Diesel Zone

There's a new diesel fuel?

There is. And it's much, much cleaner.

That's good news for everyone, from people who have to breathe the air, to the people selling diesel fuel and vehicles. Because now diesel technology will get a second look from American passenger car consumers who have, for the most part, dismissed it.


How much cleaner is the new fuel?

It's got 97% less sulfur, to start. That's a good thing, because sulfur is a very nasty element that's responsible for all kinds of health and environmental problems. Plus, it smells like farts.

The new fuel also reduces the emissions from diesel engines of both soot (which is basically, dirt) and nitrogen oxides (which form smog).

The EPA calls this change, "The single greatest achievement in clean fuel since lead was removed from gasoline a generation ago."


Why should I care about the new fuel?

For four reasons:

Reason 1: In addition to allowing new, cleaner diesel engines to be brought to market, the new fuel will reduce pollution associated with older, dirtier diesels. That means cleaner air - which means less cancer and less asthma for humans, and less soot and less smelly odors for city dwellers.

Reason 2: Diesels get better fuel economy than gasoline-powered vehicles, so now you will have another higher-fuel-economy option to consider next time you buy a car.

Reason 3: The new fuel allows manufacturers to design newer, cleaner diesel engines. Older, high sulfur fuel would ruin the new engines.

Reason 4: We lied. We could only think of three reasons.

What happens when you combine the new fuel with the new engines?

That's when the real reductions in pollution start.

With cleaner-burning engine designs and new emissions controls, the new standards mean that diesels will be allowed to emit no more pollution than gasoline-powered vehicles. In other words, an old diesel loophole that allowed diesels to pollute a lot more than gas-powered passenger cars will finally be closing.

The new diesel engines, running with the new fuel, will be spewing out 88% fewer particulates, 77% less nitrogen oxides and 3000% less sulfur. That sounds like a lot. And it is. But remember - it just brings diesels into line with gas-powered cars. All of which shows you how dirty older diesels were.

The emissions controls on the new diesels make a big difference. They use what's called a "particulate trap" to dramatically reduce the unhealthy particles that are spewing out. They're so much cleaner that, thankfully, you won't see black/gray smoke belching out of the tailpipe.

Some manufacturers are even adding a catalytic converter which will further reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions. Others are injecting the organic compound urea right into the engine to achieve the same result. (Yes, it's the same stuff our kidneys are filtering out of our bodies and no, it doesn't mean you can pee into your engine.)


Are the new diesels as clean as gas-powered vehicles?

The new diesel specifications won't allow a diesel to pollute more than what is allowed for gas-powered cars... but that doesn't mean they don't pollute more than many cars currently on the market. Cars labeled with California's Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle ("ULEV") and Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle ("SULEV") standards both pollute less than the new diesels. But, the new diesel fuel and emissions standards make that gap dramatically less significant.


When did the new diesel air pollution laws take effect?

The new laws started in January 2007. Diesels already on the road are grandfathered. The new emissions standards are only for new diesels sold in the US, and that started with the 2007 model year.


How do I know if my local station is selling the good stuff?

The pumps are usually marked, "low sulfur diesel." The transition to clean fuel was completed in early 2007.


I have an old diesel vehicle. Will my vehicle still run on the new fuel?

Yes. There are no known problems running older diesels on the new fuel. Sweden and other countries have been using the new fuel, with their old-style diesels for quite some time - and without any hassles.


Will my old diesel vehicle run cleaner?

Yes-- primarily in that fewer particulates will be spewing from your diesel's tailpipe. And, even without the new emissions controls, older diesels will also have a 90% reduction in sulfur oxide.


Are vehicles with the new, cleaner diesel engines available now?

You bet. Since 2007, automakers have been producing vehicles with newly designed, much cleaner diesel engines. It took some time for many manufacturers to adapt to new stringent pollution control standards, but now it's well-established technology.


What diesel passenger vehicles will be available in the US?

The diesel offerings are increasing rapidly, and diesel sales are up. In the first six months of 2012, Americans bought 61,214 diesels, up more than 27 percent from the same period in 2011.

Less than one percent of the cars and trucks on the road today are diesels (.8 percent) but don't expect that number to remain stuck in place.  Some 32 percent of American consumers say they're ready to consider a diesel, says auto supplier Bosch (which builds diesel systems), up from 12 percent in 2006.


How much am I going to be paying for a diesel vehicle?

More than its gasoline counterpart. Several thousand dollars more, in fact. Why? Because there will be more sophisticated emissions controls in a new, cleaner diesel engine. However, just as with hybrid cars, there are federal tax credits that can help offset the cost. Here are those details.


How much does diesel fuel cost, anyway?

The new and improved diesel fuel has added about 3 to 5 cents per gallon. Diesel fuel is currently about 20 cents per gallon more than gasoline.


Will I get the same MPG as with a gas engine car?

Diesels are actually about 20 to 40 percent more fuel efficient. So, a car that gets about 30 MPG with a gasoline engine, would get about 36 to 42 MPG with a diesel engine.


How reliable are the new diesel engines?

They are as reliable as a gas-powered engine, with the exception of cold starting. The new diesels, just like the old ones, are cold weather-challenged. Usually, the problem is addressed by installing a block heater, heated oil filter, a heated garage, or parking in your living room.

There is some concern about the long-term reliability of the new, more complex diesel emissions controls. There's no information on the reliability of the new emissions equipment over the course of many years. Like all emissions equipment, by federal law, it's fully warrantied for two years or 24,000 milesand some components are under warranty for up to eight years or 80,000 miles. So, if you make the plunge, you'll have all the benefits and risks of being an "early adopter." Whether you'll be thrilled to bits or sobbing over the boat payments you're handing your mechanic, only time will tell.


How much does it cost to get a diesel serviced?

A bit more than you might expect. Diesels require more frequent oil changes than their gas-powered counterparts, and therefore increases cost and downtime. Alternatively, you can use the more expensive synthetic oil - which reduces the downtime, but significantly increases the cost of an oil change.


What are the pros?

Since it's more efficient than a gas engine, using a diesel does reduce our dependence upon foreign oil.

Diesel engines do give you more torque at lower speeds, compared to gas engines. (What's torque? It's how much "twisting power" the engine has. A vehicle with a lot of torque has a lot of pulling power at low speeds - which, as you might now be guessing, is exactly why diesel engines are used in big rigs and other tow vehicles.)

The cons?

There are several cons of which you should be aware, if you're thinking of a diesel.

First, diesels tend to be noisier than gas-powered vehicles. We recently drove a new Jeep Liberty Diesel that we found to be quite noisy. VW's diesel was quieter at idle, but still not as quiet as its gasoline counterpart.

And when you go for a test drive, remember: whatever you're driving is never going to be any quieter than it is at that moment.

Second, as with diesels of old, you still need a block heater - or a warm garage - if you live in a very cold environment.

By the way, the new diesels do not meet California's strict pollution standards. According to several folks we talked to, it's going to be a few years until they can be sold there. (Though, if you live in California, you can still buy a used diesel and get it registered.)