But higher fuel economy standards from the government are moving more automakers to bring out more diesel vehicles, which get about 30-percent better fuel economy than their gasoline counterparts. Indeed, the 2014 model year will see twice as many "clean diesel" models offered than in the model year that is just closing out.
By the end of the 2014 model year, there will be 40 diesels available to car buyers, including pickup trucks, according to Andreas Sambal, North American director of marketing for Bosch's diesel systems division, which supplies the automakers.
"The U.S. has been very focused on hybrids and electric vehicles, but we are seeing the interest in diesels in the U.S. turn the corner as more people buy them and their friends hear of all the advantages," says Sambal.
Audi, for example, is going from offering just two diesels to five this year and has plans for a sixth. Volkswagen recently said about half the Passats it is building in Tennessee have diesel engines. Chevy has launched a diesel version of the Cruze compact, and Mazda will have a diesel Mazda6 in showrooms by the end of the year. Nissan, too, just announced its Titan pickup will be offered with a diesel engine, joining Chevy, Ford and Ram, and beating the Toyota Tundra to the diesel punch.
Diesels have accounted for only about three-percent of new vehicle sales up to now. The two biggest factors holding them back, despite their fuel economy advantages, are the cost of the engine systems--often about $2,500 over a gas engine--and the cost of diesel fuel being higher than gasoline because of the extra taxes levied on the fuel.
There are extra taxes on diesel at the federal and state level as a way of laying extra burden on commercial trucking, which puts more wear and tear on highways than cars. Policy-makers can't figure out a politically feasible way to tax the trucks while leaving the diesel cars alone.
Automakers though are going on the offensive with information trying to convince car buyers of the advantages. VW says that a Volkswagen Jetta TDI will save an owner $3,000 over a three-year period. Mercedes says operating a GL diesel is about $15,600 less than the gas version of the German SUV.
That kind of information is important for closing the sale because there are no longer any tax credits available for clean-diesel cars as there were before 2011.
Looking at diesels in a nutshell:
-They get about 30 percent better fuel economy than the gas versions of the same car. The Audi A7, for example: The TDI version gets combined fuel economy of 29 mpg (24 city and 38 highway), while the gas version gets 21 mpg (18 city and 28 highway).
-Torque is much better with diesel engines, which translates to more power from a standing start, and great acceleration on on-ramps.
-Diesel prices vary in their relation to gasoline. According to the Energy Information Administration, the cost of diesel was 10.5 percent higher than regular gas on average, and just 1 percent more expensive than premium gas.
-Nearly half of the 180,000 gas stations in the U.S. serve diesel. Any of several handy smartphone apps will tell you where to find the closest one. But generally, diesel drivers fill up when their tank is below 1/4 tank and they see the diesel sign on a passing gas station.
-Diesels offer great performance. Proof? Audi owns the 24 Hours of LeMans race (pictured here) with its TDI diesel engine.
Take a look at some of the new and recently launched clean-diesel cars and see if you are ready for a test drive:
Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
Sticker Price: $24,885
Invoice Price: $23,890
Fuel Economy: 27 mpg city, 46 mpg highway
The Cruze Diesel is powered by a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder diesel engine, which creates 151-horsepower and 264 pounds-feet of torque. The fuel economy is 27 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. Our test car stickered at $26,500.
Cruze's obvious competition is the VW Jetta TDI. The Cruze costs a bit more, almost $2,000, but comes with a bunch of extra features--keyless entry, heated front seats, MyLink with Bluetooth connectivity, 17-inch wheels and a bit more.
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Volkswagen Passat TDI
Sticker Price: $32,915
Invoice Price: $31,564
Fuel Economy: 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway
The Passat TDI gets you 30 mpg city and 40 mpg on highway with 35 mpg combined, about 12 mpg more in combined driving than the gasoline version. Troll the Internet forums and you'll find owners reporting 45 mpg and higher on the highway.
The Passat, which comes in either automatic transmission or manual, is roomy, smooth riding and handsome, and for the first time is a solid challenger to Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion and Honda Accord for your mid-sized sedan dollars.
Don't be put off by the 140-horsepower TDI engine because with a diesel that many horses is all you need. Indeed, this engine, which also produces 236 pound-feet of torque, feels like a V6 in terms of power and acceleration, but with the much better mpg.
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Audi Q5 TDI
Sticker Price: $46,500
Invoice Price: $43,247
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg city, 31 mpg highway
The Q5 TDI has the same diesel engine as the Audi A6 TDI and A7 TDI--a V-6 kicking out 240-horsepower and 428 pounds-feet of torque. The Q5 is one of our favorite luxury crossovers and is now even more so with the thrifty diesel engine.
The Q5 TDI is rated at 24 city and 31 highway mpg and 27 mpg combined. We scored 32 mpg in our test drive, which stickered at $55,445. Audi has a knack of pricing its vehicles a smidge lower than comparable BMWs and Mercedes Benz vehicles that nearly always makes us feel like the Audi over delivers for the dollars spent.
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Audi A6 TDI
Sticker Price: $57,500
Invoice Price: $53,477
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg city, 31 mpg highway
The A6 TDI comes with a single-turbo, 3.0-liter V-6 that makes 240-horsepower and 428 pounds-feet of torque. This diesel A6 accelerates smartly, and this in a car that was already one of our favorite daily drivers on the planet with its gas engine. The government rates the TDI A6 at 24 city and 38 highway mpg. Our test car did a little better.
The price-tag of our test car was $66,795 and, frankly, represents a terrific value in the luxury category.
The A6, as well as all of Audi's diesels, have a standard engine stop-start system that is easy to get used to. Recalcitrant luxury-car owners who whine about missing V8s won't like the engine idling down at stop lights, but they'll come around in time. Anything to save fuel.
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Mazda6 SkyActiv-DThe Mazda6 Skyactiv-D diesel will be out with a 2.2-liter clean-diesel engine under its hood by the end of the year.
It will be available with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, and official fuel economy estimates are still pending. But the highway fuel economy rating could be, we are told, as high as 60 mpg. That would surely be more than enough to off-set any of the typical spreads in price between gasoline and diesel. And if Mazda pulls it off, it could be the most fuel efficient car on the market short of an electric.
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