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

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