Over 100 years ago the inventor of the compression ignition engine died under mysterious circumstances. Too late however – his monster had been unleashed.
It’s recently been Christmas in the UK and round about that time, with the traditional Christmas dinner imminent, an inevitable jokey question is “does anyone really like brussel sprouts?”. Actually, I live with someone who does, so the answer is inexplicably “yes”. But far harder for me to accept is that there are people who actually like diesel engines – who prefer them to petrol ones. You could force feed me sprouts for a month and I could never even pretend to have any affection for the clattery, stinking, slippery product of Rudolf Diesel’s over-fertile mind.
As mentioned elsewhere, I have a motorhome. Like virtually all larger motorhomes, it’s built on a commercial vehicle base – in this case the ubiquitous Fiat Ducato. Once upon a time you could buy a petrol-engined Ducato in Europe, but not for quite a while. This is understandable since just as with generators, large boats and railway engines, for commercial vehicles diesel still rules. With more torque, better fuel consumption and, in the Ducato’s case, being a durable, purpose-built heavy-duty vehicle unit, it is the prudent choice for any sole trader or fleet manager and, if the driver complains about the clatter … well the driver doesn’t really complain.
But a motorhome’s life is often less stressful and less frantic (though I speak from theory, not experience). Also, many motorhomes don’t pile on the mileage and, compared with their van base, they are more costly to acquire and have much longer lives. As such, the clattery noise of diesel and the need to talk VERY LOUD at speed (here I speak from experience), might suggest that a petrol engine, though a bit more costly per mile to run, could be a far better option.
Last week I repeated a drive to Holland in my petrol engined Nissan Cube that I last carried out in a diesel engined Renault. The recent trip was far more relaxed and I realised that my dislike of diesel doesn’t abate. And I specified this Kangoo for work several years ago though, back then, I had little choice; diesel had such a hold that a petrol-engined equivalent wasn’t even offered.
For cars, diesel’s murky star is now, thankfully, in the descendant. Though not really for any more logical reason than its ascent. I remember when the only people who bought diesel were taxi companies. As a kid, our local station always had a couple of Austin Cambridges sitting outside, their lethargic 40 bhp diesel engines rattling the teeth of passers-by. Undoubtedly diesel starts out with the advantage that, as raw fuel it contains about 15% more energy than petrol but, until relatively recently, it had the additional advantage of having had far more development money thrown at it by European manufacturers than had petrol. This was because the late 20th Century makeover of diesel as the ‘Green’ choice still held currency and the illogical tax breaks given to it in 2001 had more than doubled the number of oil-burners in the UK. The 2012 World Health Organisation condemnation of it was largely ignored and I think the most damaging thing in the public eye was VW’s ‘Dieselgate’. What that did was to emphasise how the industry’s attempt to ‘clean-up’ an essentially dirty fuel and conform to ever more stringent regulations was pushing manufacturers to desperation.
Bosch is promising us a leap forward in battery technology but, for many, the time is not right for embracing EVs or even PHEVs. So, although my old local railway station probably now has a line of Prii sitting outside, it remains the case that, if you are piling on 12,000+ miles in a year and money is tight, diesel is the hard-headed spreadsheet choice. But then, depending how long you hang on to it, you take a gamble with future legislation. I can’t drive my 15 year old motorhome into various German and Italian towns any more. As an import, I had to register for exemption to keep it in London and, from September 2020, any diesel car over 5 years old will either be excluded, or must pay a special charge to enter Central London. Such legislation isn’t going to diminish and diesel is now seen as the biggest culprit towards health-damaging pollution. Its rise and fall was encouraged greatly by government knee-jerks, unsurprisingly accompanied by little in-depth understanding. The industry was happy to conspire and so the responsible diesel buyer of a few years ago will be tomorrow’s pariah.
I know that I’m atypical, in that the only car diesel engine that ever interested me was VAG’s rather silly V10 as fitted to the Phaeton and Touareg and, generally, I hate the whole feel of automotive diesel, from the clatter – however well insulated it might be from the driver – to the torque range. But I have to concede that, like music and sex, other people’s taste might differ. So, everyone to their own, yet I can ask whether we, the buying public, addressed all the right questions when choosing diesel.
Most of us only have so much time to spend when researching car purchase. For someone who is so sloppy with their own finances, I am surprisingly enthusiastic when it comes to setting up a spreadsheet and carrying out a financial analysis. Not that it does me great good since looking at all the variables involved in car purchase, it is very rare that you can compare like with like. Once you choose one particular engine over another, fuel consumption, fuel price, servicing costs, road tax, insurance and depreciation all change in varying amounts and in various directions. There are other things that might apply such as congestion charges and car tax allowances. And many of these can vary considerably from country to country.
Lets look at the 3 Series BMW and compare 2 options using a higher end X-Drive M Sport as a base. This is the sort of car that no-one buys unless they are a bit self-indulgent. The basic price of the diesel version is £2,475.00 more than the petrol but, if you did 12,000 miles a year in it, allowing say 30% optimism on official combined figures and assuming fuel prices return to their previous higher figures, over 5 years you might save around £1,500 in fuel and road tax. But with cars like this, it’s usual to specify a few indulgencies. It’s easy to blow thousands on specifying a BMW and ticking, say, leather instrument panel, enhanced speakers and head-up display, would already add over £2,000 which, after 5 years, it would be optimistic to believe that it would add £500 to the car’s resale value. So, that is more or less like for like. At this point my logic would be that if you really accept that a leather dash is a luxury worth having, surely a smooth, quiet petrol engine is even more desirable. And if you only did only 6,000 miles a year there would be no advantage. Except of course, if you chose petrol, a nicer engine. And if you’re assuming that the diesel will hold its residual as well or better than the petrol version, consider the point made above about future legislation. Today, buying diesel could end up a costly risk.
But of course, as petrol makes a comeback, there is another compromise. We’re now used to reading of consumption figures achieved by mid range saloons that I never even approached in all my years of driving flimsy Citroen twins. In order to achieve better fuel consumption from petrol engines, no-one is fettling velvety smooth six cylinders, they are turbocharging small capacity twin and triple cylinders. Mazda and Peugeot seem to have made very decent progress, with the PureTech getting very good press, and Fiat’s TwinAir and Ford’s EcoBoost are creditable, even if official fuel consumption figures might need to be taken with an even bigger pinch of salt that normal.
But most of what I’ve written above is irrelevant to my argument. I don’t think I’m alone in finding driving diesel so unsatisfactory. But I wonder how many people who might readily allow themselves the indulgence of a full length sunroof and 18″ alloys, don’t allow themselves the indulgence of a nicer engine. For me, I am willing to spend more on fuel in order to have the responsiveness and basic smoothness of a petrol engine. And, under the right circumstances, I’d probably be willing to use even more fuel on something with more cylinders. Primarily for me it’s a sensual thing but, although my environmental credentials are by no means great, the thought that I’m not shoving my nasty carcinogens down people’s throats is a bonus.