Turbo Diesels Take on Hybrids

Recently I test drove of the new Volkswagen Jetta TDI Diesel. It accelerated on to the freeway faster than my Toyota Prius.  Driving freeways and stop-go city, I wondered which would be the bigger seller, the new European turbodiesels or the Japanese Hybrids.

For Detroit, May was the cruelest month, as they were outsold by Asia for the first time. Fuel economy is in; gas guzzling is being punished. General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler combined for a record low market share of 44.4 percent, compared with 48.1 percent for 10 Asian brands, according to the Autodata Corporation, the industry statistics firm. Toyota and Honda continued to gain market share. In the months ahead, Detroit will also lose share to the new fuel efficient diesels from Europe where diesel vehicles outsell gasoline alternatives.

The VW Jetta TDI Diesel has an EPA rated mileage on 41 mpg highway and 30 city with a 6-speed stick; 40/29 with an automatic. With 140 horsepower, the Jetta has plenty of performance. The diesel Jetta has a combined EPA rating of 33, compared with 25 for its gasoline cousin. In other words, diesel delivers over 30 percent better mileage, making a real difference to the pocket book even with diesel fuel’s higher prices, and to reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 1.5 million Toyota Priuses are now on the road. The 2008 Priuses has an EPA rated mileage of 48 city and 45 highway. Notice that this hybrid with regenerative braking actually gets better mileage in stop and go than on freeways where there is added wind resistance. The Prius computer automatically disengages the engine most of the time when stopped and going slowly, making it more quiet than diesels. The Prius has a bit more passenger room than the Jetta. Both have the same trunk space.

Using both an electric motor and an engine, the Prius has always delivered more performance than I’ve needed, whether accelerating on a freeway or climbing a steep and icy mountain road. With its powerful electric motor, the Prius has plenty of torque and good acceleration.

Honda is not happy with Toyota’s success in selling four hybrids for everyone that Honda has sold. In John Murphy’s interview with Honda about their green image, Honda CEO Mr. Fukui stated that “Honda’s image was better but has evened out with [Toyota] because of the strong image of one single model, the Prius, which Honda feels is a problem. Next year, we will come up with a dedicated hybrid vehicle. We feel this model will have to overwhelm and overtake Prius.” It is rumored that the new Honda hybrid will be priced well under $20,000 and reach a broader market. Wall Street Journal Interview

In the next two years, Honda is also likely to bring diesels to the U.S. including the Acura, the Odyssey minivan, and the CR-V SUV.

In the USA, many prefer SUVs to sedans. SUVs have more cargo space. Some can seat more than five people, but not the more fuel efficient SUVs. They ride higher. Some drivers feel safer, although sedans like the Prius and Jetta score better than some SUVs in front and rear collisions and are loaded with air bags and advanced vehicle controls.

The Ford Escape Hybrid is the most fuel efficient SUV on the market with an EPA rating of 34 mpg highway and 30 city. The VW Tiguan is a somewhat comparable compact SUV, but less fuel efficient with 26 mpg highway and 19 city using a six-speed shift; and only 24/18 with an automatic. The Tiguan is a light-duty vehicle that is roomy with 95 cubic feet for passengers and 24 for cargo. Drop the back seat and you have 56 for cargo.

The new VW Jetta Sportswagen offers many SUV lovers with an appealing alternative. It achieves the same mileage as the Jetta sedan of 41 mpg highway and 30 city with a 6-speed stick; 40/29 with an automatic. With 33 cargo cubic feet, it beats SUVs like the Escape and Tiguan. Drop the back seat and you have 67 cubic feet. Watch VW take market share from SUVs that get half the miles per gallon of this new turbo diesel.

The Prius, Jetta, Jetta Sportswagen, Tiguan and Escape all seat five people. All have ways to accommodate a fair amount of cargo when the back seat is dropped. The four-door sedans offer much better fuel economy. In the new era of $4 per gallon gas prices, sedans are gaining market share at the expense of SUVs and light trucks, like the once best selling Ford F150.

For those who enjoy both performance and luxury, Mercedes and BMW have new turbo diesel cars with about 30% better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts. Last summer when I was treated to test drives of the Mercedes E320 Bluetec and the BMW 535D. I was impressed with the quiet, smooth, performance of these larger sedans and with the roomy luxurious experience. Mercedes and BMW are also bringing concept hybrid diesels to auto shows.

The new turbo diesels are not your diesels of the past. They are quiet. I could smell no emissions. Emissions are far lower than those of the previous decade, meeting the tough new 50 state requirements including using ultra-low sulfur diesel.

Forget putting B100 biodiesel in these new engines with common rail and very high pressure injection. Don’t think about home brewed vegetable oil or recycled restaurant grease. Even B20 voids the warranty in the U.S., although not in Europe where biodiesel quality is better. B5 is the limit in the U.S. Biodiesel’s Future

For the moment gasoline hybrids give most people better fuel economy than the new turbo diesels in the U.S. The diesel hybrids being developed by VW, Audi, Mercedes, and BMW could change the game. Most significant are diesel plug-in hybrids.

In less than three years, car buyers will have choices for plug-in hybrids that can meet most needs without using a drop of gasoline or diesel. The VW Golf TDI Hybrid concept is demonstrating 69 mpg. The full-hybrid supports an all-electric mode. VW Hybrids

Volkswagen is serious about hybrids and electric drive systems. In announcing a new lithium-ion venture with Sanyo, Prof. Martin Winterkorn, CEO of the Volkswagen Group stated that VW’s future “will be directed more strongly at making electrically powered automobiles alongside ones driven by more efficient combustion engines.” Volkswagen’s Audi is also demonstrating a plug-in hybrid concept Quattro.

Toyota is well aware of the success of diesel in Europe. Toyota is developing an advanced diesel engine in both the Tundra and Sequoia. Toyota plans to expand its use of hybrids in a wide-range of vehicles. Currently Toyota is constrained by trying to increase battery manufacturing enough to meet its current exploding demand for hybrids. Toyota also plans a plug-in hybrid by the end of 2010.

General Motors does not intend to watch Asia and European rivals take all its market share. In late 2010, it plans to offer both gasoline and diesel plug-in hybrids that will give the average driver over 100 miles per gallon. In the USA it will introduce the Chevy Volt gasoline plug-in hybrid. In Europe, GM will sell a diesel plug-in hybrid under the Opel brand.

Are there other offerings of hybrids, diesels, and other fuel efficient alternatives? Yes. A good starting point to compare vehicles is at the EPA’s Fuel Economy site.

Different people need different types of vehicles. Hybrids benefit everyone who spends part of their driving in cities and/or stop-go traffic. The new turbo diesels tend to get thirty percent better performance than their gasoline counterparts. Two long-term trends are converging – the expanded use of more fuel-efficient diesel engines and the expanded use of electric drive systems for hybrids, plug-in hybrids and for electric vehicles.

Cleaner vehicles, however, are not the whole solution. When gasoline hit $4 per gallon, Marcia and Christian convinced a car dealer to take their two vehicles as trade-in, including a large SUV, for one more fuel efficient SUV. Living and working in a city, only one vehicle was needed because both could use public transportation and car pool with friends. They save over $5,000 per year by sharing one vehicle. Now that is a real solution to save at the pump and help all of us by saving emissions.

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