63 MPG

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Recently by Eric Peters: Idiot-Proofing Vehicles — or Making Them’Safe’?      

The just-launched Mini Cooper Countryman can get 63 MPGs highway — just not on our highways.

Like so many other diesel-powered vehicles, it’s not available in the United States. Instead we get gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius — which maxes out at 48 MPGs on the highway.

It’s very strange.

Our government (well, maybe calling it “our” government is a stretch) has been browbeating the car industry to produce more “fuel efficient” cars for decades, yet at the same time, for decades, made it very hard to sell high-efficiency diesel-powered passenger cars. VW, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Land Rover and other European brands have been selling their cars here for a long time — just not their diesel-powered cars. In Europe, diesel cars constitute about half the new cars sold; over here, less than 5 percent — chiefly because only a handful of diesel-powered passenger cars are even available.

For two reasons, mainly.

First, for years, we had not-so-great (for emissions reasons) diesel fuel that was fine for big rigs (which until recently could pollute to their hearts content, legally) but wreaked havoc with the finely tuned pollution control equipment fitted to modern passenger car diesel engines.

This, in turn, set up the potential not just for lots of warranty-related expenses and hassles for potential diesel-car buyers but also for even greater hassles and expenses for the car companies that sold them, when the government went after them for selling “dirty” diesels.

So we don’t get diesels like the Mini Countryman D.

No 63 MPGs, either.

Even though our diesel is now “clean” diesel — and the warranty/pollution control issues have been dealt with.

The European car companies are still super leery of bringing to market vehicles that could lead to problems for them with the EPA politburo. Their diesel-powered cars may be “cleaner” (in terms of tailpipe emissions) than a nun’s conscience but there’s still the endless pedantry of slightly different American vs. European regulatory codes. And not just federal codes, but also the different state codes, notably “California” codes that are both different and stricter than “49 state” codes. Some Northeastern states have also adopted “California” codes — which makes achieving compliance with all the varying codes — essential to being able to profitably sell a given car, nationwide — very difficult and very expensive.

Rather than spend beaucoup bucks on lawyers and other forms of paper-pushing to make the EPA happy, the European car companies cut their losses and (mostly) keep their diesels to themselves, selling a few token models here.

You’d think the government (federal and state) would make it a priority to ease the regulatory chokehold a little, to get these high-mileage diesels into mass circulation. Think what a difference a 10–15 MPG average uptick in the fuel economy of the typical passenger car would mean — not just in terms of reducing the aggregate fuel consumption of the nation but also in terms of placating the great god of global warming. Less fuel burned means less greenhouse gasses emitted — and a 10–15 MPG uptick in fuel efficiency spread out across say 20–30 percent of the passenger car fleet would mean a huge reduction in “greenhouse gasses.” And it could be done without elaborate technology (hybrids) or another round of government edicts (CAFE) that just make new cars more and more expensive to achieve minimal, incremental upticks in their average “fleet” economy numbers.

Diesels deliver. They make sense. They work. People would love ‘em if only they had a chance to drive ‘em.

But they don’t — because they do (make sense).

Maybe things will change. I don’t expect them to.

Our government is run by lawyers, not engineers. Talkers, not doers. I doubt one out of 100 of them even knows how a diesel engine differs from a gasoline engine (other than the fuel it uses). So I’m not surprised by the government’s inability to see how much it would help — everything from “the environment” to the economy — by knocking down the stupid regulatory roadblocks that are keeping diesel cars on the other side of the pond.

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Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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