Last year was a milestone for diesel power on our side of the Atlantic, marking the arrival of a new crop of 50-state-legal diesel vehicles. Diesel sales had been prohibited by some states since model-year 2004, when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and its partner states tightened tailpipe emissions standards. Five years later, manufacturers had finally figured out how to clean up diesel emissions to CARB's satisfaction, and car shoppers across the country were once again able to purchase diesel-powered vehicles. For 2010, the clean-diesel revolution continues, buoyed by notable sales successes in certain segments.
The new turbocharged diesels are a far cry from the smoke-belching dinosaurs that clogged American lungs a few decades ago. Today's turbodiesel engines burn clean, with many models employing a urea injection system that purifies the exhaust stream prior to ejection. These reinvented "oil-burners" also boast more impressive fuel economy than ever, easily outpacing their gas-powered rivals, along with superior low-end torque — a boon for towing, hauling and drama-free acceleration. What's more, "diesel clatter" is largely a thing of the past, as the new engines are generally so smooth and quiet that your passengers won't know the difference. There are even federal tax incentives on certain models to sweeten the deal.
The natural habitat of diesel engines is still the heavy-duty vehicle: 18-wheelers, dump trucks and other such beasts of burden. But an increasing number of everyday drivers are discovering the benefits of the diesel way. The Volkswagen Jetta TDI, for example, enters its second year on the market as one of the most sought-after Jetta models, accounting for more than a third of stateside Jetta sales. Starting at about $23,000 for the sedan and $25,000 for the SportWagen, the Jetta TDI provides sprightly performance and a premium feel, along with the kind of fuel economy that only gasoline-electric hybrids can match. It's a bit pricey, but its unique collection of virtues makes it an Edmunds staff favorite — and an interesting alternative to green machines like the Ford Escape Hybrid and Toyota Prius.
Luxury sedans are still strangers to diesel power for the most part, but the BMW 335d sedan shows that luxury and diesel need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, the 335d is one of the most entertaining drives in the entry-level luxury segment, combining the expected fuel-economy benefits with sport-sedan handling and a face-flattening 425 pound-feet of torque — more than most gas-powered full-size pickup trucks. Boasting a 0-60-mph sprint of less than 6 seconds and tire-smoking power as soon as you hit the go pedal, the 335d is easily the most entertaining diesel-powered car on the market.
Mercedes offers a pair of diesel-powered crossover SUVs for 2010: the midsize five-passenger ML350 Bluetec and the full-size seven-passenger GL350 Bluetec. The GL350 is our top choice among diesel-powered SUVs because it offers excellent passenger and cargo capacity along with unsurpassed fuel economy among SUVs of this size. However, there are numerous appealing alternatives for diesel SUV shoppers, including the BMW X5 xDrive 35d and the Volkswagen Touareg V6 TDI.
Diesel trucks continue to be popular choices among those with serious towing and hauling needs. The options here are the Chevrolet Silverado/GMC Sierra HD twins (each available in 2500HD or 3500HD form), the Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500, and the Ford F-250, F-350 and F-450 . You can't go wrong with any of these brutes, but our favorite is the Silverado 2500 HD, as it teams class-leading driving dynamics with a mountain-moving 660 lb-ft of torque from its 6.6-liter turbodiesel V8.
With last year's influx of clean diesel engines and this year's full roster of offerings, it's clear that diesels are here to stay. Given their competitive performance and superior fuel economy relative to gas-powered alternatives, we think they warrant serious consideration from car shoppers of all stripes.