auto

Dirty diesel has cleaned up its act

Tara Baukus MelloSome clean diesel passenger cars got a recent boost in sales thanks to their higher fuel economy, putting them in demand as replacement vehicles for people who participated in the government's Cash for Clunkers program. Now that the cost per gallon of diesel fuel is comparable to gasoline, a diesel car's higher fuel economy -- generally a 20 percent to 30 percent improvement over the gasoline counterpart -- is one of several good reasons for car shoppers to seriously consider buying a diesel.

Diesels have come a long way from the dirty, smoke-belching, noisy cars of the 1980s. While most diesel vehicles sold in the U.S. are still heavy-duty trucks, diesel-powered passenger cars are growing in popularity. Today's diesels, introduced for the 2009 model year, are sometimes called "50-state" or "clean" diesels because they meet the pollution requirements in all 50 states, including the most stringent requirements created by the California Air Resources Board, which eight states follow.

Those requirements include the very strict limit of 0.07 grams per mile of nitrogen oxide, or NOx. By comparison, the NOx requirement in Western Europe, where diesels represent about half of the passenger cars on the road, is 0.29 grams per mile -- more than four times the limit in the U.S.

Like hybrids, diesel vehicles have a slightly higher sticker price than their gasoline counterparts, but also like hybrids, many diesels qualify for an energy tax credit of up to $1,800 to help offset the additional cost. What's more, a recent study by Campbell, Calif.-based automotive research firm IntelliChoice found that all but one of today's diesels have a lower overall cost of ownership over five years than their gasoline counterparts.

The lower cost of ownership is partially due to the tax credits and the fact that diesel fuel is currently only about 5 cents more per gallon on average than gasoline, so the increased fuel economy helps offset the higher sticker price. But the study also found two more interesting tidbits: Repair and maintenance costs on diesels and hybrids are comparable to their gasoline counterparts, and they almost always depreciate more slowly.

In a July study of 51 hybrid and diesel passenger vehicles, IntelliChoice found that the Volkswagen Jetta TDI delivered the greatest cost of ownership difference -- a range of $5,825 to $6,420 less than its gasoline Jetta counterpart, depending on the exact model compared. Named the 2009 Green Car of the Year, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which is available in sedan and wagon versions, has proved to be quite popular with buyers, at least partially because it is the least expensive diesel on the market. Prices start at $22,270 for the sedan and $23,870 for the wagon.

While other diesels may be pricier than the Jetta, they are also luxury models, such as models from Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. At publication time, BMW was the only automaker offering incentives on its diesels. Through Nov. 2, 2009, it is offering a $4,500 "Eco Credit," an incentive initially created in response to the government's Cash for Clunkers credit, on its 335d sedan and X5 xDrive35d crossover SUV.

The IntelliChoice study included 12 diesels, including variations on the same model. In 2010, there will be at least three new diesel cars and crossovers on the market, and there may be others that haven't yet been announced. The diesel has definitely arrived.

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

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Tara Baukus Mello

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