Live and Let Die-sel

Live and Let Die-sel

Diesels just aren't popular in America. Unless you want a large, heavy-duty truck or one of a few small Volkswagens, you can't even buy a diesel-powered vehicle in the U.S. of A. The reasons for this are rather obvious. Diesels are loud and obnoxious…and noxious. Plus, they aren't exactly cheap (diesel Volkswagens cost about as much as 1.8T models, and the Cummings turbodiesel option on a Dodge Ram truck costs over $5,000).

I remember working on a Mercedes car lot shortly after getting my driver license in the late 1980s. The diesel models proved particularly annoying because they had to be plugged in overnight during the winter to keep the glow plugs glowing. Even after sucking up 120 volts all night they would still prove troublesome to start on cold mornings. They were loud, smelly and downright dangerous when it came time to merge with the fast-moving traffic just outside the dealership lot. I remember pulling into traffic with a beautiful black 300 SD model. The car had classic Mercedes lines and a sumptuous interior, but I'll never forget the first time I hit the throttle while exiting the lot. A large truck, that seemed far away only a few seconds earlier, quickly filled my rearview mirror as I pleaded with the big sedan to "go-go-GO!" Some hard braking by the truck driver, combined with the eventual appearance of the "turbo" part of that turbodiesel engine, let me escape with only a small bead of sweat on my forehead and an instant dislike of diesel engines.

"Why would anyone buy these things?" I found myself asking. I knew they were supposed to get better fuel mileage and require less maintenance, but the net gain seemed questionable, at best. Of course, my answer came over the next 10 years as diesel-powered automobiles slowly retreated from the American marketplace. I couldn't say I was surprised.

However, as a certified diesel hater, I must admit that modern diesels are difficult to despise. If you're like me, and haven't given diesels a serious look in the last 10 years, you owe it to yourself to check out the 21st century version.

First, diesels don't have to be plugged in anymore. In fact, you don't even have to wait for the little red light on the dash to go out before turning the key (OK, you haven't had to do that for over 20 years). The truth is that while today's diesel engines still use glow plugs, modern engine controllers account for cold-start temperatures to get a diesel engine to fire quickly; so quickly, in fact, that most consumers might assume no glow plugs are being utilized at all.

Second, they don't smell anymore, either. Improvements in fuel-injection technology have made diesel engines almost as odorfree as traditional gasoline engines. They also expel less smoke than they used to (note: we're talking cars and heavy-duty pickups here; busses and semis often still puke lots of blue smoke and black dust into the air).

Finally (and this is a big one for me), they no longer sound like a cross between your Uncle Fred's empty stomach and a high-performance engine running on low-performance fuel. Normally, the high-compression ratio of diesels is to blame for the percolating noises from under the hood. Unlike a gasoline engine, diesel engines don't rely on spark plugs to ignite the fuel. Instead, they simply use a combination of high compression and less refined fuel to cause detonation during the piston's compression stroke. This makes a diesel engine more efficient, thus contributing to its superior fuel mileage. Ignition without a spark can happen in gasoline engines, too. It's called predetonation, or pinging, and while it's a very bad thing in a gasoline engine, it's a common element in a diesel engine. As with the smell and cold-start issues, you can thank technology for the reduction of diesel noise. By carefully controlling the amount and timing of fuel being directly injected into the combustion chamber, modern diesels run smoother and quieter.

How dramatic are these changes? So dramatic that recent seat time in two new Chrysler diesel products had me ready to plunk down my own cash. First, I drove the redesigned Dodge 2500/3500 Ram Heavy Duty trucks with the latest high output Cummins turbodiesel engine. Official driving impressions will be reserved for my First Drive article, to appear in mid-September, but suffice it to say that I wouldn't mind driving one of these diesel trucks on a daily basis…even though I don't need a heavy-duty truck.

The next surprise came behind the wheel of a PT Cruiser. You may wonder what diesel engines and PT Cruisers have to do with each other. I certainly didn't consider them related. Then I drove a turbodiesel-powered PT Cruiser for several miles before even realizing it had a diesel engine. And what tipped me off? The smell? The sound? Nope. It was a combination of low-rpm torque and freeway-passing power that our Long-Term PT Cruiser never exhibited. After scanning the gauges for a turbo boost gauge, I spied the tachometer with the word "Diesel" written on the gauge's face. The Chrysler people were having me drive it back to Los Angeles from a European press event. They never mentioned the diesel aspect, they just threw me the keys and I got in thinking it was just another PT Cruiser (I probably should have figured something was up when I saw the navigation system in the center stack).

The important point is this was the coolest PT Cruiser I'd ever piloted. Finally, the car had the kind of low-end grunt I've always pined for in this otherwise capable cargo hauler. Plus, with the turbo thrust coming on at higher rpm, it was actually fun to drive. Forget the 4,500 rpm redline, this PT had excellent roll-on power for passing slow-moving motorists on Pacific Coast Highway. Just leave it in third (it had a five-speed manual) and use the throttle like a volume knob to dial in the necessary power when needed. Although my time in this PT was limited, I'd guesstimate it was getting about 35 miles to the gallon while producing no more noise or odor than a typical 2.0-liter version.

So, will this vehicle be in your local showroom for the 2003 model year? Not likely. Remember, we Americans don't like diesels. Chrysler knows it, and is saving these versions for Europe.

Too bad for us.

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