Diesel Finally Fuels A Winner
The original alternative to the gasoline engine is back and better than ever.
By Andrew Tilin

(Business 2.0) – Recall that in the 1970s, as the oil crisis drove gasoline prices to unheard-of levels and lines at the pumps snaked around the block, many of us actually embraced diesel-powered cars. But as the shortages eased, we began to pay more attention to the downside of diesel engines: They clattered, belched smoke, gave off a nauseating stench, and had zero pep. No wonder they dropped out of sight.

Until now. Mercedes-Benz, along with Volkswagen and Chrysler, has reinvented the diesel. Indeed, Mercedes's new E320 CDI is everything the obnoxious diesel of old was not: The sedan makes little noise, pollutes less, and can really book. It's a genuine leap forward in diesel engine technology, one that should prove alluring to drivers as a gallon of regular remains perched above $2.

The Mercedes's biggest advance centers on its highly sophisticated fuel delivery system. Chip-controlled injectors, now capable of handling the insanely high pressures required to fire diesel engines, squirt fuel into the engine's combustion chambers more precisely than previously possible, and the upshot is a power plant that runs smoother and emits less detritus. The motor has to be heard—or not heard—to be believed. Start the CDI and the already muted clatter quickly subsides to the point that the engine sounds no different from your garden-variety Honda.

Out on the road, the CDI feels just like a regular E320—except that the turbocharged diesel is faster. And it gets nearly 40 percent better highway mileage than its gas-powered sibling. In fact, drivers who spend more time on interstates than city streets could be better served by diesel vehicles than by that champion of fuel-efficiency, the gas-electric hybrid. Toyota's Prius, for example, may still be hard to beat when it comes to tailpipe emissions, but its highway mileage in fact lags its performance around town.

More than a few people have picked up on such tidbits. Every $49,000 CDI is sold as soon as it hits the lot, and Mercedes anticipates no problems moving all 3,000 diesels earmarked for the States this year. As for Volkswagen, the company was already enjoying a 17.4 percent rise in annual diesel sales by August, and it can't import its new diesel SUV fast enough. Meanwhile, Chrysler says buyers have been begging for its Liberty diesel SUV, due out this month. The response is truly impressive considering that diesel vehicles are not sold in California, New York, or three other states whose pollution laws remain too tight for the engines. The manufacturers hope to take diesel nationwide by 2007.

By then, of course, OPEC could have us enjoying gas for a bargain $1.50 per gallon. Or we could be paying a Europe-like $5 for super. Who knows? Historically, a gallon of diesel runs 20 to 40 cents less than gasoline, and that's a compelling argument for trying something new. If you do take the plunge, rest assured that buying a new diesel won't be a mistake. Because it'll never be an embarrassment. — ANDREW TILIN

Source: Mercedes-Benz USA