Although small-displacement diesel vehicles have long been commonplace in Europe and Asia, North America has been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to these efficient, cost-effective alternate-fuelled automobiles.
It’s hard to say whether it’s because automakers here have never really cottoned on to them, or the technology is too expensive, or the quality of diesel fuel on this continent has thus far been inferior to that found elsewhere. But around the world, companies like Peugeot, Ford, Citroën, Volkswagen, Vauxhall, Fiat, Mitsubishi, Mazda, and so on churn out a wide range of fun-to-drive, affordable city cars and trucks that are remarkably thrifty to operate and produce fewer emissions than their gasoline counterparts.
Sure, Volkswagen has been selling diesel cars in North America since the 1980s and manufacturers such as Nissan, Volvo, and even BMW have taken a stab at the diesel-passenger-car market over the years, but at this point ours is still a gas-centric automotive culture.
That may be changing, however. General Motors is enjoying success with its compact diesel Cruze sedan, and BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and of course Volkswagen all have models on the market.
But is diesel worthwhile? A recent study by the automotive data-collection group Vincentric says yes—and no. The study, conducted during the first half of 2015 and involving some 34 vehicles, showed that most of the time, a diesel-powered automobile is more cost-effective than its gasoline-fuelled counterpart and delivers fewer emissions.
But not always. The problem is that the vast majority of these vehicles are luxury cars. “Of the 12 diesel vehicles with lower ownership costs than their gasoline counterparts,” Vincentric says, “11 were luxury models, including four vehicles each from Audi and Mercedes-Benz and 3 vehicles from BMW.
“In most cases studied,” adds the report, “the diesel vehicle had a higher market price than its gas alternative, which causes several cost factors to increase, including finance, opportunity costs, and fees & taxes. The (Canadian Diesel) analysis also shows that diesels typically have slightly higher insurance, repair, and maintenance costs. However, in most cases diesels offer lower fuel expenses compared to their all-gas counterpart due to their improved MPG. In addition, on a percentage basis, diesels have lower depreciation, but due to a higher purchase price, their total depreciation costs are higher.” Vincentric based its study on vehicles being driven at least 25,000 kilometres annually and owned for five years—the Canadian national average.
The only nonluxury model to have lower ownership costs than its gasoline counterpart was, interestingly, the Chevrolet Cruze, and even more interesting is the fact that the diesel engine in this car is actually manufactured by either Fiat or Daewoo.
Some other things revealed by the study:
> The average price premium for a diesel vehicle over its gas equivalent was $5,650.
> Average maintenance costs were $476 higher per year for diesel models.
> Diesel-fuel cost savings averaged $4,005 per year.
> With costs to own and operate all 34 vehicles taken into account, the average cost of ownership was $2,030 more for a diesel vehicle compared to its gasoline counterpart. That cost included depreciation, fees and taxes, financing, fuel, insurance, maintenance, opportunity cost, and repairs.
“Over the past several months we’ve seen the price advantage that gasoline has had over diesel fuel diminish, enhancing the fuel economy advantages of diesel vehicles,” added Vincentric’s David Wurster. “However, fuel economy is only part of the story. With total cost-of-ownership savings from only one third of the diesel models analyzed, consumers need to be informed when shopping for diesels to find the models that offer savings.”
According to Vincentric, the vehicles that have the lowest overall fuel costs compared to gasoline models are, with one exception, all Volkswagens: the Beetle, the Golf, the Jetta, and the Passat TDI. That exception is the BMW 328d Xdrive. For more about the study, go to www.vincentric.com/.
Audi, meanwhile, recently discovered a way to manufacture diesel fuel synthetically. Known as e-diesel, or blue crude, the man-made juice is produced by heating water to form steam, which is then broken down into hydrogen and oxygen by using what’s known as high-temperature electrolysis. The hydrogen is exposed to carbon dioxide under high pressure and temperature, and refined through the usual refining process to yield e-diesel. Apparently, the resulting fuel is free from sulphur and nasty hydrocarbons, and is soot-free and odourless.
At this point, Audi says production of e-diesel will be limited, with perhaps 3,000 litres in total being refined over the next few months, but clearly diesel fuel in one form or another is here for the long run.