Why Are Today’s Diesels Only So-So Economical . . . and So Expensive?

There’s something weird and cruel about the fact that diesel engines are – for the most part – for the  affluent-only. You’d think it’d be the reverse.

And it is … in Europe.

Over there, more than half the passenger vehicles on the road have diesels under the hood and most models (cars, crossovers, SUVs) offer the option. This is not surprising, given that gas costs about the same per gallon as a decent quality whiskey costs per liter here.

But why aren’t diesel engines more commonly available here? Or rather, why are they almost exclusively offered in high-end models like the BMW 7 Series I reviewed recently (here) or the Audi Q5 I just posted a review of? Indeed, with the exception of a few Volkswagens (Golf, Beetle and Jetta) and one Chevrolet (Cruze) there are no diesel-powered passenger cars that aren’t also high-end/luxury-branded cars (i.e., BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes-Benzes).

This seems counterintuitive at first. Diesel engines, after all, are fundamentally economy (and durability) engines. Their performance attributes are secondary. People buy them because they go farther on a gallon of fuel and (historically) cost less to maintain and tend to last almost forever with decent care. California Car Duster ... Buy New $13.01 (as of 09:55 EST - Details)

So, what’s up? How come there are so few economy-minded (and modestly priced) diesel-powered passenger cars available for sale in the United States – while the same kinds of cars are so readily available in Europe?

Form a picture in your mind of a belligerent-looking old man with a goatee wearing a red, white and blue costume… .

Uncle has made it very costly to sell – and drive – a diesel powered vehicle in the United States. Severe (and severely stupid; give me a minute) emissions regs that are also different from the regs in Europe mean that before a manufacturer (ack, jargon alert; this is what car journalists say in lieu of “car company”) can legally offer a diesel-powered car in the United States, it must meet emissions regs at both the federal and state level. There are 50 different states and several of them (individually and in regional blocks) have different (or additional) regs in force. Plus the feds. It can be a big hassle – and a really big expense – to alter/adjust a given model that’s ok to sell in Europe so that it’s legal to sell in every U.S. state.

This makes it really problematic to sell a diesel-powered economy car. Or even a diesel-powered mid-priced car. The margins are already tight for cars in those classes. An additional 5 percent in “up front” costs tends to focus the consumer’s gaze in a more affordable direction.

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