Diesel’s Last Gasp: VW Scandal Doesn’t Explain This Demise

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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As a longtime fan of fuel-sipping diesel cars, it pains me to say it. But setting aside the outlier of heavy-duty diesel pickups, diesel may be on its deathbed in America. Fans, or former fans, of Volkswagen’s once-vaunted TDI diesels will say, “Tell us something we don’t know.” But while VW’s scheme to cheat diesel pollution rules — resulting in jailed executives and $25 billion in penalties — drove a nail into diesel’s coffin, most of those nails were already pounded.

Diesel’s demise in passenger cars and SUV’s was foreordained. Like many proponents, I chose to ignore the signs, won over by diesel’s potential to save energy, reduce C02 emissions, and boost torque and driving range. But the technology is no longer competitive on costs. Governments and regulators are turning against diesel, as they envision a future with no new fossil-fueled cars whatsoever. Most automakers have gotten the memo, including VW, which has placed a $66-billion bet on electric cars. In a kill-or-be-killed competitive landscape, no automaker with a working crystal ball is going to invest in diesel. Instead, they’re pouring money into electrification and turbocharged gasoline engines, two technologies with more environmental upside and more appeal to consumers.

So let’s stop pretending that, if VW had only played fair, Americans would be clamoring for diesel cars. Look, most consumers haven’t the faintest idea of what VW was up to, or why they should care. Americans are self-interested buyers above all. If some automaker rolled out a diesel car or SUV today, that delivered spectacular mileage gains, at a competitive price, with a clean bill of health from the EPA, enough people would give it an honest shot. But that’s not what’s happening.

Jaguar has dropped the optional diesel in its XE sedan for 2020. (Photo: Jaguar Land Rover)

Over the past year, I’ve driven pretty much every passenger car with a diesel option, including Jaguar sedans, Land Rover SUVs, and the all-new, Jeep Wrangler Ecodiesel. You know what? If a car shopper asked me for my honest take, I wouldn’t recommend a single one. Some deserve trophies for pointlessness, including a Mazda CX-5 “Diesel Signature” model. Now, Mazda makes  brilliantly fun-to-drive gasoline cars. But its star-crossed diesel has been promised, yet delayed, for seven years. The company is still struggling to get the engine CARB- and EPA-certified for use in the Mazda6 sedan, whose pre-production model I drove, but whose on-sale date remains a mystery. If Mazda was smart, they’d pull the plug now, and think about where to put electric plugs in their lineup.

As for the Mazda CX-5, the engine definitely wasn’t worth the wait, unless you’d care to drop a ridiculous $41,000 to start — $4,100 more than the comparable gas model, and $15,000 beyond a base CX-5  — for a compact SUV that manages a piddling 28-mpg in combined driving, and has less torque than the turbo gasoline version. Hmm, might I direct you to a Toyota RAV4 Hybrid or Ford Escape Hybrid, which deliver a respective 40- and 41-mpg, for thousands less than the Mazda?

The Wrangler Ecodiesel that I drove in magnificent Zion, Utah was the best of this year’s diesel bunch. It showed me 32 mpg on the highway, a serious bump over the Jeep’s turbo four or V-6 versions. The Italian-built diesel is smooth and quiet, with just-enough oomph for passing, thanks to 440 pound-feet of torque. It helps that the latest Wrangler is a brilliant SUV, with inimitable style, charm and off-road talents.

But even for the Jeep, there are too many deal-killers. On average, diesel fuel costs 51 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded, at $3.04 versus $2.53. So the exorbitant price of diesel energy wipes out its potential fuel- or money-savings. That 20-percent price premium is smaller in some states, but the days when diesel cost less than unleaded are gone. On top of that, the Jeep Ecodiesel’s $29,290 base price is $4,000-$4,500 more than the gasoline version. Optioned up, the top-shelf Ecodiesel I drove cost nearly $57,000, and that’s a lot of money for a Wrangler. How many people, exactly, are prepared to shell out out an extra $4,000-$4,500 for a Jeep that likely won’t save them a penny at the pump? The Ecodiesel is also the slowest-accelerating Wrangler model, with no more towing capacity than gasoline versions. The Jeep’s 500-plus-mile driving range does means a few less fuel stops over the course of the year, but c’mon: Is that worth paying thousands more?

Diesels continue to make sense for heavy-duty pickups, where their massive torque, towing might and durability help justify higher prices, especially for contractors and other working pros. Ford says that 72 percent of SuperDuty buyers choose a V-8 diesel, and more power to them. Yet for the clearest evidence that Americans don’t see any upside for mainstream models, look to the country’s best-selling passenger model, Ford’s F-150 half-ton pickup. When Ford first announced it would offer downsized, turbocharged V-6 engines in the F-Series, some loyalists scoffed. What real American wouldn’t rather have a big V-8 in their truck? Ford also added a Powerstroke diesel option in 2018, including a 30-mpg highway rating (for 2WD models) that leads the half-ton field. So given a choice between a turbo gasoline V-6, or a turbodiesel V-6, what did F-150 customers decide?

2020 Jeep Wrangler EcoDiesel bumps highway mileage above 30 mpg, but the car and fuel will cost you. (Photo: FCA)

It turns out that more than 60 percent of F-150 buyers are choosing the 2.7- and 3.5-liter Ecoboost engines, which easily out-accelerate the diesel model, and combine their own burly torque with up to 28 highway mpg. Ford was happy to provide that 60-percent stat on the runaway success of Ecoboost engines. But when I asked Ford how many customers were buying the diesel, they said those numbers weren’t available. One Ford dealer who does a healthy pickup business estimated that diesels are a piddling three percent of sales. If that’s true, then gasoline Ecoboosts are outselling the diesel by about 20 to 1.

FiatChrysler’s Ram 1500 offers a diesel as well, and the Chevy Silverado will soon. But again, all these diesels add $3,000-to-$5,000 to the truck’s price. They’re all out-accelerated by gasoline versions, and in Ford’s case actually tow and haul less than gasoline models. Now, add the higher cost of diesel fuel, plus more money for refills of smog-fighting Diesel Emissions Fluid, and the math just doesn’t add up. For more writing on the wall, Ford is racing to bring hybrid and full-electric F-150’s to the market, in part to stave off any threat from Tesla’s high-profile Cybertruck.

So, if you’re looking for a culprit in diesel’s demise, don’t look to VW or a court of law. The court of public opinion is judging, rightly, that diesel costs too much for too little in return.


About the Author

  • Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning car journalist and the former chief auto critic at The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Motor City native lives in Brooklyn with a cat and a more-finicky '93 Mazda RX-7 R1.

can be reached at lawrence.ulrich@gmail.com
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