Diesel fuel vehicles on the rise

Tom Anderson
Arts Editor

When the time came to replace his Volkswagen Passat in late 2003, Andres Zervigon, an associate professor of art history at the University of La Verne, traveled all the way up to Santa Maria to purchase the exceptionally rare fuel-efficient vehicle he was looking for.  Zervigon, however, was not hunting for a Toyota Prius or a Honda Civic Hybrid; instead, he was after a diesel-engined Volkswagen Golf TDI.

“I was debating between a hybrid and a diesel,” he recalled.

Yet with memories of growing up with a Mercedes-Benz 220 D in the family still fresh in his mind, and upon doing plenty of research, Zervigon decided to go diesel.

And he is not alone; according to data from a study conducted by R.L. Polk & Company, almost 470,000 new diesel-powered passenger vehicles were registered in the United States in 2004, an increase of nearly 56 percent over those in 2000.  In Western Europe, meanwhile, approximately half of all new passenger vehicles registered last year were diesels.  But unlike in Europe, diesels in America (and especially California) will have to overcome numerous social and economic hurdles to stand even a slight chance at gaining mainstream acceptance and appeal.

Diesels in Europe: A Perfect Fit

To get an idea of just how much diesel’s popularity has taken off in Western Europe, one must consider that in 1998 diesels comprised a quarter of the new passenger vehicle market, meaning that their sales doubled in just six years.

The most important factor in diesel’s boom in popularity on the Continent is, without a doubt, the political support.  Lawmakers in European nations tend to tax gasoline more heavily than diesel fuel.  Such is the case in France where, during the first half of 2004, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was equivalent to $4.63, while the average cost of a gallon of diesel fuel was $3.67. 

Additionally, Europeans also tend to place heavy emphasis on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from mobile and stationary sources.  Diesels, by virtue of their 20 percent to 40 percent thermal efficiency advantage over comparable gas engines, produce comparatively lower amounts of CO2, carbon monoxide and certain hydrocarbons.  European leaders also require diesel fuel sold there to have a much lower sulfur content than is currently allowed in America, which allows manufacturers to fit their vehicles with special oxidation catalysts, particulate filters and other emission control devices to reduce emissions of such pollutants as oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter, otherwise known as soot.  Such devices would be choked by America’s comparatively sulfur-laden diesel fuel.

Finally, hybrid electric vehicles perform best in slow stop-and-go city driving, something that most Europeans rarely have to deal with compared to people in California or the Northeast.  Diesels, on the other hand, tend to get their best fuel economy and lowest emissions on long  steady-speed drives through the countryside and on the highway, making them ideal for predominantly non-urbanized Europe and, more than likely, the American Midwest.

Diesel Engine: The Original Green Machine?

First shown to the public in 1900 by Rudolf Diesel, a Parisian engineer born to German parents, a diesel engine’s operation is similar to that of its gasoline-burning cousin, but with some key differences.  Air is sucked into the cylinder by the downward motion of the piston, and the intake valve closes as the piston rises.  As the air in the cylinder is compressed by the piston, its temperature increases; it is at the moment optimum compression is achieved that fuel is injected into the cylinder, igniting violently and forcing the piston downward, thus turning the crankshaft.  When the piston goes up yet again, it pushes the exhaust gases out of the cylinder through the opened exhaust valve, which promptly re-closes, the intake valve opens, the piston descends and whole cycle begins again. 

Diesel owners never have to worry about replacing sparkplugs, ignition coils or distributors.  Diesels also tend to be more robust than gas engines, made of heavier materials to better cope with the stratospherically high compression ratios needed for combustion and the incredible torque, or twisting forces, produced by the engine itself.  As a result, one can often find used diesels for sale with more than 200,000 miles on the odometer that still run like clockwork.

Safety fanatics will be happy to know that diesel fuel is significantly less volatile than gasoline, something that Zervigon learned firsthand.  While driving on the freeway one morning, Zervigon ran over a piece of metal in his Golf.  At first he did not think it caused any damage, but he soon noticed he was leaving a trail of fluid on the pavement and that his fuel gauge had suddenly jumped to empty.  The piece of metal had actually severed a fuel line and punched a hole in the floorpan, causing diesel fuel to soak into the carpet and impregnate it with its pungent stench.  Fortunately, repairs were made and, more importantly, Zervigon escaped unharmed.  Had he been driving a gas-powered car, he believes, it probably would have caught fire, causing far more damage to both car and driver.

Even more amazing is a little known fact that, when he first showed his engine to the public in 1900, Dr. Diesel was running it on peanut oil.  Today there are people who actually take the used cooking oil that their local greasy spoon would otherwise throw away, run it through a special process, pour it into the tanks of their slightly modified diesel cars or trucks and drive away on biodiesel smelling like French fries.  Better still, since the fuel being burned was once green plants, biodiesel is virtually carbon-neutral, meaning that once it is burned, there is no more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was before.  In fact, Zervigon says he is seriously considering switching his Golf to biodiesel someday in the near future.

Desperation Breeds Disaster

Unfortunately, despite all of the aforementioned benefits, most Americans are more likely to associate diesel power with lethargic performance and dirty exhaust than impressive reliability and longevity.  This negative public image is reinforced every day across the country, as people watch buses, bulldozers and big rigs belch thick clouds of pungent black smoke while struggling to get out of their own way.  Further damage was inflicted during the late 1970s and 1980s, as the American automakers, particularly General Motors, sold vehicles with diesel engines that were rushed to market to cash in on the oil crises, and provided customers and the companies with plenty of headaches.  Combine these factors with the relatively limited mainstream availability of diesel fuel at the time and the welcome plunge in gas prices by the mid ‘80s and it becomes clear that the American private automobile market’s fling with diesel power was, at best, an act of desperation that was promptly swept under the rug of history.

California to Consumers: Choke or Fry?

Yet despite the dark days of yore, a pair of German automakers are forging ahead with campaigns to spread the gospel of the new cleaner, peppier and more dependable passenger car diesel.  Volkswagen’s New Beetle, Golf, Jetta and Passat all offer diesel engine options, while DaimlerChrysler offers diesel versions of both the Mercedes-Benz E Class sedan and the Jeep Liberty SUV.

Yet there is one significant catch: None of those vehicles can be purchased new or registered for use in California, Maine, Massachusetts, New York or Vermont, due to the fact that they do not meet the emissions regulations set by the California Air Resource Board (CARB) and adopted by the four New England states, regulations that are substantially tougher than those set by the federal government and used by the remaining 45 states.  The current regulations were adopted for model year 2004 vehicles, which is why Zervigon was able to purchase his dark blue 2003 Golf TDI.

Karen Caesar, a CARB spokeswoman based in the agency’s El Monte office, says that CARB is not trying to ban certain technologies, but is instead holding all technologies to the same standards.  It just so happens that currently-available technologies cannot allow diesel engines to be as clean as gas engines.

Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times, believes there are three major obstacles diesels are faced with in California and the United States in general.

“The main stumbling blocks,” he says, “Have been 1. low-sulfur fuel availability; 2. particulate filters and 3. NOx.”

“In the U.S. in order to sell diesels,” he continues, “They have to make a good case in California, which requires they meet SULEV standards, which means the engines have to be sealed” and not require any maintenance of items such as particulate filters for intervals of well over 100,000 miles.

However, this de facto ban on diesel cars and small SUVs does not mean that consumers in the five “CARB Cartel” states are stuck with only gas and hybrid/electric power when it comes to new vehicles; rather, heavy duty versions of the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Dodge Ram and Ford F-Series pickups, as well as full-size vans from Chevrolet, GMC and Ford are all available with diesel engine options in all 50 states.  The same is true of Ford’s mammoth Excursion SUV, and the Hummer H1 SUV and the Dodge Sprinter van are only available with diesel power.

The reason these behemoths are available in all states while the comparatively puny offerings from Mercedes-Benz, Jeep and VW are not all comes down to the fact that the former are, in fact, behemoths.  Both the EPA and CARB set emissions standards for new vehicles rated at or below 8,500 pounds Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW).  The GVW is the maximum combined weight of occupants, cargo, fluids and the vehicle itself that a vehicle is certified by its manufacturer to weigh.  Vehicles with a GVW greater than 8,500 pounds, on the other hand, face far more relaxed rules.  Thus, the big trucks, vans and SUVs designed to tip the scales beyond four-and-a-quarter tons are currently certified for sale throughout the Union, regardless of engine type.

And there is one local business owner who is very thankful for that proviso.

Plumber’s Best Friend

“I didn’t jump into diesels, but I was definitely around them,” said La Verne resident and business owner Phil Caughey. 

Caughey, owner and sole employee of Phil’s Plumbing, knew his colleagues who owned diesel powered trucks were quite pleased with them, but he was still a little skeptical.  However, once he weighed the advantages against the disadvantages, Caughey decided to take the plunge and purchased a brand new Chevy Silverado 2500HD extended cab with a service body from Sierra Auto in Monrovia in February 2003.

“I went diesel mainly for the mileage and the torque management,” he said.

Caughey said he was impressed with his new ride’s Duramax V8 turbodiesel engine and Allison 1000 Series five-speed automatic transmission from day one.  He loves the quiet (by diesel standards) operation, faultless reliability record, small amounts of diesel smell, very little smoke, and quick startup, even when cold.

Yet the biggest plus of diesel power, especially for a small business owner like Caughey, is the incredible jump in fuel economy.

“I’ve seen gas motors pull ten miles per gallon,” he said, “But I’ve been getting 17 miles per gallon.”

The tank in Caughey’s truck holds 34 gallons, giving him an average range of around 520 miles on a single tank-full.  That translates to having to refill roughly every week-and-a-half, Caughey said.  These figures are even more impressive when one realizes his truck can weigh nearly 10,000 pounds when fully loaded, and that Caughey serves customers throughout Southern California, sometimes seven days a week.

“For a work truck, I’d definitely get another diesel,” he said.

What a Drag

Of course not everyone who buys a diesel truck uses it exclusively for work; just ask any member of the Diesel Hot Rod Association.  The DHRA holds drag racing and sled-pulling events at tracks across the country.

Simi Valley resident Chris Tripp decided to celebrate his birthday by participating in his first DHRA event at Los Angeles County Raceway in Palmdale.  Tripp’s brother Guy, a DHRA veteran, suggested the outing.

Chris had a blast launching his candy apple red 2001 Ford F-250 Super Crew down the quarter mile long dragstrip, logging a best elapsed time of about 16.7 seconds.  Even more impressive is the fact that the big red Ford is Tripp’s daily driver, which he uses for work and for towing his 12,000 pound travel trailer, all the while averaging an astonishing 18 miles per gallon from the lightly modified 7.3 liter Power Stroke V8 turbodiesel.  That 18 miles per gallon figure becomes even more astonishing when one considers Tripp’s truck weighs roughly 8,500 pounds when empty.

“It can do it all,” Tripp said.  “You can drive it to work, haul a load, and drag race it and beat on it all day.”

As impressive as Chris’ truck is, it pales in comparison to Guy’s blue 2003 Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD Crew Cab.  Guy, who originally purchased his truck as a tow vehicle, said his all time best pass was a 13.2 second one with a trap speed of over 100 miles per hour, set at Bakersfield’s Famoso Raceway.  For comparison, a new Ford Mustang GT took 13.8 seconds to cover the standing quarter mile, hit the finish line at 102 miles per hour and averaged 16 miles per gallon in a test performed in the December 2004 issue of Car and Driver magazine.

Of course, Guy’s truck also has more muscle under the hood than the substantially-lighter Mustang.  Specifically, Guy’s best run on the chassis dynamometer yielded 520 horsepower and 1,180 foot/pounds of torque at the wheels, meaning there was even more being made at the flywheel before it was lost in passing through the drivetrain.  Regardless of how much power is hitting the pavement, the Saugus resident is understandably thrilled with his rig’s performance.  As if the performance figures were not enough, Guy said his Chevy is dead even with his brother’s Ford in terms of fuel economy.

Naturally, with those kinds of power and torque figures, owners of hot-rodded diesel pickups have had to beef up their drivetrains to cope with all that brute force, and no one in Southern California is more experienced with doing just that than Mike Lovrich.  Lovrich, who owns I.T.S. Transmission Specialists in Inglewood, says that overhauling a transmission to cope with the insane amounts of power being extracted from modern diesel trucks typically costs over $4,000. 

But despite the pricey nature of the performance upgrades, in addition to the hefty premium diesel pickups command over comparable gas burning models, this friendly, close-knit community of enthusiasts appears to be experiencing rapid growth right under the public’s collective nose.

“The diesel industry has just exploded,” said John Hamlin, owner of Diesel Performance Shops in Granada Hills.  Sales of diesel pickups and performance parts for diesel pickups have seen exponential growth in recent years, and there are many signs that the trend will continue to spread.

“It’s quickly becoming the biggest market,” added Dennis Perry, owner of TS Performance in Bowling Green, Kentucky, a company which, like Hamlin’s, sells performance parts for diesel pickup trucks and SUVs.  Perry said the diesel performance industry has grown an astounding 2,000 percent in the last four years.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

With all of this renewed interest in and technical innovation with regard to diesel power in mind, Allen Schaeffer believes the future appears to be bright for diesel engines not just in America, but in California, as well.

“It does not force consumers to compromise when it comes to performance,” he said of the star-crossed powerplant.  Schaeffer is the executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit advocacy group that represents numerous diesel engine manufacturers and fuel refiners.  According to its website, www.dieselforum.org, the Forum aims to “Champion environmental stewardship,” “Support scientific inquiry and discussion,” and “Sustain worldwide economic growth by demonstrating advancing diesel technology.” 

Schaeffer also points out that CARB has gone on record as saying that clean diesel technology will play a pivotal role in the state’s future.  Caesar confirmed this by saying that the Board felt clean diesel technology holds lots of promise for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  And next year, refiners will have to begin producing and distributing nationwide diesel fuel that is just 15 parts per million of sulfur, whereas the current maximums are 150 parts per million in California and anywhere from 300 to 500 parts per million in states under EPA jurisdiction.

But until technologies evolve and prejudices change, the disciples of Dr. Diesel and his embattled invention are happy to answer the questions of curious outsiders. 

“Friends ask me about it,” says Zervigon of his Volkswagen.  “I think most people would be pretty happy with it.”

Tom Anderson can be reached at tanderson1@ulv.edu.

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Posted May 2, 2005
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