventory? Conclusion: There is a small, but growing market for diesel power and efficiency.
The fact is that diesel power never left the truck market. Diesel is still the engine of choice for heavy-duty pickup trucks that need lots of low-end torque for towing and carrying heavy cargo. Almost all big rigs are still diesel-powered.
For most of the 1980s, 1990s an early 2000s, gasoline was so cheap in the U.S. that manufacturers didn’t see the need to offer efficient diesel models. Diesel engines are more expensive to manufacture and are heavier than their gasoline counterparts. Pollution control regulations also killed diesel offerings as most couldn’t meet California’s emission standards and without sales in California, it didn’t make economic sense to federalize a diesel engine.
And then there was the dirty diesel fuel itself. It wasn’t until 2007 that the U.S. implemented ultra-low sulfur (15 ppm) diesel fuel, a necessary step before European diesel engines could function properly.
The cleaner diesel set the stage for a renaissance of European (mostly German) diesel-powered cars to return to the U.S. and to meet ever-increasing federal and California emissions standards. In California (and the states that follow California emissions laws), a diesel-powered car must meet the same standards as a gasoline-powered car.
Up until 2013, if you wanted a 4-cylinder turbo-diesel powered-car, you had to buy a front-drive Volkswagen (the Audi A3 TDI was discontinued in 2013).
To help boost corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rating, the Germans have chosen V6 diesel power for their larger, heavier SUVs such as the Mercedes-Benz ML350 and GL350 BlueTec, the BMW X5 xDrive35d, VW Touareg TDI, the Audi Q7 TDI and the Porsche Cayenne Diesel. However, the seemingly-obvious application of a high-mpg 4-cylinder diesel for volume models like the Audi A4, BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-Class was inexplicably absent.
That’s all finally changing for the 2014 model year.
Over the summer, Mercedes-Benz introduced a 2.1L 4-cylider twin-turbo diesel engine in the 2014 GLK250 BlueTEC and now, the same engine is in the 2014 E250 BlueTEC sedan, which went on sale last month. I’ve driven the GLK250 BT and loved it, so I have no doubt that the same engine, making 195 hp and a whopping 396 lb-ft of torque, will be fully-capable in the new E250 BT. Both models use Mercedes’ excellent 7-speed automatic transmission with adaptive logic.
But what should turn heads is the EPA numbers for the rear-drive 2014 Mercedes E250 BlueTEC sedan: 28 mpg city, 45 mpg highway, 34 mpg combined. That’s right, this 4,200 pound sedan offers fuel economy better than most hybrids, and if you drive mostly highway miles, you will likely do better than 45 mpg. Mercedes also priced the diesel E-Class as its entry-level model, $500 less than the $52,825 E350 V6 which tops out at 30 mpg and sucks down premium fuel, which is often the same price as diesel.
Not to be outdone – finally some competition – BMW introduced its first 4-cylinder diesel engine in the US market in the 2014 3-Series. The 328d sedan enlists a brilliant 2.0L turbo-diesel engine making 180 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque. A ZF 8-speed automatic is standard. The 328d is EPA rated at 32/37/45. That’s far better than 328i which is rated at 23/27/35. The 328d, starting at $39,525, is $1,300 more than the 328i. However, if you drive around 12,000 miles a year, you could easily recoup the diesel premium in three years.
It’s a mystery why anyone would buy BMW’s ActiveHybrid 3, which uses a hybrid gasoline-electric powertrain, when it gets only 33 mpg highway and starts at $50,825, a whopping $11,300 more than the 328d. Oh wait, I forgot. No one is buying the ActiveHybrid 3 and dealers can’t give them away – what few actually exist.
More German luxury diesel competition is either here today or coming soon. Audi already sells 3.0L V6 TDI variants of the A6, A7, A8, Q5 and Q7. In 2014, we should see an Audi A4 2.0LTDI (probably a 2015 model). In addition, Audi has hinted at gracing our market with a 2.0L TDI version of the lovely A4 Allroad wagon.
The all-new (Gen-4) 2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class, to be built for the North American market at Mercedes’ Vance, Alabama plant, will likely get 2.1L BlueTEC diesel engine. If it does, its power and fuel economy could trump the BMW 328d. Unfortunately, the wagon variant of the C-Class won’t likely be sold in the US.
Porsche already sells a diesel Cayenne running a specially-tuned version of VW’s corporate 3.0L V6 TDI engine. The Porsche version has 240 hp with a staggering 406 lb-ft of torque.
The 2015 Porsche Macan, a baby Cayenne based on the Audi Q5, will get its world debut at the upcoming 2013 LA Auto Show. Starting at around $40,000, when the Macan goes on sale early in 2014, it is likely to become the best-selling Porsche, feeding Americans’ insatiable desire for compact crossovers. Of course, there will be a diesel Macan (a given for the European market) running the same 3.0L V6 diesel found in the Cayenne Diesel; but it’s not likely to be sold in the US — at least not immediately. I think the Macan Diesel will come to the US, maybe a year from now, possibly as a 2016 model. I’d like to see it with the VW corporate 2.0L TDI engine; but I don’t think that’s going to happen unless Audi drops one into the Q5.
I saved my favorite diesel development for last. BMW has always made a sweet compact 3-Series sports wagon. However, in the US, it’s been on the endangered species list for a while now.
As background, BMW used to sell a fantastic 5-Series mid-size wagon in the US; however, in 2009, it was discontinued in favor of the butt-ugly 5 GT (big mistake) and the few wagon customers were either forced to visit a Mercedes-Benz dealer for the E-Class wagon or buy BMW’s X5 SUV.
When BMW introduced the sixth-generation (F30) 3-series in 2012, the company also announced plans for a 3 GT. The 3 GT has a longer wheelbase, 4-doors, extra back-seat room (mostly for the Chinese market) and a hatchback with extra cargo space.
Wagon lovers feared the worst. Oh god, is BMW going to force a 3 GT on us? Didn’t they get the hint when no one wanted the 5 GT? Maybe the powers-that-be heard the prayers of us wagon-lovers and for the 2014 model year, the 3-Series Sports Wagon returns to BMW’s US lineup.
But it gets better – the award-winning 2.0L TwinTurbo diesel engine is available in the form of the 328d xDrive Sports Wagon. You lose a couple miles per gallon to the all-wheel drive system, but it’s that rare beast that will likely remain on the endangered list as long as it’s for sale. But for now, it’s the Holy Grail for wagon-lovers.
I drove the 2014 328d xDrive Sports Wagon (starting at $43,875) and it was sublime. The average driver wouldn’t have a clue that it was diesel powered. You barely hear the distinctive diesel low frequency throbbing and engine and standard 8-speed automatic transmission work in perfect, steady harmony acceleration across the entire RPM range. It feels faster than the 328i (even if it isn’t) and with the urea-based injection system scrubbing the emissions, there is absolutely no diesel exhaust odor.
I’m feeling faint and nearly powerless to resist ordering a 328d – you may need to wake me from this little wagon’s intoxicating charms with a real whiff of diesel. Right now, it’s the most delicious diesel-powered car on the market.