Editor's Desk: Good News, Bad News about Diesel
If you told me 10 years ago that diesel technology would come as far as it has, I wouldn't have believed you. I could have expected big advances in diesels designed for cars, where fuel economy and noise levels are the highest priority, but not trucks, where preserving towing capacity and cargo-hauling ability is a top priority.
Yet by looking at SUVs from Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz; and heavy-duty trucks from Ram Truck, Ford, and GM, it's evident diesel power is the cleanest it has ever been, still has stunning amounts of torque, offers the best towing and payload money can buy, and does it all at the quietest noise levels to date. Fuel stations have new pumps for ultralow sulfur diesel, and more stations carry it, so it's easier for people to make the switch.
And this isn't the end of diesel innovation. The ultimate dream for hybrid technology that could make the most sense for trucks and passenger cars is a diesel/electric system. This would create fantastic fuel economy in city traffic, where hybrids truly excel. Then, on the open road, the power source would be the engine, providing excellent fuel economy on the highway, where diesels truly excel.
The stumbling block is the double-whammy cost of hybrid hardware and a diesel engine. But Mercedes-Benz has already presented one of these hybrids at a recent auto show, and is said to be working on another. And Land Rover plans to unveil a plug-in diesel/electric hybrid Range Rover Sport at the Geneva show. It will be tough to get the two systems to work together, but the payoffs would be huge.
Also encouraging are signs that more than one American truck company has a diesel appropriately packaged for use in a half-ton. The engines were said to be ready to go when the economy collapsed, and we hear they're currently getting tested. I have a feeling that, if one manufacturer has success with a diesel half-ton, everyone else will dive in, too.
There have been a couple setbacks of late, including Mahindra. For the last few years, we anticipated finally driving a compact, diesel-powered pickup in the United States, one that was affordable (the original estimate was in the mid-$20,000s) and reached 30 mpg on the highway. Considering that sister publication Motor Trend's long-term test of a Volkswagen Jetta TDI proved that combined fuel economy in the mid-30s was easy to achieve with a car, 30 mpg on the open road seemed realistic for the Mahindra TR-40. But the EPA tested the 4WD crew cab pickup, and the results were a letdown: 19 mpg city/21 mpg highway.
This brings up some questions: How can such a small diesel truck achieve such poor fuel economy? The gas-powered Tacoma is bigger and does better than that: A 2WD with the I-4 gets 21/25, and a 4WD with the same engine has a 18/21-mpg fuel economy. You can even attain comparable highway fuel economy from an EcoBoost-powered F-150 (22 mpg 2WD, 21 4WD).
The regular cab 2WD Mahindra model will be better, but how much better? With all the chaos surrounding this Mahindra truck-the possible loss of the American distributor; the recently dropped lawsuit the distributor had against Mahindra (the case is set to go to arbitration); years of delays; and now the low fuel economy-can Mahindra survive in the U.S.? And probably the most important question: Even if the company does, if the truck can't do what was originally promised, will it be worth the money? Mahindra claims its truck will arrive here in spring, but we've heard that story before.
I generally try not to get too political, but the other bad news came from the White House. The president's budget proposal has a lot of deep cuts. This is totally understandable, as there just isn't as much money as there was before the Great Recession. But it's disappointing that one of the cuts was to eliminate the EPA's funding for grants for clean diesel research, a total of $80 million. This money had gone to local governments to retrofit vehicles, and to colleges and universities for clean diesel competitions, where there have been incredible innovations.
There still is EPA funding, but the focus has shifted to electric cars. Electric vehicles are great for those who commute within cities, but the range isn't long enough and the recharge time isn't fast enough yet for hard, heavy-duty work in an electric truck. We must work on something realistic, like the aforementioned diesel/electric hybrids. That dramatic reduction in fuel consumption wouldn't hurt trucks' capability, yet would do tremendous good.
As of press time, the president's budget hadn't yet been approved, which offers a glimmer of hope. For now, we have to take comfort in the fact that great strides have been made in the diesel world, and that automakers are working hard to keep diesel around for a long, long time.