By Tony Whitney

Surprising as it may seem, I get an amazing number of queries from readers asking why we can’t buy more diesel-engined vehicles in North America. Quite often, this may be someone who has been travelling in Europe and has discovered how economical a small diesel powered car
can be – even in a region where fuel prices are several times what they are here. Others have simply heard talk of the legendary reliability of the diesel engine and are attracted by driving 1,000 km on one tank of less expensive fuel.

Diesel-powered automobiles have popped up now and again in our market, but in recent times, Volkswagen has been the only automaker to fill the need. Right now, you can buy VW’s New Beetle, Golf hatchback and Jetta sedan with a diesel engine. Drive one of these and you’ll be surprised how quiet and responsive even small diesel engines have become. The old days of rattling, smoking, diesel engines have certainly gone forever thanks to the advanced technology
and electronics associated with the current generation of diesel engines.

Of course, diesel engines have long been available in pickup trucks and there are some very fine ones out there right now from GM, Ford and Dodge. Diesel-engined cars, though, have been very thin on the ground to say the least. In Europe, they’ve been predicting a market in which more than half the vehicles sold have diesel engines and they may have got there already. Canadian buyers would certainly be a lot more attracted by small diesel-engined cars if they had to pay upwards of $2 a litre for gasoline.

Every European builder of mass market automobiles and minivans offers a diesel of some kind or another and some makers have a diesel option on every vehicle they offer. Quite simply, an automaker wouldn’t stay in business too long in Europe if it neglected the diesel market. On more advanced vehicles, a turbocharger is usually combined with the basic diesel engine to enhance performance and thus a “TD” badge is a common site on the trunk of a European car.

Automakers like Mercedes-Benz, BMW, VW, Audi, Peugeot, Citroen, Renault, Opel, Volvo, Fiat, Alfa Romeo and others have been offering diesel powered vehicles for many years. Even very upscale products like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class have been available with a diesel for decades. You can buy a PT Cruiser diesel in Europe, where DaimlerChrysler is working on a new diesel engine which will be “super clean,” according to this automaker. Rumours about a diesel PT
Cruiser for the North American market have so far not been confirmed.

So why are North American buyers so reluctant to embrace the long-life, economical, “oil burner?” Low gasoline costs on this side of the pond are an obvious reason, but there’s also a lingering notion (probably garnered from watching highway trucks) that diesels are noisy and create more pollution than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. Certainly, the price gap between gasoline and diesel fuel isn’t as dramatic as it is in Europe, but there are many other benefits worth considering. Also, considerable efforts have been made in recent years to reduce diesel emissions.

Automakers have proven that it is possible to build diesel engines that are significantly more thrifty than their gasoline equivalents – and that’s not taking the benefits of longevity and low maintenance into account. A couple of years ago I drove a Volkswagen Lupo 3L (VW’s smallest model) on an economy run in Germany and recorded an amazing 2.8-litres/100 km on a drive through busy weekend traffic on suburban roads.

The past few years have been bleak for the North American diesel fan, but the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit brought a few rays of hope. The stylish and popular Jeep Liberty will be available with a 2.8-litre Mercedes-Benz diesel for the 2004 model year. Also, Mercedes-Benz will once again offer a diesel option on its mid-range E-Class model. Whether this is an indication of a major trend is yet to be seen, but tripling the
number of automakers offering diesel models in Canada will be no bad thing at all and should provide some indication whether or not all those readers who contact me are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

The only worry I have about using a diesel powered vehicle on a day-to-day basis is the lack of fuel supply infrastructure. I recently had a Dodge truck on test with a Cummins turbo diesel and had to choose my routes carefully if the fuel was running low. Travelling on freeways poses no problems since the gas stations carry diesel fuel to serve the truck market. The suburbs, though, are a different case altogether. Major fuel suppliers seem to have decided that they can make more money selling corner lots for development than retailing gasoline and this has led to a lessening of available services in suburban areas. Searching out diesel supplies – even in familiar areas – can be quite a problem. Perhaps the addition of all those diesel-powered Jeep Libertys and Mercedes E-Class models will spur the fuel companies to increase the availability of appropriate fuel. And if war in the Middle East does drive the price of gasoline to the gloomy levels that are being predicted, perhaps a few more automakers will take the plunge and offer a diesel option.

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