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Diesels by the Numbers

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On: Fri, Mar 15, 2013 at 10:25AM | By: Eric Sharp

Diesels by the Numbers

If you wonder why diesel-powered cars are more popular in Europe than in the United States the answer is simple economics: diesel fuel in Europe costs less than gasoline, and diesel-powered vehicles get 30-40 percent better mileage.

That tends to concentrate the mind when you live in a country where diesel costs per gallon last week ran $7.11 (France) to $8.67 (Italy) and premium gasoline was $7.57 (United Kingdom) to $9.03 (Italy and the Netherlands), as reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

And what were we Americans paying for the same fuels on that day? About $4.02 for diesel and $3.84 for premium gas (premium is the basis for comparison because it’s commonly used in Europe.)

Say you drive 20,000 miles a year. If your gasoline-powered car averages 30 miles per gallon, you’ll burn 667 gallons. A diesel car that gets 40 miles per gallon will burn 500 gallons.

Using an average European price of $8 per gallon for diesel and $8.50 for gasoline, the person with the gas-powered car would pay $5,670 over 20,000 miles and the diesel driver $4,000. That’s $32 a week, and in three years would cover the higher cost of a diesel engine for most makes.

But in the U.S. the same driver would pay $2,561 for gasoline and $2,010 for diesel, a difference of $551. It would take nearly 10 years to make up the additional cost of a diesel engine.

I’ve owned three diesel cars and light trucks, back when diesel was a lot cheaper than gas in the U.S. With the added mileage, the savings were so great I didn’t mind sitting in line with clattering 18-wheelers at the few stations that sold diesel fuel then.

Today’s diesel cars aren’t much louder than gas-powered vehicles, and they start, warm up, and perform about the same. I have heard car manufacturers boast about the range of their diesel vehicles, but I suspect that for the average driver it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether he fills up every 600 miles or every 800.

Diesel engines are simpler and somewhat less trouble-prone than gasoline motors. But that advantage has been trimmed a great deal by today’s gasoline cars, which are far more reliable than 20 years ago, and the higher cost of repairing diesel engines probably makes reliability a wash.

Needless to say, diesel engines are also more popular among small boat owners in Europe than in the U.S. I’ve heard a lot of American boat owners complaining about paying marina prices of $4.50 a gallon for a boat that burns 20 gallons an hour ($90.)

If you were running that same boat in Italy, your fuel would be twice as much, so boat owners there are happy to switch to a slower, diesel-powered boat they can run for much less. And with the performance of modern turbocharged diesels, they aren’t that much slower.

But in the long run, for cars anyway, it may come down to the different mindsets of American and European drivers.

A diesel engine makes a lot of sense in countries where people plan to drive the same car eight years or more. It’s less attractive in a place where the average driver replaces his car every 3-4 years.


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