High mileage, low emissions - and no big-rig noise

The last time America got excited about diesels, gasoline cost more than it does today in real terms and Ronald Reagan was president. But diesels have come a long way. Five new models are hitting the market this year.

Take Volkswagen, which has sold diesels in the US - and improved upon them - since 1987. Driving one of its long-running Golf, Jetta, or New Beetle models, it's hard to tell the difference from a gasoline-powered car. The diesel engine grumbles a bit while idling and the back of the car smells a little until the engine warms. It also reaches high speeds without having to rev as fast. But other than that, you'd never know it was a diesel until you fill it up - and these cars register more than 40 miles per gallon.

Many reviewers - and apparently buyers, too - prefer these fuel-efficient engines to their respective gasoline models. That's certainly true with the VW Touareg, which offers a powerful V10 diesel engine with twin turbochargers. The engine generates 310 horsepower and enough torque to tow a 7,700-pound boat. Under normal driving conditions, it gets 17 m.p.g. in the city and 23 m.p.g. on the highway. The Touareg's gasoline V8 has slightly more horsepower but only gets 13 m.p.g. in the city and 18 on the highway.

The 500 Touareg diesels VW will sell this year also cost $15,000 more than the gas V8 models. The company's new Passat diesel, however, costs only $300 more than its gasoline counterpart and an automatic transmission comes standard. The Passat uses a slightly larger 134-horsepower version of the four-cylinder turbo-diesel in the Jetta, Golf, and New Beetle. Performance VW Magazine recently picked the diesel as its favorite among four Passat engines.

Of the other new diesels this year - the Mercedes-Benz E320 CDI, the Jeep Liberty CRD, and the redesigned Kia Sportage - the best is the Mercedes. It drives much like most diesels with two exceptions. Once up to speed, the E320 CDI is quiet as can be and really zips once the throttle is held open a couple seconds. It also feels far faster than the E320s gasoline V6.

Other automakers plan to introduce new diesels after 2006. That's when low-sulfur fuel is expected to become available, allowing the new diesels to meet the next round of tighter pollution standards. Ford executives recently called diesels the answer to higher oil prices, higher fuel-mileage requirements, and low greenhouse-gas emissions.

Perhaps the best evidence for America's increasing interest in diesels is that premium buyers are willing to pay for them. Diesels generally cost about $1,000 more to build than comparable gasoline engines. But thousands of buyers are shelling out an extra $2,520 for the diesel VW Jetta (after cash incentives on the gasoline version), which gives them 25 percent better fuel economy, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and the ability to burn a wide variety of fuels if Middle East oil becomes too expensive.

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