Why 2013 is the year of the diesel

Mike Austin
February 19, 2013

As consumers clamor for cars with higher mpg numbers and with rigorous new federal fuel-economy standards on the horizon, carmakers are exploring all their options. This has largely meant improving the gasoline internal combustion engine's efficiency and offering a few hybrid and electric vehicles. Conspicuously absent from many lineups in the U.S., however, have been vehicles with diesel powerplants. And understandably so: The Ameri­can public has been reluctant to embrace diesels ever since General Motors and other automakers sold noisy, dirty, and unreliable versions back in the '80s. But modern diesel systems are clean, powerful, and fuel-efficient.


Recent diesel options in the U.S. have largely been limited to luxury European brands, but Volkswagen's years of steady diesel sales show that there is a demand for them in mass-market segments. Now other automakers want in on the action. Three cases in point: the new Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Cruze, and Mazda6—mainstream debuts this year from automakers not typi­cally known for diesels. In addition, Porsche has introduced a diesel version of the Cayenne, and Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz are all slated to expand their diesel selections. Even the Ford Transit and Ram ProMaster vans are joining the fray. All told there will be more diesel-powered passenger vehicles for sale in 2013 than ever before in the U.S.

This is good news. Because diesel engines operate at a high compression ratio and the fuel has a higher energy density (about 15 percent more than gasoline), fuel economy is high and torque is abundant. With excellent thrust off the line and long cruising ranges,­ diesels fit the driving style of most Americans. Of course, there's a catch: Diesel vehicles come at a premium, and in the past two years diesel fuel has cost 10 to 70 cents more per gallon than gasoline. Making up the purchase- price difference in fuel economy takes tens of thousands of miles. Even so, consumers already pay extra for hybrid efficiency. For those seeking an alternative, or for people who just hate stopping to fill up, a diesel vehicle might be the perfect solution.

How Diesels Meet Emissions Standards

A. Engine

Diesel combustion creates two emission problems: particulate matter and nitrogen oxides (NOx ).

B. Particulate Filter
The particulate filter traps soot caused by incomplete combustion. The soot burns off eventually.

C. SCR Catalytic Converter
SCR uses an aqueous urea solution (aka diesel exhaust fluid, which is kept in an onboard tank) with a catalyst that reduces NOx to nitrogen, water, and carbon dioxide. Smaller engines can get by without SCR.

Three Cars to Watch For

A. Chevrolet Cruze
On Sale: Spring 2013
MPG (CITY/HWY): 33/45 (est.)
Power: 161 hp (est.)
Torque: 266 lb-ft (est.)
The Scoop: Similar to the version currently sold in Europe, this is GM's first diesel car since the 1986 Chevette.

B. 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Ecodiesel
On Sale: Mid-2013
MPG (CITY/HWY): 21/30 (RWD), 20/28 (AWD)
Power: 240 hp
Torque: 406 lb-ft
The Scoop: Costs more than either gas option, but that's the price of a 730-mile range.

C. 2014 Mazda6
On Sale: Fall 2013
MPG (CITY/HWY): 29/42 (est.)
Power: 173 hp (est.)
Torque: 310 lb-ft (est.)
The Scoop: The clean-burning, low-compression (14.0:1) diesel engine needs no exhaust treatment.

Diesel vs Hybrid

Price: Compared with gas vehicles, diesels and hybrids typically cost anywhere from $1500 to $5000 more.

Weight: Both usually weigh about 300 pounds more than their conventional counterparts.

Cargo: With no space-hogging batteries, diesels have the same-size trunk and cargo areas as the gas versions.

Fuel Price: Diesel is more expensive and will remain so. It's also taxed at 5.2 cents more per gallon on average.

City MPG: Able to run on battery power at low speeds and recapture braking energy, hybrids own the city.

Highway MPG: Some hybrids show higher EPA ratings, but we'd bet on most diesels in real-world driving numbers.