Diesels and Mob Ignorance

So today was my first day at work with my new Golf TDI. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. First off -now that I’ve seen it in real life: its is fantastic. Super clean inside and out, everything works but the cupholder, and there are no weird noises in the chassis other than a strut mount starting to show its age. We got over 50mpg on the way home, and its got plenty of power to tote around a family of 4 w/gear. Incredibly pleased with the purchase.

But back to my work. Seems that many, many people simply cannot understand why I would buy a diesel -even at 50mpg. The price stigma on diesel seems to be incredibly strong -all they can remember is when it was $4.79 a few months ago. I often get frustrated by normally decently intelligent citizens refusing to think things through for themselves. So here is the thinking to my argument with them -I will try to be less condescending here than in real life… The long and the short of it is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less. But it is alot more to it than that.

Pump Price

Diesel is often, but not always, more expensive than unleaded. In the past year that I have been watching it it seems to anecdotally hover around 10-12% over unleaded. The issues with The Mob is that a 12% premium over unleaded at $4.29 is about $4.79, which carries alot of sticker shock. It is best to de-emotionalize the major purchases of our lives so lets stick to that 12% worst case scenario to be objective.


Diesel fuel has about 30% more “boom” per gallon than unleaded – but good engineers can actually eck out more efficiency than that using turbocharging and direct injection. Golfs come in both unleaded and diesel versions of the same car so it is a decent comparison of apples/apples. The 2.0 liter VW unleaded engine can was rated at 24/31 with 105 hp. The TDI in the same year was rated 35/44 with 90 hp, but more torque (they “feel” stronger). That is a a roughly 45% improvement! Now the 2.0 VW engine uses ancient technology, so lets compare it to a high tech Honda of the same year -though this loses some of the apples to apples as the Honda is more aerodynamic and weighs less being only a 4 Star car. It got 28/35. Still the TDI is a 25% improvement over the highly esteemed Honda 4 cylinder – and that is in a heavier car.

Fuel Cost

Really they only way to compare fuel costs is in dollars per 1000 miles o some other distance. Lets say unleaded is $4 a gallon. Lets compare a 2001 Honda Civic(28/35), a 2001 Golf TDI (35/44), and a 2004 Prius (48/45). I used the ’04 Prius since it the oldest year of the most fuel efficient 4 door car available. I will also include a 2004 Subaru Forester (19/25) as that is what we had until recently considered a frugal tow vehicle. These figures are from http://www.fueleconomy.gov and use the revised 2008 EPA numbers which are a joke -if you can’t beat these you are a menace to the planet. I will simply average the numbers for “mixed driving”.

  • 2001 Civic costs $126.98
  • 2001 Golf costs $113.45
  • 2004 Prius costs $86.20
  • 2004 Forester costs $181.81

The Prius is a hands down winner here. On strictly fuel alone, the Prius would save you about $800/yr if you traded in your Civic and drove 20k a year and a significant $2000/yr over our Forester.

Vehicle Cost

This is the Prius killer for us and many others. Lets compare average prices on Autotrader within 500 miles of me (Upper Midwest) which include Detroit, Chicago and Minneapolis.

  • 2001 Civic were $7960
  • 2001 Golf/Jetta TDI’s were about $9500
  • 2004 Prius were $20,500
  • 2004 Forester was $13950

On Total Cost the Civic is our winner. But the TDI is close enough that many people would be able to make good rationale decision on more subjective things like safety ratings, towing capacity, resale, availability etc. The Prius loses out on any cost analysis, but that isn’t really what hybrids are about and this isn’t news to anyone.

Basically a diesel can save you some money in the real world. I drove a 2001 Civic for many years and got 37pg every single tank. I expect the TDI will get me about 48mpg on mixed driving, but that remains to be seen. That would save us a decent $300/yr. Better yet, it has alot more utility for our family -it can tow barrels and Grillo’s, is more comfortable on long trips to visit family in SD or Ohio, and most importantly I can make my own fuel for it which weighed very heavily on our final decision.
One final note, I didn’t even touch the emmisions debate -and that was intentional. Alot of the diesel emmision info on the web is from the old uber dirty diesel (500+ ppm sulfur) and the data on the 15ppm sulfur is not readily availible for these older cars. Also I plan to run 20-100% biodiesel mixes and tailpipe readings for that are even harder to come by. In this category the Prius gains significant ground as a PZEV it is by far the friendliest to the planet.

Again,the moral to this very long story is that as long as you are getting 12% better fuel economy -a diesel can cost you less, but there are sooooo many other variables you should really spend the time thinking this through that any purchase of this caliber deserves. I have made impulse vehicle purchases and have always regretted them.

Our world is very much in need or more mindful consumerism. Be the Change.


PS: The 2008 EPA estimates are frustrating. They seem to factor in driver behaviors even less than before and really show a bias to low tech producers like GM and Ford. Low tech and/or big engine like the Big 3 and the 2.0 liter VW engines seem to be more accurately reflected -my parents are slow drivers and can only eck our about 32 highway in their 2.0 Jetta -a 5% gain. Compare that to our Forestes (27mpg mixed ) a 20% gain, and that I was able to achieve 52mpg in my first ever trip in the Golf also for a 20% gain, and many Prius drivers can do the same. High Tech engines are better able to run efficiently if the driver is smart and light on the throttle -where the low tech ones cannot since they are always dumping in fuel. The EPA, under the Republicans and Big business, has catered to mediocrity. Again.  Your goal should be to beat the new 2008 EPA estimates for highway driving by 10% in
your mixed driving.  If you aren’t, adjust your behaviors and save money and the planet.

4 Responses

  1. It’s amazing- I have an ’02 GMC Sierra with the diesel engine, and just by babying the throttle I can take it from an average of 16.3 mpg to just under 20. Granted, that’s mostly unladen (just tools and/or plants), but even pulling a full dump trailer I can get around 16. Is it the kind of mileage you’re getting with the VW? No, but then I’d hate to try and pull a 9,000 lb load with a Jetta. Not to mention, doing this with a gas engine I was averaging 6-8 mpg under load.

    Now, if I could somehow get a Toyota Tacoma-sized pickup with a diesel engine we’d be in business. My old GMC Sonoma got 30+ mpg with a gas engine; pop a diesel in there and you’d have the ultimate service vehicle.

  2. Dave,

    I heartily agree that for Big Work diesel trucks are the way to go. I also emphatically side with you in calling for more appropriately sized work trucks. Today’s diesel trucks are churning out over 700ft/lbs of torque with tow capacities approaching that of Big Rigs – overkill in all but the most extreme cases. There is no middle ground. A Tacoma/Ranger sized truck getting 30-35mpg and the ability to tow 2-3 tons would be fantastic!

    16 mpg towing 6000 lbs of dump trailer is not too shabby – it would take me 4 trips to do that!

  3. Wow, I am impressed with your ability and enjoyment in crunching these numbers.

    Indeed, I have a small ecological landscaping company in Orlando, FL. and I wonder if the VW you have could tow a small trailer with a 36″ commercial mower, weed-eaters, etc.

    I won’t even get into a discussion of the shameful state of the US auto industry. My pet theory is that the big three colluded with big oil to churn out gas guzzlers (because oil has traditionally been plentiful and cheap).

    By the way Mr. Fukuoka–the author of “The One Straw Revolution”–passed away last week. I am only partially familiar with some of his work, but he is one of my heros.

    We are developing an permaculture, deep ecological native plant, wildflower, and tree farm on the edge of a swamp, and I am developing our project using strategies mastered hundreds of years ago in southern Mexico. There, the indigenous people developed what were known as ‘chinampas’–and the core innovation was to develop planting beds right over water, on the edge of lakes and canals.

    Water, its misuse and abuse, is a huge issue here in Florida.

    Anyway, I really respect what you up to up there. Given the low-level of ecological ethics and critical thinkings skills in our culture, it’s great to see people strive for more sane and healthy modes of living and thriving.

    Indeed, I am inspired to develop a blog as a record of our sucesses and failures toward our goals.

    Anyway, I am thrilled to have happened upon your website. i am trying to develop a wildflower, native plant, and tree farm here in Central Florida using deep ecological methods and philosophy. I am remotely fa

  4. I am banking on an A4 chassis VW handling 1-1500 pounds no problem. Adding the extra oomph of the injectors, etc that I detailed in the post prior to this one would help it “feel” stronger, but towing limiting factors are tranny strength and braking power on most vehicles. Make sure both are in top notch shape. I would recommend changing to a higher temp brake pad if you tow regularly.

    Good luck in your endevours!

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