The car I’m driving this week is fast, quiet, environmentally friendly, very well-made and gets excellent fuel economy.
It’s a Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI, and it’s a diesel. Uh oh.
Until recently, diesels were a very hard sell in the U.S. because they were dirty and polluting. The fuel was more expensive than gasoline. And they were slow! The turbodiesels would get moving eventually, but you had to be very patient with the turbo lag.
The latest diesels solve nearly all of these problems, but they’re still an uncertain prospect on the U.S. market.
The German carmakers are now really pushing diesels over hybrids, and there are new models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi in addition to VW. I’ve had officials from all those companies wag fingers in my face and explain why diesels are better than hybrids for the environment, but it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the American consciousness.
The U.S. has had one of the world’s strongest laws mandating clean, low-sulfur diesel fuel since 2006. The Volkswagen TDI I’m driving meets the world’s toughest emission control standards, California’s Tier II, Bin 5. It uses anti-pollution technology developed in a joint effort with Mercedes (which markets BlueTec cars here) and Audi to temporarily hold nitrogen oxide until it can be burned. A high-pressure common-rail injection system atomizes fuel more efficiently than mechanical injectors.
Diesels are inherently 25 to 40% more fuel-efficient than their competition. The Jetta TDI diesel wagon, with a 140-horsepower two-liter engine, gets really stellar mileage of 20 in the city and 40 on the highway. Another big plus is that diesel fuel (67% more expensive than gasoline just a year ago) is now basically the same price.
We really should take a serious look at diesels, now that the fuel is affordable. For one thing, they’re often cheaper than hybrids. The Jetta SportWagen TDI lists for $23,870, though my test car (loaded down with options) went for $29,410. VW’s slogan is “Good Clean Diesel Fun. It’s What the People Want.” That last part is still unclear. We’re Americans, after all.