Where the F@ck Are the American Diesels?


So… My better half is contemplating purchasing a new vehicle, which means that I get to have some fun doing internet research and reading car magazines on possible options.  She decided that she wanted better gas mileage than her current Subaru provides (28 mpg), and I convinced her that she if she wanted a significant improvement that she should go with a diesel, specifically a Jetta TDI (used or new).  The only problem it seems is that you can’t find a diesel car within 500 miles of Missoula: of course you can find hundreds of diesel Chevy Silverado 3500s.  The dealers seem to think that they wouldn’t sell which means that the closest diesel cars are embargoed in Seattle, Denver, or Salt Lake City.

This isn’t the only barrier that crops up when you want to get your right foot on the gas pedal of a diesel.  Prices of diesels in the used car market have significantly risen in the last half decade as fuel economy suddenly became important to people.  Used Jetta TDIs routinely go for several thousand dollars above their suggested blue book value making a slightly used TDI almost as expensive as a brand new one.  A diesel Jetta is the “cheap” option as many of the other diesels available in America are European luxury models.

And that gets me to my question of the day… Where the fuck are the American diesels?  Half of all cars sold in Europe are diesel.  If you want to buy an American made diesel vehicle in this country you have a lot of option that look like this:

Other than that you have to go with a European manufacturer if you want a car and not a truck.  Audi has 4 diesel models available in the US; BMW 3; Mercedes 7; Volkswagen 7; GM 0, Ford 0; Chrysler 0.  And Audi, BMW, and Mercedes cars aren’t exactly cheap and so aren’t feasible for most Americans to purchase.

Petrol prices are once again averaging $4/gallon and are nearing the record high reached in 2008 and yet the mix of cars available in America has changed very little even in the face of rising prices spanning the last decade.  As of 2008, the average passenger vehicle in America got 25.6 mpg compared to 25.1 mpg in 2001.  That’s American innovation for you.

But this being America, we like big sweeping plans to solve issues, the simple solutions are just plain boring.  T. Boon Pickens has his idea for converting the American passenger vehicle fleet to natural gas and Obama wants us to believe that plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles (EVs) are the technological answers to our commuting nightmares.  Both of those options might be viable long-term solutions to our dependence on oil to drive our economy, but in the short-term neither really makes all that much sense.

The problem with both EVs and NGVs is that they both require whole new systems of distribution and manufacture to develop.  We are talking about investments in the trillions of dollars here to undertake the necessary research, develop new, scalable manufacturing techniques, convert factories, and build the distribution system that will allow Americans to plug-in or fill up their car with natural gas.

Diesel doesn’t require any of that.  The distribution system is already in place.  American car makers might have to spend $50,000 grand buying an advanced diesel car from Europe and reverse-engineering the engine but that’s about all the research they would have to undertake to catchup with European manufacturers.  And diesel cars could show an immediate impact on fuel efficiency, often providing two or three times the fuel efficiency than gas engines currently in use in America.

In the end, diesel isn’t the answer to our oil-dependence (and talk of our energy addiction would make this post too long) as we are going to run out of crude anyway.  What diesel can provide is a bridge between today and whatever system comes along in the future… whether that may be flying cars or living in termite mounds.

  1. Excellent post! We just bought a Jetta and getting 47MPG. Fuels produced from bug-killed pine alone could power logging operations while diesel is burned to produce ethanol. End subsidies for oil companies but end taxes for fuels sold on reservations.

  2. Pancho

    Thanks to “Cash for Clunkers,” my wife got a Jetta TDI two years ago because it was clean and fuel efficient.

    I traded an ’88 Econoline beater for it, getting the max subsidy since it was rated at 17 mpg.

    I had a ’94 Buick Century with 200,000 miles that got 28 highway out of the V-6 motor, and still have a ’96 Ford Contour V-6 (Mazda motor) that gets 26, with 180,000 on the odometer.

    Detroit hasn’t improved on 15 year-old cars because Congress didn’t make them do it. John Dingell joined the Republicans in keep CAFE standards at minimum because that’s what Detroit wanted. Instead of looking for efficiency, they got huge tax breaks for gas guzzlers like Escalades, Suburbans and Hummers. When gas hit $4 a gallon three years ago, auto company stock and sales dropped like the secondary subprime mortgage market.

    A small part of our fuel problem might be solved if Americans learned how to drive. My wife goes through brakes at three time the rate that I do, because she’s always using them when she doesn’t need to.

  3. Powerfarmer

    Ford had a small diesel (4 cylinder) in the works for its Ranger pickup and its large cars but killed the program when the economy and Ford tanked. When they get back on better footing, it is in the pre-production testing phase, we might see one come out for cars and small pickups.

  4. JC

    Check out my buddy Scott’s site. He sells TDI’s in MIssoula:

  5. Europe has a lot more diesel passenger cars than the U.S. for at least three reasons. 1. European fuel taxes are much less for diesel than for gasoline. 2. Europe’s high gasoline prices favor fuel efficient cars and diesel are more fuel efficient than gasoline. 3. U.S. air quality standards were too tough for European diesels to meet, so European cars could not be sold in the U.S. One example is the Ford Econetic which gets 64 mpg: http://www.dr5.org/why-the-us-cant-have-the-greenest-car-in-the-world/

  6. Ingemar Johansson

    Ever seen how to get your Smart Car to do the 1/4 mile in about 11 seconds?

  7. JC

    Wanna put your dump truck up against the Electric Camaro–pink slips? 1/4 mile in 11 secs, 107mph.

  8. petetalbot

    I’ve often fantasized about my perfect rig: a five-cylinder diesel, six-speed manual, smaller crew-cab 4×4 pick up. I’m waiting.

    • Matt

      Pete, I’m sooooo with you. I’ve been waiting for a smaller 4×4 pickup with a diesel. More economy and if you every want to pull something small (drift boat, small trailer, etc) you can do so and get mileage in the 20’s not the lower teens or single digits.

      I don’t need a 3/4 ton grocery hauler. I don’t get how Detroit thinks that’s the only market around with the cost of gas around $4/gallons and diesel OVER $4/gallon.

      I’ve never bought a new vehicle. I’d throw down the cash to buy a smaller diesel truck that gets mileage in the upper 20’s.

  9. Don’t waste the extra money for a diesel.

    Yes the mileage is better, but they hose you on the cost of diesel fuel now.

    The old man bought one of the first diesel pickups known to man, an old 6.2 Chevy that wouldn’t even get out of it’s own way, but diesel fuel was 40% less than gasoline at the time.

    Now diesel is 50 cents a gallon higher, plus the increased cost of the vehicle, and more expensive maintenance.

    • Matt

      Your math doesn’t add up when Diesel is $3.99 and low grade unleaded is $3.77
      Yet, I can get nearly double the mileage (around 45 mpg) with a VW TDI versus a comparable Subaru getting around 28 mpg.

      Sure, it boggles the mind how a fuel that takes less energy to refine costs MORE than gasoline… but, you’re still coming out ahead. Not only that but that TDI has got some speeeeed and torque. Thank it’s turbo.

  10. I have read the European diesel fuel does not put out that awful stink that we get here. In my Subi, being low to the pavement, if we get within a hundred yards, we get stink bombed. but I don’t know if that is true. It’s just something I read.

    Also, the people who take orders at fast food places would like it if diesel drivers wudl park and come inside. Apparently that rattling sound they make is a piercing noise through their headphones. Hurts their ears.

  1. 1 American Car Makes - CARS ALL – CARS ALL

    […] Dead American Car Makes… Travel Tips from a frequent traveler: A new American car – The … Best American Cars – Step Outdoors Where the F@ck Are the American Diesels? « 4&20 blackbirdsDescription : American car makers might have to spend $50000 grand buying an advanced diesel car from Europe and reverse-engineering the engine but that’s about all the research they would have to undertake to catchup with European manufacturers. …http://4and20blackbirds.wordpr .. […]

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