Is Diesel the Answer?

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In sports car racing, European brands Peugeot, Audi and Volkswagen are doing the best job of changing the perspective of American car buyers’ tastes in production vehicles. 

Although Peugeot doesn’t sell in the States any longer, its exploits with turbodiesel propulsion – as well as its competition with the similarly-equipped Audi prototypes – are helping to convince American car buyers that maybe, just maybe, diesel is, not only NOT a dirty word but certainly not a dirty type of car.

Sports car fans following the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) have been able to see both Peugeot and Audi prototypes do battle, this year at the season closing Petit Le Mans race of 10 hours or 1000 miles.  That battle was won by Peugeot’s 908 HDi FAP LM P1 car this year, en route to victory in the inaugural International Le Mans Cup series and eventual retirement, with another turbodiesel replacement on the horizon to meet 2011 Le Mans rules.  Audi sealed the deal at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, but had weird luck at Road Atlanta’s Petit Le Mans.

On the home front, VW has its Jetta TDI Cup, run by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).  Entry is limited to 25 cars – they’d likely have well more entrants if they allowed it – and the near-silent competition is always extremely tight and a lot of fun to watch.  The races generally run as second-tier shows at SCCA and, occasionally ALMS weekends throughout the year.  Just about all one hears from the VW, Peugeot and Audi cars are the squeal of the tires and maybe the whoosh of a turbo.

Next year’s Le Mans rules will try to rein in the success of both Peugeot and Audi, so that gasoline-powered prototypes can have a chance, even if it’s a middling one, to compete with these giants, who have appeared to be waging a very private war between themselves.  It’s a personal battle, of course, as well as a European one, with France against Germany.  Not the first time; won’t be the last, or at least we hope.

Through the efforts of these racers, Americans are starting to discover that maybe hybrids aren’t the only answer to all of our ecological and economical problems?  Diesel, and specifically ultra-low sulfur turbo-diesel powerplants can make oodles of torque, acceptable power and leave a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline-powered and gas-hybrid cars and trucks.  It works that way in racing; it can work the same way in showrooms across the country.

It’s not going to be an easy job teaching Americans, who recall the Mercedes-Benz diesels (and Peugeot diesels, too, back in the 1970s) that clinked and clanked even as they saved money at the pump.  Those machines were dirty, noisy and truck-like in their mannerisms.  Getting them fueled at truck stops was one of only a few options.

Things have really changed.  While most commercial trucks retain some noise and dirt we associate with diesel, the clean diesel cars and SUVs available on the showroom floor today – and those racing on circuits across this country and the world – are clean and quiet.  And customers driving diesel can fill up, seemingly on most every corner with their ultra-low-sulfur grade fuel.

Modern diesel isn’t just for the racetrack and for multi-million-dollar factory teams’ competition.  It’s a viable alternative for an American public that is looking to be economical, ecological and still have fun over the road.

Diesel may not be the only answer, but right now it’s a good one.

© 2010 Anne Proffit
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