Reader Question: Why no Diesels?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Rick asks: I recently spent two weeks in Ireland and Scotland on vacation. While traveling 1,800 miles in a coach bus I had the ability to gawk out the window quite a lot. I also got to walk around a few of the large cities and I noticed a few things along the way. There are a lot of cars on the road with diesel engines, and a lot of cars with manual transmissions. Not to mention the amount of wagons, which I’m partial to, was astounding to me. That brings me to my question. With CAFE standards rising year over year why aren’t there nearly as many diesel engine optioned cars available to United States consumers? Along those lines. Where does the European appreciation for manual transmissions come from? I swear I saw more manuals than automatics and it was just a culture shock for me. Thank you Eric for all that you do. I thoroughly enjoy your writing whether it’s a new car review or a political rant. I look forward to every article that you post.

My reply: Virtually every car sold in Europe offers a diesel engine, whereas over here, diesels in cars are extremely rare – and becoming more so. Why? It’s not because diesels are “dirty” – the favorite word of the emissions-ignorant press. European emissions standards are not lax. But they are different than American (federal EPA) standards and compliance costs have become so onerous – see the VW debacle – that most manufacturers have decided it’s not worth the trouble.

Result? We get less fuel-efficient gas-engined vehicles. You’d think this would trouble the “environmentally conscious,” given that gas-engined vehicles have a much larger “carbon footprint” than diesels, which burn 20-30 percent less fuel and so emit that much less in the way of “greenhouse gasses.”

But it doesn’t – in the main, because most of the “environmentally conscious” are exceptionally ignorant about the actual emissions produced by diesel-powered (and gas-powered) vehicles, which is almost none. In terms of genuinely harmful compounds, in genuinely meaningful quantities.

This has been the case since the late ’90s, at least – by which time all cars being made were 95-plus percent “clean” at the tailpipe.

Put another way, less than 5 percent of what comes out of any new car’s tailpipe is stuff that contributes to smog, or acid rain or human health problems. The rest is mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide.

The “environmentally conscious” sweat over C02, because it is a “greenhouse gas” – but it has nothing to do with smog formation, or human health problems. And if it did, you’d want to see more diesels on the road – because they produce less C02 than an equivalent gas-engined vehicle.

But, most people do not understand that the Mission has been Accomplished; that EPA is now at the point of insisting upon fractional reductions in exhaust emissions, irrespective of the cost – and no matter the actual benefit.

It’s sad – and stupid. Which makes me mad.

It’s a similar story with regard to manual transmissions. Federal fuel economy mandates (CAFE) are becoming so difficult to comply with that the car companies are becoming desperate, seeking even fractional gains wherever they can find them – and no matter what it costs us.

Automatics – most of which now have multiple overdrive gears on top – can be programmed in such a way as to achieve the best-possible score on the government’s fuel economy tests. Manuals – which are controlled by a human driver – can be less efficient if the driver isn’t a good “shoe.” Th difference is typically 2-3 MPG. It’s not huge – and it probably does not matter to most car buyers. But it matters a lot to the car companies, in terms of achieving “compliance” with government edicts and avoiding fines (passed on to us) for “noncompliance.”

I know. It makes me mad, too.

Thanks for the kind words!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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