The new Mini Cooper Countryman can get 63 MPGs on the highway – just not on our highways.
Like so many other high-mileage, diesel-powered vehicles, it’s not available in the United States. Instead we get gas-electric turkeys like the Toyota Prius hybrid – which maxes out at 48 MPGs on the highway. If you drive it at around 47 MPH in the left lane with your turn signal blinking… .
It’s very strange.
Our government (well, maybe calling it “our” government is a stretch) has been browbeating the car industry to produce more “fuel efficient” cars for decades, yet at the same time, also for decades, made it very hard to sell high-efficiency diesel-powered passenger cars. VW, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Land Rover and other European brands have been selling their cars here for a long time – just not their diesel-powered cars.
In Europe, diesel cars constitute about half the new cars sold; over here, less than 5 percent – chiefly because only a handful of diesel-powered passenger cars are even available.
For two reasons, mainly.
First, for years, we had not-so-great (for emissions reasons) diesel fuel that was fine for big rigs (which until recently could pollute to their hearts content, legally) but wreaked havoc with the finely tuned pollution control equipment fitted to modern passenger car diesel engines.
This, in turn, set up the potential not just for lots of warranty-related expenses and hassles for potential diesel-car buyers but also for even greater hassles and expenses for the car companies that sold them, when the government went after them for selling “dirty” diesels.
That’s why we don’t get diesels like the Mini Countryman D.
No 63 MPGs, either.
Even though our diesel fuel is now “clean” diesel – and the warranty/pollution control issues have been dealt with.
The European car companies are still super leery of bringing to market vehicles that could lead to problems for them with the EPA politburo. Their diesel-powered cars may be “cleaner” (in terms of tailpipe emissions) than a nun’s conscience but there’s still the endless pedantry of slightly different American vs. European regulatory codes. And not just federal codes, but also the different state codes, notably “California” codes that are both different and stricter than “49 state” codes. Some Northeastern states have also adopted “California” codes – which makes achieving compliance with all the varying codes – essential to being able to profitably sell a given car, nationwide – very difficult and very expensive.
Rather than spend beaucoups bucks on lawyers and other forms of paper-pushing to make the EPA and the various state-level eco-Nazis happy, the European car companies not surprisingly cut their losses and (mostly) keep their diesels to themselves, selling a few token models here.
You’d think the government (federal and state) would make it a priority to ease the regulatory chokehold a little, to streamline the ukase in order to get as many of these high-mileage diesels into mass circulation as the market will bear. Think what a difference a 10-15 MPG average uptick in the fuel economy of the typical passenger car would mean – not just in terms of reducing the aggregate fuel consumption of the nation but also in terms of placating the great god of global warming. Less fuel burned means less greenhouse gasses emitted – and a 10-15 MPG uptick in fuel efficiency spread out across say 20-30 percent of the passenger car fleet would mean a monster reduction in “greenhouse gasses.” And it could be done without elaborate technology (hybrids) or another round of government edicts (CAFE) that just make new cars more and more expensive to achieve minimal, incremental upticks in their average “fleet” economy numbers. You can only do so much with a gas engine; the way they work is inherently less efficient. Getting even 45 MPG out of one – even in a compact-sized car – is no easy thing. With a diesel, it’s no sweat – and you can get 45 MPG in a mid-sized luxury-sport sedan such as BMW 3 Series or Benz E-Class. In a small car like the Mini Countryman, 60-plus MPG is right here, right now. 70 MPG is realistic with a little tweaking. No hybrid can touch that. Hell, you’d need a Moped to match that.
Diesels deliver. They make sense. They work. People would love ’em if only they had a chance to drive ’em.
But they don’t – because they do (make sense).
Maybe things will change. I don’t expect them to.
Our government is run by lawyers, not engineers. Talkers, not doers. I doubt one out of 100 of them even knows how a diesel engine differs from a gasoline engine (other than the fuel it uses). So I’m not surprised by the government’s inability to see how much it would help – everything from “the environment” to the economy – to knock down the stupid regulatory roadblocks that are keeping diesel cars on the other side of the pond.
The Super Bowl featured a BMW commerical touting their diesel cars. It was a pretty good commercial too, making the point that the diesel cars of yesterday are not the ones of today. I’m sure you could check it out on youtube. Maybe they are reading this blog? 😉
Good article. As a European expat living in the US, I have been wondering about the paucity of Diesel cars in this country. Thank you for the explanations.
One word of caution. As they age, small Diesel engines become increasingly likely to generate a lot of soot. Driving around in France or Italy, you always end up caught in slow traffic behind a 5-year old Diesel car that belches thick black clouds at every acceleration. Constant soot exposure is believed to cause asthma, allergies and pulmonary diseases.
Unless a technical solution is found to this problem, no car maker will take the risk of being exposed to a massive public health lawsuit.
Excellent article; I’ve taken the liberty of forwarding it to my congresswoman and posting a “digest” (with commentary) on my own blog.
BTW… excellent blog you have here.
Read someplace that diesel fuel is expensive and scarce because US diesel fuel is being sold in Europe. It works this way. When refining oil the balance between gasoline products and diesel products can only be pushed so far. The US has not had a new refinery built in to years. So where does our gas come from if we can’t make enough here?
I have read that gasoline is shipped here from European refineries and US diesel fuel is sent back to Europe. Why? because our owners can make more more selling gas in the US and diesel in Europe than they could if we could buy diesel powered vehicles. No way are they going to send empty super tankers from the US to Europe for refilling with gas just so we can burn excess European petrol.
As a libertarian and auto enthusiast who has wished, for years, that we had more diesel offerings here and understand the many reasons why we don’t, I enjoyed this article.
However, it’s important to note that the 63 mpg number is using imperial gallons, not US gallons. To make sure you’re comparing apples to apples, you should probably convert the MINI’s mileage to 53-ish mpg in terms of US gallons, which was used for your Prius reference.
Another problem is the EPA emission standards. The standards set forth by the EPA do not equivocate with increased fuel economy, usually the opposite.
Tuning an engine to reduce NOx, in essence, operate colder, will decease fuel economy.
With today’s technology, a different tuning strategy could easily increase fuel economy by 15% in all modern vehicles.
EPA emission standards are as much about controlling mpg as they are about controlling dangerous emissions.
“With today’s technology, a different tuning strategy could easily increase fuel economy by 15% in all modern vehicles.”
No doubt, I believe at a minimum 15%.
US car companies also make fuel efficient diesels in europe, for europe. I know at least Ford does. I assume GM does too.
In addition to the problems you mention, there was the attempt by GM to turn a gasoline olds 350V8 into a diesel that failed miserably. This was blamed for giving diesel cars a bad name in the US for many years. Also Diesel fuel has been more expensive per gallon for awhile now (perhaps in part due to the tax structure for big rigs but also to make it cleaner)… yes, the mpg can make up for it but don’t expect american buyers to do the math.
Besides, the corn lobby owns the alternative passenger car fuel market through political means. Costly, energy negative, corn produced ethanol, subsidized and tariff protected from foreign sugar cane ethanol is the way congress critters will force the nation to go.
That point about the ethanol lobby is spot-on. Excellent! I should have gone into that in the original article.