Saturday, January 3, 2009

Diesels...No More Dirty Nonsense

I have to say, one of the most annoying feelings to be had next to failing to make a move on that wonderful woman you met at the local pub, is going to the gas station, knowing that your car averages a not-so-spectacular 23 miles per gallon, sometimes less, and that you have to shell out about $50 to fill‘er up with premium, almost once a week or every two weeks. That’s when some random person comes forward to me with the solution...and they point with a nice big grin and an “I told you so” expression…and belittle my standard premium petrol consumerism by saying: Get a hybrid! Only in that person’s attempt to turn my frown upside down does nothing but completely and utterly fail. Is it because I don’t like hybrids…yes but with good reason and I’ll show you why.

This was the story of my life in the summer of 2008, when gas prices hovered well over the $4 mark. While gas is cheaper however, it does not rid of the still existent fear of higher gas prices and the struggle to find automobiles with the best fuel economy is one of the top three pursuits in the developed world next to fighting off obesity. If you thought it was worth waiting a year or so and paying a very large dealer premium for that Toyota Prius hybrid, you are very wrong.

As the future dawns on us, we are confronted by ridiculous gas prices with predictions suggesting prices will once again jump up from their year 2000-esque prices. Rather you like it or not, this is a prevailing issue that will be with us for years to come. So…what cars should interest you in the realm of saving money, time, and even the planet? I’ll tell you downright straight up, hybrids are far from being the answer. Ethanol 85? That's like putting your money on the Expos when they verse the Yankees. How about hydrogen fuel cells? Too early to tell because it’s extremely complicated and expensive and will take years to be standardized, tested and proven. That leaves us with gasoline and diesel…well, we all know we’re trying to avoid gasoline cars since they don’t produce the best fuel economy…so, that all being said let’s talk about diesels.

So why diesels? Or for starters, why haven’t we been using diesel passenger cars? Because for many many years, people in countries outside the states have been indulging in the beneficial fuel economy from diesel passenger cars. Two thirds of the world's automobile sales in fact, has the viscous, smelly stuff standardized as the fuel and engine for choice. While us Americans wallowed around in our gas-sucking SUVs, these diesel-passenger-car motorists have been consuming on average 30% less than comparable gasoline-powered automobiles. And the reason why we didn’t get the handful of diesels offered everywhere in the world was due to the poor quality of diesel that was available in this country, which was too poorly refined to run in the newly developed engines. We live on a continent where our gasoline is very high in sulfur content, and the poor quality diesel is why we have this vision and perspective of diesels and a big black plume of smoke. You rarely see this in Europe or elsewhere in the world.

Since these newly developed and technologically advanced diesels operate quietly and extremely efficiently by injecting fuel in the cylinders at a very high pressure through tiny injectors with electronic precision, the sulfur in our fuel doesn’t react very nicely with the tiny fuel injectors because it clogs them. This isn’t an issue elsewhere because this sulfur doesn’t exist at such high amounts or is filtered out.

However, after 2006, we no longer have to worry about high-sulfur content in our diesel as new regulations require that ultra-low sulfur fuel be sold to the public. So that makes it possible for the foreign diesel passenger cars to start coming. In addition, that makes the diesels cleaner.

But let's also reflect on how the Big Three (Chrysler Group, General Motors, and Ford) had all destroyed America’s perspective of diesels back in the 1970s with their attempts to make diesel vehicles. They’re the ones who gave us all the idea of diesels and big black plumes of soot and smoke because their cars were awful to begin with next to their European counterparts (Anyone who lived to see the 1980s Oldsmobile and Cadillac diesel V8s would know what I'm on about).

Quite specifically, they just took a standard 350 small block Oldsmobile V8, took many cost-cutting steps in redesigning it by using the standard gasoline 350 as a template, and called it a day. This is like shoving a .50 caliber bullet into a .38 special and thinking it would work. Since diesels produce more pressure than a standard gasoline engine due to compression combustion (further described later), the engine block, crankcase, and head all have to be reinforced to be able to withstand the greater pressure and power that diesel engines produced. As a result, many people saw premature failure to many major engine components, leading to the smokey, black exhaust, and even to complete engine failure. But getting back on track...

You may also notice that diesel is very expensive stateside. But this all comes down to the economic level as well. A very large portion of America’s economy is dependent on the Big Three’s progress so the government would never allow them to become bankrupt for that reason, so they raise the price of diesel to deter interest. And it’s common knowledge that the Americans have been by far the most inferior with car technology in general and with their ideologies since the mid-1970s, which is very widely circulated and has been proven in history, brand loyalists aside (which is an interesting perspective since the General holds the second highest amount of patents in automotive history, next to Mercedes-Benz, who's first). If we were to allow more of these superior foreign diesels into this country, that would detract customers from buying domestic automobiles thus saturating the country with foreign automobiles, and giving the foreign manufacturers majority of our business (like this isn’t already happening), resulting in no business for the Big Three. Not to mention the Big Three have been producing less-than-stellar mainstream automobiles for the last three and a half decades, but that's an argument for another time.

Now, you may be thinking, aren’t diesels slow? Well, if this was 1975, in the midst of the oil crisis and one of the only diesels you could get was a W123 Mercedes-Benz 240D, which had a 0-60 time of, well, the time it took planet Earth to form, then yes. But not in this day and age. A couple of examples are as follows: a current generation Audi A8 4.2 TDI with a 4.2-liter V8 turbodiesel will get you from 0-60 in six seconds flat, while returning up to 35 MPG on average. Sure it’s not as fast as the 4.2-liter gasoline V8 but that penalty is very well rewarded with marginally better fuel economy than the normal V8 would ever manage; another is the current BMW E60 335d with a 3.0-liter straight-six twin-turbocharged diesel (an engine with very high praise), a car that can too do 0-60 in a shade under 6 seconds and can manage up to 45 MPG! Ok so maybe most can’t afford an A8. In the UK, you can get a Ford Mondeo 2.2 TDCi with a turbocharged straight-four diesel which will return on average of 46.3 MPG while getting from 0-60 in 7.9 seconds, and in a world where anything that has a 0-60 time of less than eight seconds is considered fast, that’s not terrible. And with Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen planning to bring more diesel cars into this country, we can see a growth in affordable diesel cars.

One story was shared with amongst some automobile magazine editors. One of the editors lost a race in the new BMW E92 M3 to a BMW E61 530d station wagon with an automatic transmission, and that’s not the most powerful diesel available in the 5-Series. At the traffic light, both cars took off and the editor was dusted by the man in the 530d and was unable to catch up until 60 MPH.
I know, all of those cars cannot be had in the American market just yet. But it’s to give you an idea of what kind of diesels we’re missing out on with and with plans of companies such as Toyota, Honda, BMW and Audi as well as others bringing their diesel cars stateside, we can definitely see a larger pool of diesel options in this country.

At this point, you may be wondering what the heck makes diesels so fast. In today’s world, diesels make just as much power as their gasoline counterparts if not more and all that power comes from all the torque that diesels have to offer. Think of a big, large displacement V8 with lots of low end grunt...and that wave of torque continues all the way up to the engine's redline, just without the consumption penalty of a gas V8.

But what about the black plumb of smoke and soot? With new emission and exhaust systems that are as technologically advanced as a particle accelerator, the smoke and soot is almost entirely nonexistent. And all of this technology is far from being experimental and is tested and proven in the real world. Over 40% of BMWs sold worldwide are with diesel engines and in France, over 80% of Audis are sold with diesels and as aforementioned, the US is late to the trend.

As an example of one of these new emission systems, some of you may heard of Blutec: pioneered by Mercedes in conjunction with Volkswagen AG, and Chrysler. It sa new kind of catalytic converter (a chamber connected to the exhaust manifold that contains a bunch of expensive and precious metals that break down toxic gases produced by engines) which contains a certain amount of urea extracted by naturally animals, which basically eliminate almost all toxic gases emitted from diesel engines, resulting in these diesel engines being cleaner than standard gasoline engines. This technology is recently available stateside via Mercedes-Benz and their diesel options. Volkswagen too offers a system similar to that of Blutec, with the new Jetta TDi.

The combination of the advancement in technology with the emission systems goes hand in hand with the fuel injection system, which are designed to burn fuel as thoroughly and precisely as technologically possible. So while gasoline cars too have become cleaner and more efficient, diesel vehicles have as well though with plenty better results.

Of course, there are also more questions regarding the livability and practicality of a diesel automobile. Many of you will know that older diesel were equipped with what are called glow plugs. Glow plugs were used to preheat the cylinders and fuel injectors as so to make a cold start easier, since diesel has a higher viscosity than gasoline. But modern diesels do not have glow plugs and anything above 50F they start normally. In temperatures below that they may take longer, but miniscule miliseconds as opposed to minutes in older diesels. The issue with diesel's viscosity in cold weather is that it gets thicker and milkier as it gets colder…however this is nearing -20F so majority of you need not to worry.

Following practicality, there's also longevity. While diesels do contain far less parts than a gasoline engine, diesels do tend to have the general reputation of being far more reliable than gasoline engines. Diesel engines are compression combustion engines and don’t need spark plugs meaning that the fuel combusts through compression and does not need a spark to be ignited. In the US, we’ve mainly had Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz diesels, with engines that were built so well that they would last for all eternity. It was very common to find these diesel cars with an excess of 250,000 miles on one engine, some nearing the half-million mile mark with no major trouble.

At this point, I've probably given you enough information to make your head explode and you might want to take a coffee break...because I'm far from finished. So now, one of the ultimate questions. Why a diesel over a hybrid? This is a very simple question with just an equally simple answer. If you want to save money, don’t buy a hybrid. Economic and statistical reports and studies have shown that people, who are buying hybrids, are actually buying them not to save money. While they do save little bits in fuel consumption, they don’t save money in the long run, especially after factoring all of the dealer premiums that they command.

Hybrids will never save enough fuel to equate, cover and exceed the initial cost premium that hybrids demand, so hybrids don’t pay for themselves. Not to mention that hybrids have extremely expensive battery packs that have more precious metals than your wealthy grandparents’ jewelry collection, will need to be replaced at some point. So that trumps the longevity aspect for hybrids.

Diesel cars also have far better resale values than hybrids and gas-vehicles. One example made in an automobile magazine was with a Mk4 2004 Volkswagen GL with 50k miles, and a 2.0-liter straight-4 with 115hp: it valued in at an auction for $8,850 while the same car with the same mileage, but with the turbodiesel engine with 90-hp valued in at $13,950. A similar story was with Volkswagen’s SUV, the Touareg: V6 and V8 models were valued in at $20,100 and $25,500 respectively, but the V10 TDI was valued in at a whopping $41,600. It’s the same astronomical difference with diesel pickups versus their gasoline siblings.

On top of this, diesels get their best fuel economy with the types of conditions that majority of Americans drive, which is on the highway. An automobile magazine editor drove his Mercedes-Benz W211 E320 CDI and received up to 40MPG, giving a Volkswagen GTi a damn good run for its money in both fuel economy and stoplight drags.

Hybrids offer no benefit on highway driving and unless you’re sitting in traffic running on solely the battery, you’re not saving squat.

If not hybrids, what about Ethanol 85? That’s pretty much the biggest joke next to the Bush Administration's eight years in office. It takes about 1.7 gallons of Ethanol 85 to equal the amount of energy in a gallon of diesel and it takes more than 7% of the gallon itself to make a gallon of E85. In addition, with taxes it would make E85 at least a dollar more expensive than normal gasoline. And since Ethanol 85 burns far quicker than normal gasoline or diesel because it’s a very light hydrocarbon, fuel economy is basically shot to shrapnel. If anything, it gives benefits to the car companies and not the consumer: it gives manufactures a fuel economy CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) credit for reducing gasoline consumption even if the car is never run on E85, and most never are.

And what confuses me more is why Bob Lutz, Chairman and CEO of General Motors, said that all of GM’s work will now focus on the research and development of E85 vehicles and hybrids. And that’s not even considering what that would do to our agriculture.

Speaking of agriculture, don't plan on saving the planet by driving a hybrid. With the new emission control systems such as the aforementioned BlueTec technology being cleaner than normal gasoline cars, many of these diesels, such as Volkswagen Golf and Jetta, Ford Focus, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Audi A2 and A3 diesels produce fewer grams per kilometer of carbon dioxide than a Toyota Prius. And did you know that acid rain created from the mining of nickel for Toyota hybrid batteries has destroyed the landscape in Sudbury, Ontario to such an extent that NASA now uses the area to test drive its latest lunar vehicles?

And even if you want to try your best at saving the planet, buy a diesel! Diesel engines are far more versatile with alternative fuels than gasoline engines. Bio-diesel and vegetable oil are just two extra fuels that diesel can burn, with no adverse side effects, and with cleaner exhaust. It may be more difficult to do so with these newer diesel engines but it has been experimented, tested and proven, as long as the bio-diesel and vegetable are clean enough for the injection system. In fact, bio-diesel and vegetable oil-powered diesels are a new trend, with people buying old Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen diesels left and right, with the sole purpose of converting them to such. And it's a very easy process. Buy an old Mercedes or VW diesel, buy the conversion kit for no more than a grand and have it retrofitted, drop by your local restaurant chains, offer to take their frying oil (since many francises and restaurants have to pay for their oil to be swept away), filter all the french fry crumbs out and just pour into the secondary tank provided by the conversion kits. Then flick a switch, save money and the planet!

So there you have it. If you want to save money in terms of fuel economy, don’t buy a hybrid. Because all you will be doing is giving into the social cliche and marketing ploy of auto manufacturers all while being tricked into thinking that you’re making a difference in the world and that you’re saving money. And it’s seen how poorly informed this country is with everyone flocking to buy Toyota’s/Lexus’s and Honda’s hybrid, companies rushing to develop competing hybrids to get a share of the good business, and now George Bush’s new law stating that all manufacturers now need to research and develop hybrid cars in their lineup. With the current unstable condition of the stock market and economy, could this be an economical ploy as well to boost the economy with the business attraction that hybrids are getting? Who knows…it’s our turn to make the smart decisions…everyone else has.

~Chris Chin

Source: Top Gear Magazine of UK, Automobile Magazine, EPA, DieselPowerMag

Used Car Buyer's Guide: are they really better?

Co-written with Sawyer Sutton

It’s that time of year again, when you might be considering looking at the various kinds of automobiles that are out there on the market. But, you interestingly find that the better deals are actually on the secondhand market as opposed to the new market…that’s right, used cars. Now there are a lot of views and perspectives regarding used cars that can be somewhat true, but for the most part, if you are willing to take the time to do some extra work and properly plan your research, you’ll most likely find that those common views and perspectives are myths and you could end up with the bargain of the century.

Firstly however, let's make a general rule of thumb right now. No used car will be as perfect as the day it rolled off the assembly line like brand-spankin' new. But before I continue to evaluate on that, let's go over those common views and perspectives on used cars that act as a deterrent, like spotting a dead cockaroach in that person's sandwich while you wait on line at the deli. Speaking of rotten food, myth number 1: the reason why people believe that buying used cars is a bad idea is due to the possibility of buying someone else's troubled automobile. While this is true, this is not at all 100% true, and isn't even nearly 50% true. It is thought that people who usually end up with lemons and have no way of getting their money back through the manufacturer or the dealer end up selling their cars to buyers--you--who are oblivious to the background knowledge of the car, and thus you end up with a headache that consumes more money than your loved one...I mean...than you can handle. Another reason as to why you could possibly end up with someone else's troubled auto would be from the previous owner's or owners' incompetence from improper maintenance and care, whatever the circumstances. In cases like these, this can happen, but it rarely does if you take the preventive steps, which mostly entail research.

OK, so some of you might curl up into the fetal position when you hear the word research, but lets face it: this is the second most expensive expenditure next to your mortgage and will transport you, your friends, your family, even your foes, be it your foes will be in the trunk wrapped up rather than the backseat. You can never do too much research and you can never be too thorough. One of the steps that you can take to prevent yourself from getting these mishaps is to run what is called a CarFax report. CarFax is basically a database that holds the basic, yet necessary history and background information of a car using their VIN number, or Vehicle Identification Number. It can tell you how many owners the car had; the service history of the car (but with specifics such as what was serviced or repaired absent); how many times the car was inspected and if it has passed or failed a certain part of the inspection; whether the car was in an accident or if it has a salvage title; if the car was in a flood or fire; odometer fraud (mileage), and registration or the title history of a car. CarFax reports aren’t 100% accurate, but they definitely do provide a basic idea on what the history of the car was like and are definitely worth the $19.99 for one report, or $24.99 for unlimited reports. Another step to take would be to hire a specialized mechanic to do a Pre-Purchase Inspection, or PPI. For example if you’re looking at a used BMW or Jaguar, hire a Jaguar or BMW specialist. Have them come with you to inspect the car. They would be able to tell you what kind of physical condition the car is in. And of course, the price of those depend on the garage but majority of the time, it will only cost you an hour's worth of labor; and if it so turns out you buy the automobile, you now have a potentially positive business relationship with a mechanic, a good asset to have. Next, you can also contact the corporate offices of the manufacturers and ask for a complete service history of the car by submitting the VIN number, which can tell you the details of what each service and repair appointment, if any, entailed. All these steps should be considered when looking for a secondhand car. The VIN number can also show if any major part such as the transmission or the engine has been swapped because they contain serial numbers that match with the VIN number.

Myth number 2: there is also another common perspective that if a car has high mileage, it’s a car not worthy of being considered and could entail a lot of problems because the car was used too much. This my friends, mainly depends on what kind of car it is. A proper car should be able to go at least 120,000 miles or more on one drivetrain (transmission, engine, suspension/chassis). It’s usually around 150,000-200,000 when cars usually start to experience major problems as parts get older and worn out. Altogether, there are a fairly good amount of American, European and Japanese cars that tend to be very reliable and last a long time, though it is widely circulated that European cars and Japanese cars tend to last quite a bit longer just because they are better built. However, before I continue, while age and use does factor in for a car's longevity and reliability, the most important thing to be punctual about is maintenance. Maintenance is a huge factor in determining the longevity and reliability of an automobile. As long as you follow with the recommended service intervals with fluid changes, lubrication, tune-ups, almost any car will be reliable. However, that almost must be well noted because no religious act of maintenance will be able to compensate for a manufacturer's poor design and engineering (anyone who drives a French, Italian or English car would know this) so some cars can be unreliable even when being brand new. It's also good to keep in mind that not every car is perfect even when brand new because automobiles are very very complex and intricate machines and it's very difficult to keep track of every single process that goes into assembling and manufacturing an automobile, so things can be overlooked in the process. Rest assured, though, generalizations can be made about each regions' automobiles so you know which ones to particularly avoid: most American cars can also go up to about 120,000 miles without any major problems. Most Japanese and European cars, more particularly the Germans, are built to last to around 250,000-300,000 miles and to find an example with 80-150,000 miles on it--which is low mileage--is a worthy find, being that there's still a plenty amount of life left on the car. But it all depends on what kind of car it is because it will have its own engineering and design faults, recalls and what not. Some cars are built better than others, but to stick with the generalizations, in most cases the Germans, Japanese, and Americans manufacture the best automobiles in the world. If you do buy a car with high mileage, check if certain major parts have been rebuilt or replaced such as the transmission or engine. However though, it’s not recommended that you buy a car with rebuilt parts of the drivetrain because you don’t know if it was done properly, unless stated on a service record that it was done by a qualified mechanic. That said, a reason as to why the car is being sold is due to a repair or rebuild gone wrong and as a result, is financially unfeasible.

Myth # 3: another common perspective is that the older the car, the more problematic it can become and aren’t as enjoyable as newer cars. For example, you can buy a 1960s or 1970s Mercedes-Benz that was properly owned and meticulously maintained with high mileage, and it’ll last you a long time, granted the previous owner(s) took proper care of it (aha! Maintenance shows its importance again!). They are some of the best engineered automobiles, built to last in the world making them very reliable and not require too much maintenance. But once again, it very much does depend on the car and how well it was engineered and designed. However, the older you go you’ll find that there are less safety features on the car. Though, it is important that you don’t depend on 20 year-old airbags unless the entire system has been replaced and certified. Older American and some Japanese cars tend to be more problematic with rust and drivetrain and powertrain problems.

You should also set a criterion in which to apply when you look for used cars. The best details to look for is if the car has had no more than two owners; less than 150,000 miles, lower for some Japanese, American and European cars; in good to excellent condition (especially look for rust on a car, which can be a huge problem with the body on older cars) with a good or meticulously clean maintenance and service history; full service, maintenance and repair history and records (if not offered by the seller, obtain them through the manufacturer); all repairs and maintenance was performed with OEM parts (for example, if you buy a BMW, make sure all the parts and equipment is from BMW); and a clean CarFax report. You should also set a budget and should allocate a considerable amount of money towards service or repairs, because even though the service and repair history and CarFax reports could be as clean as whistle, you can still experience one or two minor mishaps, which is normal in most cases. It’s also not recommended that you buy a car that has been modified in terms of performance because you do not know if the car was modified properly and could cause you problems. To find out how much you should be paying for a particular car, a good reference site would be the National Automobile Dealer Association ( or Kelly Blue Book ( They offer a good idea of how much a car is worth, and can determine the value of the car by allowing you to enter how much mileage the car has and what the car comes with and what condition it is in. There are some cases, where cars are collectors that the NADA and the KBB do not apply very well to the price. You’d also want to buy a car that has a good residual value because if you would ever want to sell the car in the future, you wouldn’t lose too much money. It’s also a very simple equation when it comes to the value of a car. If a car came with more standard options, is rare in quantity and availability, has low mileage and is in good to excellent condition, any of those aspects can contribute to a more expensive car.

You can also look into CPO cars, or Certified Pre-Owned cars, where dealers take used cars or trade-ins and perform a rigorous test, set a high-standard criteria, repair and service everything that’s necessary, and basically they’re selling you a brand new car, just with some numbers on the odometer, figuratively speaking. So all the processes mentioned above are already done; however, the deals are usually let down by the dealers because they set the prices relatively higher than what the private market has to offer and in some cases isn’t worth it.

You now might be thinking what kind of cars the secondhand market has to offer and what you should be looking for. When it comes to what kind of car you maybe look for, that’s entirely your preference but for every manufacturer, there are certain and overall details that you should be aware of. The best cars that can be bought off the secondhand market are of German and Japanese manufacturers. They are simply some of the best and most well-engineered vehicles on the market and often feature amazing deals. For example, I was once looking at some late 1980s and early to mid-1990s BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes and ended up with a 1994 W124, E320 Coupe. The reason why is because they are very reliable, well-built, safe, and fun to drive. For example, was determined to purchase a 1987-1991 Mercedes-Benz 560SEL, which at the time was what is now known as the S-Class. It has a 5.6-liter V8, is very reliable and well-built, has leather seats, power seats, locks, windows, safety features like 3-point seatbelts, driver and passenger airbags, crumple zones, and traction control (all pioneered by Mercedes-Benz). The overall result is that the car is basically a tank and is very safe. At the time, it cost around $70-80,000 US, but now, you can purchase a good example between $3500 to $15,000 US, which is one hell of a deal. It has all the safety equipment that are offered in today’s cars and can be bought at a fraction of the original price. In addition, it’s a Mercedes-Benz. So who said a nice car has to be new? You can even get an early 1990s BMW 5-Series for around $7000-$20,000. But you should keep in mind, that European cars will be a considerably (depends on what kind of car) more expensive when it comes to maintenance, service and repair, simply because they're European. In that case, if your budget is the issue, don’t hesitate to look at Japanese cars. They are just as well built as some of their European counterparts, but could cost nearly half the amount it does to service or repair a European car.

I hope this article has given you a better idea of what the secondhand market is like and that it makes you more comfortable with buying a used car. Not only will it save you a lot of money if you get the right deal, you can get a really nice car for a fraction of what it cost brand new without having to spend a large sum of money. Also, be patient as there are a lot of cars in the secondhand market, you’ll always find something that interests you. Be patient, otherwise it could end up with a major headache and a hole in your wallet. It is critical that you do all the steps suggested in this article to get the best from a used car. Again, you can never be too thorough and you can never do too much research as it will definitely pay off in the long run and will protect you from seller fraud and scams.

~Chris Chin and Sawyer Sutton