A Better Diesel

Illustration by Patrick Leger

Modern diesels kick ass: They’re clean, powerful, and get hybrid-like mileage. And because they compress fuel and air until it explodes (no spark plugs required), diesel engines require a sturdy, brick-shithouse construction that tends to last forever. Yet, they still account for just three percent of new car and truck sales. Conventional wisdom says that Americans shun diesels because of GM’s horrendous efforts in the 1980s, but if the ’80s mattered that much, we’d still be wary of possessed Audis and Saab would enjoy its status as a strange and wonderful BMW alternative.

Though diesels get great mileage – Volkswagen’s new Touareg gets two miles-per-gallon better fuel economy than the hybrid version – that’s only part of the reason for the mini-renaissance that will bring us four new diesels this year from Mazda, Chevy, Jeep, and Ram. Diesel is more expensive than unleaded, so it takes a lot of miles for a VW Passat TDI to repay its $2,280 premium over a gas-powered Passat 2.5. The engines have to justify themselves in other ways, and the number of new models suggests car companies are picking up on the rationale that prompted me to drop a diesel into my old Bronco: They’re great to drive.

Even small diesels make massive torque, and torque connotes power. It’s the steady shove in the back when you step on the accelerator, the ability to surge up a steep hill without straining. In hair-rock terms, horsepower is David Lee Roth – flashy but sometimes irrelevant – while torque is Eddie Van Halen, the force that makes the band matter.

For years, Volkswagen has dominated the diesel market; it sold 90,000 of them last year, enough to cause competitors to take action. Chevy is the first rival to confront VW head on, with the 2014 Cruze diesel taking aim at the Jetta TDI. Later this year, Mazda will roll out a diesel version of its own, the Mazda6 sedan, to challenge the Passat. As Chevy and Mazda go small, Chrysler is dropping a 3.0-liter diesel V-6 into the Grand Cherokee and – finally! – the Ram 1500. The Italian-made V-6 motor adds another dash of Fiat’s European flavor to the Chrysler family, which seems to have reached the conclusion that some Americans might want a diesel pickup even if they don’t need to tow the Empire State Building off its foundation.

Meanwhile, the Chevy Cruze is a prime example of the new diesel game-plan. It’s estimated to improve upon the 42 mpg highway rating of its gas-powered Cruze Eco. More important, its 2.0-liter diesel will crush the Eco’s gas engine on power, cranking out an estimated 148 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque for up to 10 seconds of overboost. To put that in perspective, our old 5.0-liter V-8 Camaro made 280 lb-ft of torque. Also, any car that has an overboost function (a la the Porsche 911 Turbo) is inherently worthy of admiration. See? Diesels are cool.

The Mazda6, with its awesomely named Skyactiv-D 2.2-liter, looks like it will put out similar power to the Cruze, meaning it’ll offer the relaxed torque of a big V-6 with the stingy mileage of a four-cylinder. Mazdas are, in general, some of the most entertaining mainstream cars around, so it makes sense to me that the company’s high-mileage sedan should use a high-tech diesel rather than a heavy hybrid system. And there’s potential for more power – Mazda is already campaigning a race version of the diesel Mazda6 that wrings out 400 horsepower.

While we love punchy diesel cars, the diesel Ram 1500 is probably the most anticipated truck of the year. All three American companies offer mammoth diesels in their heavy-duty trucks, but they’re so outrageously muscular – the big Ram can tow 30,000 pounds – that there was clearly some room at the bottom for a more modest diesel. That would be the 2014 Ram 1500 EcoDiesel.

Powered by a 3.0-liter V-6, the Ram ought to get better than 25 mpg and tow just about anything a sane person would need towed. We predict the Ram EcoDiesel will be embraced heartily enough that Ford and Chevy will step up and offer some competition.

Of course, if you need a diesel today, most of your choices will be German – Audi, VW, BMW, Mercedes, and Porsche all sell them – and they offer a preview of what’s to come.

The turbo diesel in VW’s new Beetle comes on strong and then tapers off, so you tend to keep the revs low and shift quite a bit, watching the dashboard boost gauge swing to the right with each stab of the throttle. With the top down, you get to hear a little more of the distinctive diesel growl and whistle of the turbocharger. It’s a fun, involving car, and one that happens to be the most efficient convertible in America.

At least, for now.

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