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Should you go diesel?

May 19, 2014, at 4:05 PM
 

The BMW 328d is a pretty damn nice car, the most popular diesel sedan exported by the German auto maker, in fact. It handles beautifully, accelerates quickly — it booms — and, most attractively, it has a better fuel economy than many hybrids: 45 mpg on highways. That's the selling point. BMW is marketing the vehicle as a lower-cost hybrid alternative — a money-saving vehicle, rather than a vehicle that will help save the environment. You'll save thousands on gas. The hybrid versus diesel wars have begun.

In Europe, there are several different diesel variants of the BMW 3 series — BMW offers the 320d and the 325d. The 320d is the diesel alternative to the 320i, which we have in the States and which runs on regular non-diesel gasoline. The 325d is the diesel alternative to the 328i.

But the 328d in the States — a car that buyers pay a premium for — is actually the same car as the 320d in Europe. (Compare the horsepower and torque — they're the same.) The mark-up is a lot higher for the 328d than for the 328i.

BMW has brought the 320d to the United States, called it the 328d, and charges at least $3,000 more (and up to $8,000) for the comparable car in Europe. Its class includes the Audi Q5 TDI, which has a similar price point, and the soon-to-be-released Volkswagen Golf TDI.

The actual comparable car — the BWM 325d — has not been rebranded here.

Why?

It's less efficient than the 320d. BMW, like other auto manufacturers, has to meet stringent miles-per-gallon recs imposed by the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. By 2016, the U.S. auto market will sell cars that average about 36 mpg.

In Europe, regulators focused on controlling carbon dioxide emissions, and European cars are built to minimize those. Unfortunately, diesel isn't very clean, and it's probably a bit more hazardous to you and to the environment than regular gas. Nitrous oxide emissions are perhaps the worst diesel byproducts — London can attest to this — and the U.S. has done a lot more to regulate their release, which is one reason why diesel cars never took off here until recently.

There are true clean diesel alternatives — a formula called AdBlue can be added to the mix — but they're expensive. Indeed, too expensive, at the moment, to become the default additive. Consumers add it, or get a mechanic to add it, at a cost of about $2,000. Mercedes Benz has built AdBlue-injection technology into their line of diesels, but you've still got to shell out the money for a Mercedes to take advantage of it.

In Europe and Asia, people go diesel because they want to save money at the gas station. It's the economical alternative. It ain't that good for the environment. Maybe less fuel is burned off because diesel engines are more efficient, but the pollution released by the exhaust pipes is fairly toxic.

Here in the States, we tend to conflate fuel consumption with environmental friendliness. Or perhaps it's better to say that we focus only on fuel consumption when we make an assessment about the effect of our car purchases and driving habits on the Earth. Hybrids, like the Toyota Prius, are marketed towards the ecologically conscious consumer. But the Prius still runs on gas; the batteries rely on rare elements that are difficult and expensive to mine. (By all means: buy your Prius, but don't think you're doing that much to help Mother Nature. Maybe a little. But you're not that cool.)

Diesel seems like a no-go, given the stigma we've attached to gasoline. At the moment, it's not an easy sell for the average consumer, because cars that run on diesel are more expensive, and gas costs more at the pump. And, well, they're not hybrids — they're smelly, smoky diesels in our minds. (I can envision a Mad Men scene where Peggy and her team conjure up a romantic version of vroom-vroom to sell consumers of the 1960s on the power of diesel performance.) But modern diesels aren't like that at all.

Market and government forces will conspire to decide whether AdBlue becomes a standard additive (and who "adds" it and where); once that decision is made, and the cost is factored in, then diesel cars can make a claim to be truly "clean."

So diesel cars are becoming cleaner, get better mileage, and are becoming more popular. You might save gas if you buy one now, but then again, it may never net out to any sort of savings for you in the future.

Purely electric cars are still not a great alternative for apartment dwellers, which means that the standard hybrid versus "clean diesel" debate is the one to pay attention to. But for those who like to drive, and who do drive, fairly often, in suburbs and outside of cities, a slew of new diesel alternatives will soon be on the market.

 

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