The big diesel news for 2009 is the arrival of 50-state-legal diesel vehicles. After the California Air Resources Board (CARB) tightened tailpipe emissions for model-year 2004, diesels that were already on the market couldn't comply with the new standard, so automakers stopped selling diesel-equipped vehicles in California and other states that had adopted the CARB standards. (The current list of states that follow these stricter standards is Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington; and there are four more states considering it.) Manufacturers have been working on improving technology to bring their vehicles into conformity with the tougher standards, and this year, we benefit from the addition of new 50-state diesel vehicles from manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.
In their current guise, diesels are no longer the loud and dirty specimens many Americans so fondly recall from the early 1980s. Today's diesel engines provide impressive fuel economy (often rivaling that of gas-electric hybrids), quiet operation, fewer emissions, loads of torque and often the flexibility of running on renewable biodiesel.
Though the majority of diesel engines are sold in heavy-duty vehicles, the most anticipated of the new clean diesels coming out this year are a sedan (and a wagon): the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI. If you're shopping for a compact sedan or wagon, it's the only diesel game in town. Starting at just a shade under $22,000 for the sedan and $23,600 for the base Sportwagen, the new clean Jetta TDI brings with it the German premium sedan feel without the premium sedan price. The Jetta TDI also qualifies for a $1,300 alternative motor vehicle federal tax credit, which can help offset the small premium you pay for diesel efficiency.
If you desire a more upscale diesel sedan experience, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is the way to go. It's a midsize sedan that combines luxury and safety feature content with Mercedes-Benz's updated 50-state-legal Bluetec emissions treatment system for reducing pollutants in the exhaust.
Shoppers who want more space and a taller ride height — and whose budgets allow it — will want to take a look at the other 50-state-legal diesel offerings from Mercedes-Benz. The 2009 lineup consists of the segment-busting station-wagony R320, the capable and versatile five-passenger ML320 SUV and the GL320, a very refined and luxurious full-size SUV. All qualify for alternative motor vehicle tax credits of varying amounts. We recommend the seven-passenger GL320 for larger families because it offers an impressive level of refinement, on- and off-road capability and a good balance between passenger and cargo capacity. At $58,000, it also costs less than many would expect.
BMW will bring two 50-state diesel-powered vehicles into the U.S. for 2009, both of which will qualify for the federal tax credit. The 335d 3 Series sedan and X5 xDrive35d SUV will be powered by the same twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter diesel, rated at an impressive 265 hp and a stump-pulling 425 pound-feet of torque. In the lighter 335d, this should mean a 0-60-mph time just a tick over 6 seconds — impressive performance for any sedan. In the X5, the diesel mill should provide ample performance, coupled with a significant jump in fuel economy.
If your budget requires a lower price point but you still need SUV capability, check out the midsize Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee's turbocharged diesel V6 allows towing of more than 7,000 pounds, though the Jeep's rear seat and cargo area are small for this segment.
The majority of diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. are trucks. If you are in the market for a heavy-duty truck, your choices are the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra HD twins (each available in 2500HD or 3500HD form), the Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 pickups, and the Ford F-250, F-350 and F-450. While all of your options have their merits, we recommend the Ford F-Series for its civilized driving demeanor, comfortable ride, Ford's available Sync voice-activated communications system and numerous technological and convenience options for those who work out of their trucks.
If you're not quite ready to buy a diesel vehicle this year, stay tuned. The future looks bright for diesel, as many manufacturers are working hard to bring diesel versions of their vehicles to the U.S. in the coming years.