The Diesel Dilemma

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Summer’s coming – and so (probably) are higher gas prices. There has already been a nationwide uptick of about 40 cents a gallon over the past few months – and we’re still a few weeks away from spring. It’s likely we’ll see over $4 a gallon gas after spring arrives – and maybe more than that by high summer. (In California, gas is already close to $5 a gallon.)diesel 1

Even “cheap” $3 a gallon gas is about twice as expensive as it was just a few years ago. We’ve just become used to it. But that doesn’t mean we can afford it.

Diesel-powered cars could be our salvation – and a bunch of new ones are going to be available within the next 6-12 months, including diesel versions of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Chevy Cruze and Mazda3 compact sedan/hatchback wagons. These will go much farther on a gallon of fuel than their gas-engined equivalents. The diesel Cruze and Mazda3, in particular, should be capable of averaging close to 40 MPG – and (unlike most hybrids) remain exceptionally fuel-efficient at highway speeds.

But, there’s a fly in the soup. Three flies, actually.diesel jeep 1

First, there’s the higher initial cost of a diesel-engined car vs. its gas engined-equivalent. The MSRPs of the ’14 diesel Grand Cherokee, Cruze and Mazda3 haven’t been revealed yet, but in the past – and right now – a diesel typically costs about $2,500 more “up front” than the same car with a gas engine. Sometimes, considerably more than that. As an example, a 2013 VW New Beetle diesel lists for $23,295. The standard New Beetle (with gas engine) stickers for $19,795. While the diesel Beetle is much more economical to operate (28 city, 41 highway vs. 22 city, 31 highway) it’ll take at least a few years of driving to work off the diesel’s $3,500 price premium. And that’s assuming you’re in a position to do so. For many buyers, ponying up an extra $3,500 at buy-time (or finance time) just isn’t doable – even if the car costs less to operate.diesel prices

Second, there’s the fuel issue. Though a gallon of diesel will take you farther down the road than a gallon of gas (especially a gallon of ethanol-adulterated “gas”) it also costs more to buy the gallon of diesel – chiefly because of government “ultra low sulfur” diesel fuel requirements. Diesel used to be cheaper to buy than gas, in part because diesel used to cost less to refine. Now, it costs more – because of the ULS requirements, which have increased refining costs significantly. These costs – imposed by the government – are passed on to consumers.

At the time this article was written in early March 2013, diesel was selling for just a few cents shy of $4 a gallon in the Southeast – about 30-40 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded. That’s no small thing when factored out over a period of years. It could in fact be a large enough thing – if that 30-40 cent per gallon spread stays roughly constant during the years you own the vehicle – that (combined with the higher up-front costs you had to pay) you end up about the same (money wise) as you would have had you bought the gas-engined version of the vehicle.diesel adblue

Which brings me to the third issue – which is related to the second issue (ULS diesel fuel). To comply with ultra-strict tailpipe emissions requirements (specifically, oxides of nitrogen) many new diesel-powered cars have some form of urea injection. The urea is not burned in the engine but sprayed into the exhaust stream to chemically alter the exhaust before it leaves the tailpipe. It is akin to catalytic converters in gas-engined cars, but with a difference: The urea tank must be periodically replenished. And the urea isn’t free.

So, how much does it cost?

Here’s one example: The urea tank in a current (2013) Mercedes M-Class diesel holds about 8 gallons of “AdBlue” urea. This is sufficient – according to Mercedes – for about 10,000 miles of driving. The urea  costs (at current prices) about $16 a gallon.* So, it costs about $130 extra every 10,000 miles to operate the vehicle. Over 100,000 miles, that’s an additional $1,300 in operating expenses.

It’s not a huge expense – in isolation. But when you add that expense to the expense of the diesel vehicle itself (a new Benz ML350 diesel stickers for $51,270 vs. $49, 770 for the gas-engined equivalent version) then factor in the higher cost of the diesel fuel, diesel loses a lot of its economic luster.

However, there are a few important things that must also be said in defense of diesels – things that can greatly compensate for the issues raised above.diesel old

First, diesels last. Because they (usually) have extremely high-compression ratios (to ignite the fuel by pressure and heat rather than spark, as in a gas engine) they are (again, usually) built much stronger – tougher blocks, tougher internals. Built right, treated right, a diesel engine should be capable of at least 200k – without more than routine service. That’s how you can make your money back – especially relative to a hybrid car. While hybrids have proved to be very reliable and durable, their gas engines – and electric batteries – aren’t made to go a quarter-of-a-million miles. Diesel engines – historically – have gone that far routinely. But remember: To make the math work for you, you’re probably going to have to put a lot of miles on the clock.

Second, diesels – modern diesels – perform. As in – they accelerate. Quickly. Unlike most hybrids. Which don’t. A modern diesel-powered car is fun to drive.

Few hybrids are.

And, lastly, in the event things really go sour – as in a SHTF-type of scenario – it will be much more feasible to keep a diesel-powered vehicle going, because (leaving aside the issue of emissions) you’ll be able to use home-brewable biodiesel, even perhaps waste vegetable oil. Gas, on the other hand, is a much more refined fuel that requires the facilities of a refinery.

Throw it in the Woods?

* The cost quoted of adding urea assumes you buy – and add – the urea yourself. If you pay the dealer to do it, the cost can be much higher. Consumer Reports had a dealership refill a Benz G-Class diesel and were presented with a bill for $317 for 7.5 gallons of Adblue.


  1. Steam? Did someone mention steam?

    New England Steam Corp.

    They just bought the MEC 470, a nice “Pacific” class that had been on display in Waterville ME for the last 60 years.

    The plan is to fully restore it to running condition.

  2. I liked the old mechanical injection diesel engines a lot more than the new electronicaly controled ones they have now. It is absolutely insane the amount of money it can cost to repair the new diesels. In the light trucks, milage and power have both gone down along with reliability.

    The low sulpher diesel may be cleaner but it has less lubricity than the older diesel. Another problem now with the new emmision regs is that they have removed the ZZP additive from diesel motor oil. This has drasticaly increased wear on cams and bearings.

    When buying diesel motor oil you have to specificaly look for oil that is branded “off road only” or agriculturaal use only. It still has the zinc phosphate additive. Aparently the zinc phosphate may eventually plug up the new emmision equipment but I doubt it, having used it exclusively for over 200,000 miles.

  3. Referring back to the seam engines, there is one company making modern steam developed by a few guys from NASA and Lockheed I believe:
    THey have different sizes of the same engine from lawn mower size to ship size. They are direct drive and go up in rpm at the same level as a diesel, but have mondo torque at starting rpm, so they can be direct drive. Steam is not vented, but recondenced and recycled in a closed loop system so you dont need to keep stopping for water. Water is kept in small tubes running through the furnace which greatly shortens warm up time vs a tank, and has room for ice expansion in cold weather. Water is the lubricant…this is an engine I doubt the powers that be will let into production cars, but I would get one and put it in an old jeep frame or something

  4. And, lastly, in the event things really go sour – as in a SHTF-type of scenario – it will be much more feasible to keep a diesel-powered vehicle going, because (leaving aside the issue of emissions) you’ll be able to use home-brewable biodiesel, even perhaps waste vegetable oil. Gas, on the other hand, is a much more refined fuel that requires the facilities of a refinery.

    Actually, if you have a pre-electronic car with a conventional internal combustion engine, it would be even easier to keep it going – because you can convert it to run off a gasifier burning easily foraged fuel that needs even less processing than home brewed biodiesel. Of all people, FEMA provides decent gasifier designs on the internet. Or you can just google for good designs.

    • I have seen people run generators and cars off a gasifier set up. Just a 50 gallon steel drum and get a nice fire going. It runs as long as you have fuel for the fire. pure genius. You could live completely off grid a very long time with just a honda generator to charge your batteries and run your frige few hours a day and a gasifier. as long as fire wood stays available.

      • There’s a little more to it than that. Here’s a word picture of the Imbert gasifier system:-

        – A drum, as specified, as a fuel hopper and to provide the combustion zone.

        – A lid, held down by weights or springs but not fastened down, to stop air entering at the top but still be able to work as a safety valve if a pocket happens to make a low pressure explosion.

        – Tuyères (from the French), short lengths of pipe to admit air just above the grate, angled downwards so fuel doesn’t fall out. There should be an odd number of them so that none faces another and allows a through flow of air. The system is typically started by lighting kindling placed in them, then running the engine on other fuel for a few minutes, gradually switching the valving over to draw generated gas (it is drawn by the engine with a partial vacuum through pipes that don’t enter the vehicle’s interior, so that carbon monoxide won’t leak into that); alternatively, you can turn the engine over with the starter for some minutes, but that’s more wear and tear – and delay – than you probably want. The carbonising of fresh fuel and the incomplete combustion proceeds near their inward openings.

        – A grate. The gas is drawn off just below this.

        – A deep ash pan that can be raised to form a close seal.

        – Last but not least, a filter to precool the gas to improve engine efficiency and to remove any corrosive fumes released by carbonising that didn’t get converted further. However, that only spares the engine, not the parts before the filter; these gasses and vapours mean that a gasifier should be made of materials cheap enough to wear out, or else made of expensive, corrosion resistant materials (so no steel drum). If you can manage to turn foraged fuel into charcoal before using it, you get more energy per unit weight of fuel carried in the vehicle (though more weight needs to be foraged), and these corrosion problems are reduced.

  5. They had naturally aspirated diesels through the ’80s. I own a 1986 M1009 CUCV military K5…6.2L (J series 1 ton), no turbo. Good SHTF and all around fun vehicle. Same engine and th400 trans as the first m998 hummvee. Plus you get a built in rifle rack, and convertible half top, and blackout lights for angering the eco-police when offroading in the forest preserve at night. Gets about 17mpg city and 25mpg highway- for a vehicle at 5200lbs empty. The military Blazer is also a 3/4 ton, vs the civillian k5 which is a 1/2 ton. They are totally stripped down- no a/c, no carpet, no radio, but they do have leather seats, wing vents (sometimes on the back windows too!) and those nice floor vents. Electrical system is split 12/24 volts, so there is extra battery capacity (12v for lights and accessories, 24v for starter, jump port, and radio power bus in the back seat). Fuel pump is mechanical and heaver duty than civi version.
    Main negatives- no overdrive, no stick shift option, top speed about 65, though I usually criuse between 55-60. The M1008 5/4 ton pickup tops at 55mph. They often have glow plug issues related to a resister bank you can’t buy to bring 24v down to 12v for the plugs (a 1 wire jump using just 1 battery solves this-5 minute job). Dealers like to put 12v starters on them- they die in 6 months or less, and starters are often missing a support bracket that is needed so 1 of the 2 bolts don’t get chopped in cold weather starting. 24v chevy starters are the same cost though. I think a lot of people here would like a vehicle like this

    • Hi Anchar,

      Great advice – I’ve considered one of those ex-army units myself. There is also a military version of the VW Thing – a modern version of the WWII-era Kubelwagen. It’ “modern” in the sense that it is based on the post-war civilian Thing (which was based on the WWII-era Kubel, but modernized in a number of ways). It has some of the features you mention, but of course, no diesel engine. On the other hand, its air-cooled Beetle flat four is about as basic as it gets – and short of a complete regression to pre-industrial times, it should be be possible to keep one operational indefinitely.

      • The Citroen 2CV and the various two stroke engined cars had even more basic engines. I still have a soft spot for the Trojan’s hundred year old design, not least because it prioritised reliability in field conditions with little support available.

        • Ditto!

          Gotta love a piston-port two stroke; no valvetrain to fuss with – can disassemble/re-assemble the entire top end of the engine in 30 minutes or less.

          Plus, there the sounds… and smells!

  6. what is the problem with Toyota or Nissan bringing their diesel hilux or frontier to America ? WTF.
    they would sell the ever loving heck out of them.
    i know plenty of guys with diesel Ford-Chevy-Dodge that have obcesne milage and more than a few are used for pulling heavy boats and full payloads in the beds for work. i never hear of any issues.

    • Ridiculously-low NOx emission requirements mean urea systems must be added, which lowers performance.

      And I am also skeptical that with high-pressure fuel injection, turbos, and all the extra emissions stuff we require here in the U.S. that diesels will be as durable and reliable as the older designs (e.g. Mercedes 240/300D) were.

      I view diesels in the U.S. as high-performance vehicles, but I don’t expect them to last as long as older designs.

      But yes, urea is cheap at you local truck-stop.

  7. You guys need to ask on what basis diesel is classed as carcinogenic. I’m in HSE field and the best answer I can get is that some bureaucrat has determined it is hazardous. If it’s a UN scientist their work is as dodgy as the IPCC jerks. I wouldn’t believe anything coming from the UN of Dictators.

    Also second hand veggie oil run in diesels drastically shortens the life of the fuel pump. Here is Oz that item can set you back >$5,000. A mate of mine is running the veggie oil in his ute and that’s what caused his fuel pump to fail.

    What is also causing rise in diesel price is the ratio of gasoline and diesel refined from a barrel of crude oil. This is a set ratio not possible to adjust more than a few %. Also bacteria love to grow in diesel fuel, and there’s the impact of cold weather on diesel.

  8. Unless your state has emissions inspections, I wouldn’t add a drop of urea, as it is for aftertreatment. The automakers and the government can go piss up a rope. I don’t believe it is too hard to trick the sensors into believing that the Urea tank is full and it contains pee.

    Beyond that, I think carmakers will force diesel engines on us. WIthout them, they won’t meet the higher fuel econnomy requirements down the road.

    I detest the carmakers for not offering more diesels during the 1990’s when regulations were virtually non existent.

    • Hi Swamp,

      Ah, but there’s a catch. Mercedes’ system only allows 20 starts with an empty AdBlue tank. After that, the car’s computer locks the engine down. It can’t be started until toy refresh the AdBlue tank.

        • It’d be interesting to find out whether the system can tell the difference – or just responds to fill level!

          I’d like to see the economy-minded diesels of the past make a comeback. Remember the Chevy Luv, Rabbit diesels? We made fun of them at the time because they were slow, but they got 40 MPG with the non-overdrive transmissions of the era. Probably, they’d give you 50-plus today. Maybe more. And not cost a fortune to buy, either.

          • My guess is that the Urea tanks have a spcecial sensor installed, however, my guess is that it can be simulated with a resistor or something like it. Hopefully, it’s just a level switch.

            I doubt that diesel engines will ever get 50 mpg here. Cars are too heavy and the efficiency of the engine itself has been killed by aftertreatement and a dumbing down of compression ratios. They used to be 22-1. Now they are something like 12-1, which is not much more than a gas powered engine that can run on 87 octane.

          • eric, swamprat, you’re both wet on diesels. LUVpickups got over 40mpg and they weren’t turboed. I have kept up with diesel cars, pickups and trucks over the decades. There are diesel cars that get 50mpg and have for a long time. swamprat speaks again of what I’ve heard before on this thread, low compression ratios. That has nothing to do with durability or lack of fuel mileage, in fact just the opposite. There have not been naturally aspirated diesels made in 45 years or more. As the turbo pressures increase, initial compression ratio must drop since turbo’s now are almost instantly making the difference up in compression. Turbo’s are not single bladed things that have one method of boosting but are two or three and complicated means of boost. They are variable ratio so that the lower the rpm the more they boost and fall off as conditions require. The best diesels have always had charge coolers that allows higher boost pressure without increased heat. Now turbos are computer controlled that allows them to tailor their boost to load to fuel delivery to temperature of the charge in countless ways as well as turbos that have multi-stages that add to this. The sky is the limit and we’re just seeing the tip of the really great mileage to come. There are direct injection engines now instead of rail injection, a big benefit also not only in fuel mileage but power as well. It’s been a long while since you felt the power build in a non-linear way due to turbos. Pistons and camshafts also have become quite sophisticated. The diesels of today are not the diesel of even ten years ago.

            • Right you are, Southman!

              To be clear: I like the old diesels chiefly because they were cheaper to buy than the current models, as well as much less maintenance intensive.

              Of course, the same’s true of spark engines, now vs, then, too!

  9. Well, Eric has a canny ability to write about stuff that concerns me at the right time.
    I am a long distance commuter (over 30kmiles/year)and looking for a car at the moment.
    I looked at all the cars on the market now (minus the expensive ones-it doesn’t make sense to commute by Mercedes or BMW…) and concluded it is almost a wash between gas and diesel in terms of TCO.
    The cars I did not consider were the Mazdas, since their price is not known as of today.
    I think GM made a huge mistake by pushing the Chevy Cruze diesel at such a high price, especially since they have to overcome the past bad experiences still in peoples’ minds.
    So, the only unbeatable argument is about a SHTF scenario.
    Disclaimer: what I said applies only in my case.

    • Hi Cobra,

      As is so often the case, we have the government to blame.

      I also should have added another potential (and government-related) issue: Low-sulfur fuel may not have the same lubricating qualities that “old” (and “off-road”) diesel does. This may have an effect on the longevity of diesel engines.

  10. Their is no diesel dilemma. The choice is clear. The human race’s health is the top priority. The World Health Organization has determined that diesel fumes cause lung cancer. Experts say the exhaust is even more carcinogenic and deadly than secondhand cigarette smoke.

    I don’t see how anyone has the right to burn diesel which fills contaminates the air I breathe with carcinogens, and other poisons. You have no right to pollute the fresh air my family needs to survive. Freedom does not mean you are free to kill me with your deadly machines and vehicles.

    Now that the WHO has elevated diesel to a “known carcinogen” level, I hope the hard working American people who are still exposed to diesel exhaust will be provided a soot and smoke free work and home environment.

    Charities need to work together to protect workers in poor countries as well. In the disadvantaged nations, trucks, generators, farm, and factory machinery routinely belch clouds of sooty smoke and fill the air with sulfurous particulates and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs).

    A ban on PAHs needs to be phased in to improve the world’s health and give everyone access to clean air. Many PAHs are compounds that are known carcinogens, mutagens, and teratogens. Another PAH threat comes from meat cooked at high temperatures. Any meat that is grilled or barbecued will need to be outlawed, since this unsafe cooking method creates toxic clouds of deadly second hand polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon smoke.

    Diesel Is A Group I Carcinogen

    OSHA Revised Hazard Communication Standard – Always Label Diesel

    UN Global Harmonized System – For Diesel & Other Toxic Chemicals

  11. A couple of additional points to expand on your great post.

    The VW Touareg TDI has a 4.5 gallon urea tank that takes the AdBlue DEF (diesel exhaust fluid). AdBlue is what VW/Audi, Mercedes, Porsche, and BMW all codeveloped to address the NOx (nitrous oxide) emissions portion of the new diesel emissions regs in the US that came into effect in 2008. The US, thanks in part to California’s CARB, has the most restrictive vehicle emissions regs in the world (contrary to popular belief), and Europe is still somewhat behind. Anyway, when I checked with my VW dealer on the price to fill an AdBlue tank on the Touareg, they quoted me $45 and labor would be included along with a normal oil change.

    However, if you want to do it yourself, you can purchase the DEF yourself and, in most cases, add it yourself to the urea tank. The DEF sold in parts stores and truck stops is pretty much universal, so works in any urea injection system, I was able to purchase two 2.5 gal jugs of DEF at my local truck stop recently for $15. It IS an added expense and hassle, but it seems to be getting cheaper. For the Touareg, all you do is lift the rear cargo floor, pull out the spare tire, and pop the opening of the AdBlue tank and pour it in. In many newer German diesels, there’s an AdBlue filler nozzle right next to the fuel filler nozzle behind the filler door. On the Touareg, a 4.5 gallon tank is supposed to last between 6,000-10,000 miles. I’m guessing the harder you drive, the faster it is used up.

    To me, the more significant loss in this regard is not the expense, which is minimal, but the hassle and concern over yet another thing to break. Plus it adds a little weight and takes up a little storage space that I could probably better use for something else (a concealed storage box?).

    Next, you failed to mention that most modern diesels currently require, in addition to DEF, something called DPF, or a “diesel particulate filter.” The main reason for ultra low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) was not for NOx emissions, but to reduce particulate emissions, also known as “soot” or that black smoke that comes out of a diesel engine under hard acceleration. Most of the lack of black, sooty smoking coming out of the back of diesels nowadays is due to the ULSD that is mandated at every location that sells diesel for road-going vehicles.

    The DPF is a particulate trap/filter in the exhaust system that catches all the soot. Periodically, once the exhaust has reached a critical temperature high enough, a bit of diesel fuel is injected by the emissions control system directly into the exhaust ahead of the DPF. This, then, ignites and burns off/regenerates the DPF. In theory, the DPF should not need replacing since it is continually regenerating. Who knows, in reality. It’s just one more thing to fail/break. Additionally, that bit of extra diesel used to burn off the soot is not, then, available for use by the engine and, therefore, harms fuel efficiency. Oh, and it all adds weight, too.

    Biodiesel/reclaimed vegetable oil cannot be burned efficiently in engines with a DPF. Currently these engines are only rated to run on B5, or 5% biodiesel (95% traditional diesel). This has to do with the fact that biodiesel has a higher ignition temperature and, therefore, may not ignite if injected into the exhaust system to purge the DPF. Instead, it just gums up the DPF and will require expensive work to clean/replace it. Or so I’ve read. Older diesels without DPF run just fine on biodiesel or reclaimed vegetable oils thinned with acetone.

    The fuel efficiency of a diesel giving you about 20-30% more more than offsets the extra cost of fuel, especially if your alternative is premium fuel. This is particularly important to consider when comparing apples to apples since, as mentioned above, most diesel engines outside of heavy duty pickups are in the luxury brand realm, and most of the gas counterparts require premium. In most cases, in absolute terms, driving a vehicle 15,000 miles a year will pay for the cost difference in the basic vehicle with a diesel engine in about 2-3 years by fuel savings. Thus, you need to plan on keeping the vehicle a long time and/or driving a lot of miles.

    As for drivability, I have been very impressed with the diesel Touareg, as has every reviewer I could find online. They universally recommend skipping the V6 gas engine in favor of the diesel, and only a rare few recommended the hybrid over the diesel, and only in cases where max performance is desired (and if so, why are you buying a Touareg instead of a BMW or Porsche SUV?).

    Where it counts, in around town driving where you are doing most of your accelerating and decelerating at less than and up to 45mph, the diesel kicks a gas engine’s butt. The low end torque is almost immediately on tap (as long as the turbo is spooled up some), so the little SUV seems like it just “squirts” from point to point in traffic rather than a large lumbering gas-engined SUV does (of which I’ve driven plenty). This says a lot for a 5,000 lb SUV. It truly is “sports car quick” up to 30mph or so. Once you get up in speed, and RPM, though the diesel loses some of its advantage over gas powered equivalents. Horsepower wins at higher speeds, but torque gets you off the line and that’s what matters in around town driving. At highway speeds, the diesel has more than enough power to plant you in your seat at 70mph to pass, but a gas engined model will feel faster overall.

    Lastly, Eric alluded to some good reasons why a diesel may be a better choice in a SHTF scenario. Let me expand upon that a little as to reasons why, in my opinion, diesel is a better choice, and why I chose to have one in my stables.

    1. Efficiency – On a full tank of fuel, you’ll go 20-30% more miles in a diesel than in the equivalent gas model. If I were able to get the EPA estimated 29mpg in my Touareg, I could travel over 750 miles on a single tank (actually, closer to 800 miles). That’s a long way out of harm’s way without having to stop. You can go farther if you use “hypermiling” techniques, which are not safe or friendly in traffic, but can double your mpg or more if held to religiously. Related to this is that diesels idle better than gas engines. At idle, based on what I’ve been able to find, a heavy duty full sized pickup from one of the Big Three burns about 1/4-1/3 gallon of diesel every hour. A 2.0L TDI would likely burn much less. So if you’re idling in traffic waiting for the zombie horde (or clovers) to pass, you can do so longer.

    2. Availability – I’ve been through a few natural disasters requiring mass evacuations from the Gulf Coast. Gasoline becomes hard to come by, but diesel always seems to be available. Additionally, as a last ditch effort in a case of major turmoil (not just a natural disaster), off-road diesel is usually available at most large farm shops. This is nothing but regular diesel sold at a lower cost b/c of much reduced taxes (they don’t include road taxes), usually about 10-15% less. They add some dye to the diesel (usually red, if I recall), so that it can be identified as “not for use on roadways” but otherwise is the same stuff that you get at the pump.

    3. Durability – Setting aside the rest of the vehicle, with its electronics, emissions systems, suspension, etc., a diesel is much more durable than a gasoline engine. They are built tougher, out of heavier/thicker metal and gaskets to handle the higher pressures generated by the diesel combustion process. One side effect of this is that all the parts are sort of “heavy duty” equivalents to those in gasoline engines (and this is one reason diesels cost more than gas engines). Another side effect is that they weigh more. Add to this the fact that diesels are intended for long-haul work. While a gas engine is getting pretty worn by the time it hits 100,000 miles on the odometer, a diesel engine is just getting broken in good. Diesels typically travel 300,000 miles before needing much work, and 500,000 mile or more is easily doable. The problem is that the rest of the vehicle may not hold together as well as the engine does. Some may question whether a turbo-diesel is really all that reliable given concerns over the turbo itself. Eric has raised concerns in the past about turbo-gas engined cars and their long-term durability/reliability, and I feel he is appropriately concerned. However, turbo-diesels have been around for a very long time. They are not hard to make and, given the ruggedness inherent in the diesel engine itself, don’t add any real strain to the engine. The turbo on a diesel is not a source of major concern.

    There are other advantages that would really only manifest in a true TEOTWAWKI type scenario (the end of the world as we know it) to further push the advantage of a diesel-powered vehicle, but those are for a different discussion.

    • Newer diesels are not as durably built since the compression ratio is now much lower than it use to be…thanks to high-pressure fuel injectors. Most new gasoline engines can easily go 1M miles but how long will those high-pressure diesel injectors last at 1600 bar pressure?

      • Hi Chas,


        The truth is that all new/recent vintage cars have an economically limited useful life. The engine itself may indeed last 400k. But the associated/peripheral systems – especially the electronics – won’t. And because of the expense of repair/replacement of these components relative to the value of the car, the car will reach the event horizon of not being worth fixing (even if it is fixable) after about 15 years.

        The upside is that the car will probably be reliable and largely trouble-free during those years. So, depending on your perspective, it’s not necessarily a bad deal overall.

        You may not be able to “drive it forever” (20, 30 years and more) but for the first 10-12 years or so, it’ll probably start every time and get you where you want to go without fuss or muss.

        For those of us who can remember when a new car was getting seriously tired after about 7 years and 70,000 miles – that’s a welcome development.

        • Yup…Need to get an old VW Bug and be done with it all 🙂 Maybe shoehorn an old rebuilt 327 chevy engine in it which is probably the only old-tech engine that can outlast a VW flat 4.

      • Chas, SojournerMoon nailed it. I don’t mean to be unkind but you could not possibly be further off on the subject of diesels. Lower compression ratios are a result of much higher turbo pressures, a situation that requires an ever higher degree of durability and strength. There has never been another point in time that diesels could have been built as durably because of advances in metallurgy and engineering(design and tooling). While higher pressure injectors require higher fuel pressures, everything in the system is well above old standards. I would say a diesel pickup(the lesser of diesel engines in the past but no longer)that begin to have fuel economy fall off well in excess of 300,000 miles is a great trade-off when you’re speaking of spending $2,500 on an engine that’s fine in every other way. That diesel engine has most likely done enough work to have a gasoline engine be on it’s death knell by that point. The truth is, if you couldn’t save fuel in any situation by using a diesel, they wouldn’t sell. I’ll take diesel anytime thank you. I don’t mind easing off the clutch and having it just walk away with a big load either….or being able to idle in the worst heat keeping the a/c at frosty levels while doing so.

  12. To me, the only compelling argument in favor of diesel engines relates to SHTF scenarios. Diesel fuel can be kept in storage for much, much longer before it goes bad than can gasoline. That could make a huge difference. Could in fact, be a life saver.

    • Dear Mike,

      Sounds good. I also like the Diesel virtues Eric cited, such as amazing durability.

      But as I mentioned before, I’ve always wondered why external combustion engines were neglected in favor of internal combustion.

      What always appealed to me was the unfussy diet of the external combustion engine. Anything that will burn and generate heat, will power an external combustion engine. No concern about octane ratings. No concern about engine knock.

      Run out of fuel? Shove some scrap lumber into the burner, and drive on home.

      If steam engines had been subjected to the same amount of R&D that internal combustion engines, perhaps we would already have a highly refined, highly practical modern counterpart to the Stanley Steamer?

      Because of the phenomenal torque available at all engine speeds, the steam car’s engine was typically geared directly to the rear axle, with no clutch or variable speed transmission required.

      In 1906 the Land Speed Record was broken by a Stanley steam car, piloted by Fred Marriott, which achieved 127 mph (204 km/h) at Ormond Beach, Florida. This annual week-long “Speed Week” was the forerunner of today’s Daytona 500.

      — Wiki

        • Dear Eric,

          Yeah! I saw some documentaries on old locomotives that touched on those. Awesome.

          Also, had ECE steam evolved instead of the ICE, the aesthetics would have been interesting.

          Steampunk might be an everyday reality instead of SF retro.

          Did you ever see the movie “The Golden Compass?” Lots of alternate universe steampunk technology in it.

          Also, it blasted theist dogma and the cloverite Puritanical indoctrination of children.

          • Hi Bevin,

            No, I haven’t (Golden Compass) but will check into it – thanks!

            That J Locomotive was operational as recently as the 1990s. Norfolk & Southern used to run it back forth as a tourist/nostalgia ride. I never rode – and regret that.

            It is an awesome thing to see up close, in person. The size is staggering. And the “cockpit” of the thing is as intimidating as a 747s.

          • Dear Eric,

            Re: Golden Compass, I hope you’ll like it.

            It’s somewhat like the Hunger Games, insofar as the theme in both films is about how a totalitarian state oppresses young people.

            Re: steam cars

            I keep thinking they, not diesels, would be the ultimate SHTF vehicles. Anything that can burn could serve as fuel.

            • Hi Bevin,

              I will let you know!

              On SHTF stuff: I am looking into wood gassifiers. Not only can you power a vehicle, you can power generators for home electricity (well pump, especially).

              I have 16 acres of land, much of it forested, so obtaining wood is not a problem.

        • Speaking of museums, have you ever gone to the auto museum in Luray? It has, among other fascinating exhibits, a 1908 Baker electric car, as well as a 1913 Stanley Steamer. I’m not all that knowledgeable about cars and automotive engineering, but that place was totally fascinating. I was especially wowed by the drive train on the early cars: two heavy duty chains connecting the engine to the rear wheels. The steering lever on some of the early models was quite a sight too.

          • Yes – and even better, I have driven both a Stanley Steamer and a Baker Electric!

            The Hemmings Motor News collection/museum has examples of all kinds of eclectic, ancient machinery. Back in the ’90s, I was among a group of journalists invited up to the small New England town where the museum and Hemmings’ editorial offices are located. We were given the opportunity to drive a number of the vehicles in the collection, including the above two, as well as Model Ts and As, a LaFrance fire engine, several ’40s and ’50s cars – a real treat!

            The Baker was – as you’d expect – dead quiet. It worked very much like a modern golf cart. The Steamer was a bit more complicated – but only relative to the Baker. If you have driven an original T, you’ll know what I mean. Pretty much all cars from the early 20th century were challenging to operate. They didn’t become “wife drivable” for some time. Physically, I could barely drive the T – because of the position of the steering wheel, which is mounted low on an almost vertical shaft and which has no provision for adjustment. If you’re tall (and by early 1900s standards, I’m a giant) the T is very un-ergonomic.

            Lemme tell ya, it was full going down those New England town hills in a 100 year-old car with (shit) mechanical brakes!

      • So? An early land speed record was achieved by an electric car. I do know experimental steam cars keep popping up from time to time but the fact that nothing ever comes from it must mean something.

        • Both steam and electric cars can be very quick (or fast), but here’s the trouble:

          Electric cars have weak endurance. The Tesla (as an example) is very quick – but if you use its quickness (as opposed to gently plodding along) you will run down the battery very quickly. A quick gas car is quick for much longer – and though it will use more fuel if run hard, you can refuel in less than 5 minutes. An electric car (so far) takes at least 50 minutes to an hour to achieve a near complete charge using a special high-voltage recharging system.

          Steam cars are not just “get in and go.” It takes time to make steam. Think of steam locomotives. Poor cold start performance – actually, no start in cold performance. Who wants to wait for “x” amount of time before you can use the vehicle? Not convenient – hence, not practical. Also, packaging issues. Water tanks, boiler/heater system… plenty of space in a locomotive (and even a box-type car of the early 20th century). Not so much today. Major redesign issues/consumer appeal problems.

          • I believe you could have inferred from the fact I compared steam cars to electric cars – two types of cars that have fallen by the wayside for their lack of versatility. Petrol and diesel are still the backbone of the automobile. Then again the Pritchard steam engine fit easily in a standard sedan and that was back in the ’70s.

    • Agreed. Ethanol in gasoline absorbs water which “spoils” gasoline in just a few months. Diesel will be easier to find and trade after the dollar collapse but fuel will be the least of your problems.

      • The people working with graphene have found that it can be used to make a filter that is permeable to water vapour but not other vapours. That means that you could incorporate such a filter in your tank system and it would clear out any trapped water the way it did with the vodka at that link, provided there was low ambient humidity – and you could easily arrange that by passing air from the heater system over the outside of the filter. Best of all, those researchers found an easy way to make small amounts of graphene (google it, or maybe wikipedia covers it well enough).

  13. Well, the good old state of Virginny has increased the percentage of tax on diesel fuel for vehicles as of this year.

    Did you know they also decided to slap a 100 buck/yr hybrid tax on all us “evil” hybrid drivers? Yep, our annual registrations will now include an extra C note for the privilege of using less fuel, and paying less state fuel tax in the process yah see. They DID manage to lower the 17.5 per cent state tax, replacing it with two lower taxes, so it’s a clear case of “majority rules.” After all, why shouldn’t those evil green people pay more – my smokey old Ford pick-em up gets me to work just fine, and why shouldn’t those smug folks getting 50MPG have to make up “their share” of our tax base?

    Unbelievable – only in VA.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. Most states have increased the fuel tax on diesel in the past year or so, just when they start to get popular. The math still works for me (compared to the premium fuel I’d have to put in my Audi gasser), but it still sucks.

    • Not unbelievable and not only in VA.

      The parasite class wants your money and stealing money from property owners and automobile drivers is the best way to get revenue…Captive tax cattle/people. People will pay property tax and personal transportation ransoms in order to survive. The retarded parasite class and their terrorist political gangs know this.

      When Euro6 emissions kick in in Europe this September, you will see the desire for diesels go away. Euro6 is not as restrictive as current US emission laws.

    • Yah,DR Va polity be peopled with Mensa candidates(Hybrids are here to stay) but on the bright side,VA is one of the few states that are taking steps to “harden” the grid-Kevin

  14. “Americans in particular have an allergic reaction to the idea of diesel cars…”

    For what it’s worth, I remember being really turned off about diesel-powered cars from an early age in my driving career. Every time I got stuck behind either a Volvo 240DL or a Mercedes with the ‘Turbo Diesel’ badge on it. Both of which had two things in common – one back corner of the car was darkened with soot and a cloud of black smoke followed it everywhere it went. Having had a motorcycle as my only means of transportation, I used to get a snootful every time I got trapped in the smoke screen billowing out from behind one of the aforementioned Heaps O’Shit.

    I don’t know if others shared a similar experience back in the late 80’s and early 90’s – maybe it’s a bit biased from having lived in South Florida where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone up to their eyeballs in debt just so they can have that fancy Swedish or German luxury car.

    Again, for what it’s worth, I am actually considering buying a diesel truck, however, to do what diesel trucks do best – haul stuff.

    • Hi Ferret,

      I had the same experience!

      But, modern diesels are so clean (and quiet) it is hard to tell they’re diesels without popping the hood. I’m not exaggerating. Well, maybe a little – as regards the distinctive diesel sound. But it’s now a background burble… not an obnoxious clatter. And there is no visible smoke at all.

      Power-wise, check out the stats. The BMW 330d is quick (six second to 60, IIRC) and none of the diesels currently on the market are slow.

      • I have a ’96 Dodge w/Cummins.

        I’ll keep my obnoxious clatter if you please!

        Also, I spent last Summer/Fall driving an 18 wheeler.
        The blue juice was $2.99 a gallon then.

        • babydriver, where did you find $3 diesel, not in Texas for sure. When you upgrade to a new truck, if you do, you’ll be in for a treat. A friend had his tranny literally explode in his 3/4T 4WD EXT Cab long bed Dodge Cummins he uses as a welding truck on a pipeline. He’s in some really rough stuff and has shelled out two transfer cases but the tranny at over 300K was a bad surprise. Since not having a truck for a week or two isn’t an option he bought a 2012 1T HD Dually crewcab Dodge with a diesel. I couldn’t believe when he reached inside and turned it on, barely audible engine sound. I was flabbergasted. GM’s have been way for years but this was new to me for Dodge. Surprise though, he gets about 13mpg, a good 7-9 less than the older(2006 I think)truck. He ain’t happy about that mileage even though the bed is stuff with the same toolboxes and welder the other one had. Too much HP. As long as the big 3 keep one upping each other, mileage will suffer and has for a couple decades.

  15. Eric, why do diesels cost more? The bean counters at Benz et. al can factor in all the benefits and added costs of diesel but that doesn’t mean that people will pay up in the end. Americans in particular have an allergic reaction to the idea of diesel cars so it’s surprising that manufacturers can get away with higher prices. Preference is not determined by strictly economic concerns after all. Or maybe diesels have a niche market of devotees that will indeed pay more up front, I don’t know.

    • Hi Mike,

      Several reasons:

      Lower volume (and profit per car) = higher prices for individual cars.
      More/different parts – such as turbochargers – though of course more and more gas engines have them (and the higher cost) also.

      The last thing is peculiar to the US market.

      Diesel versions of many US-bound cars are also high-trim cars; they come loaded with luxury and convenience items. For example, the Benz M Class diesel comes standard with 4WD; it’s optional w/the gas engine.

      In Europe, diesel versions (which is half the cars on the road, easily) are sold in “stripper” or at least, lower trim versions – precisely because economy (not just fuel efficiency, but the total cost of owning/operating the vehicle) is paramount.

      • Diesel versions of many US-bound cars are also high-trim cars; they come loaded with luxury and convenience items. For example, the Benz M Class diesel comes standard with 4WD; it’s optional w/the gas engine.

        Maybe they have to market high-end cars just to get people to look past the perceived nasty heritage of diesel.

        • Could be!

          Also, until recently, very few of the models sold with diesels in this country were “bread and butter” models. VWs were an exception. But the rest – BMWs, Audis, Benzes, etc. – all pretty high-end cars to start with.

          • I agree.

            I recently traded in one of my cars for a diesel VW Touareg. Specifically, I wanted to get a diesel for some of the reasons Eric mentioned in his article (more on that in a later response to this article) including fuel mileage since I’m about to do some serious nation-wide road tripping over the course of this year.

            In the area I live, basically I have the option of a heavy duty pickup crime one of the big three, BMW and Mercedes (no Audi dealership here), and Volkswagen. I went with the VW because the Touareg was a better value. To get a comparably equipped BMW X5 diesel or Mercedes ML diesel would have cost me another $10-15k. For VW, the Touareg is their top of the line model with all their bells and whistles. Most of their other diesels are sold in mid sized and compact family cars or in hatchbacks. VW is currently the exception.

            Diesels cost a premium over gas burners for several reasons mostly due to cost of manufacture. They start with much more durable engine blocks and heads. They have to be in order to handle the much higher internal pressures generated in a diesel. They also have higher pressure and more rugged injectors, valves, etc. the cost of the metal alone is significant. This is also obvious from the added weight a diesel engined vehicle has compared to its gas engined equivalent. Usually around 300-500 lbs. Add to this the fact that most modern diesels are turbo-diesels, which adds the complexity of a turbo to the system as well as more weight.

            Further, add the weight and complexity of the urea injection system for emissions and the diesel particulate filter required by most (all?) modern diesels since about 2008 and you’ve got a lot if reasons for the price difference.

            Despite this, some of VW’s models sell around 30% equipped with diesel engines in the US. In Europe, more than 60% of cars on the road are diesels, and gas engined models are considered the luxury models. Additionally, diesel is cheaper in Europe due to fewer restrictions on refinement as well as higher taxes on gas vs diesel. Contrary to popular belief, the most restrictive fuel and emissions regulations in the world are in the US, specifically California, not Europe. Thus they aren’t as badly affected by price jumps due to refinement regs. All their high costs are due to taxes.

    • Maybe few people remember this now, but one thing that gave diesels a bad name in the US happened back in the 70’s. Oldsmobile was converting 350 V-8s to diesel and doing a decent job of it. Don’t remember how well they were selling, but apparently enough to get the interest of GMs high muckety-mucks. They decided that they could use less expensive Chevy blocks (2-bolt vs. 4-bolt?) for the conversion. They did NOT hold up as well. The SHTF when Olds owners found out they did not have an Olds engine.

      • that’s the most munged version of that story I’ve heard.

        GM wanted to make a diesel engine on the cheap. Their most stout small block, the one that could handle it, was the Olds 350. The end result was a lot of problems. Most of these cars were junked or converted to gasoline. The diesel version of the block is stronger of course and popular for build ups.

        • Hi Brent,

          IIRC, the diesel was based on the 403 Olds; I don’t recall the SBC having been used for this role.

          There was controversy – a major lawsuit, actually – over GM’s use of one division’s engines in another division’s cars. IIRC, the stink raised was about Olds and Chevy (and maybe Buick, too) engines in some late ’70s-era Cadillacs. Nothing was alleged to be wrong with the engines as such – but they were unhappy about paying Cadillac money and finding a Chevy 305/350 under the hood, etc.

          • Well here’s what some diesel geeks have to say….


            Supposedly it just shared lots of dimensions with the 350 but was its own animal.

            I never heard of SBC in this either… it was always Olds. As far moving engines around marque to marque… I never learned GM to the detail to know what upset people or not, aware they did it though.

            • My neighbor, it turns out, has one of these… in a C/K-series, early ’80s-era truck. It looks a lot like the Olds V-8, with the front-mounted oil filler tube. But it has diesel-specific obvious stuff such as the injector system.

              I kinda-sorta once owned a ’79 403 Olds powered Trans-Am (I took care of it for awhile for a friend). It was a very docile, but torque-rich powerplant that worked really well in the heavy, automatic-equipped Trans Am (they never offered a manual with the Olds V-8). These cars all had non-aggressive final drive ratios (3.08 or less) and were great on the highway.

              Pontiac (deprived of its own V-8) subsequently used the Buick V-6 (turbocharged) to make the ’89 Anniversary TA a runner. It’s the only Trans-Am to come with a V-6 from the factory!


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