Posted: May 13, 2005 4:19 pm EST

Diesel may still be the best deal (~20 col. in.)
by Eddie Glenn/Tahlequah (Okla.) Daily Press
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    Bush proposes tax incentives for diesel buyers

    By Eddie Glenn
    CNHI News Service

    TAHLEQUAH, Okla. - Environmentalists and President George W. Bush usually don't have a lot in common, but they do agree on at least one thing: Rudolf Diesel was a pretty clever fellow.
    Diesel was the German engineer who, in 1893, invented the engine that still bears his name. Igniting fuel by compression instead of by spark, diesel engines have undergone some refinement in recent years, and are being hailed as the cleaner, more economical alternative to the gasoline engines that power most small vehicles in the United States.
    Members of the Diesel Technology Forum recently clattered up to Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to support tax credits that Bush hopes will encourage Americans to purchase cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles with diesel engines.
    "These engines are designed from the ground up," said Allen Schaeffer, head of the DTF, who added that diesel is still the fuel of choice for long-haul semi trucks and heavy equipment. "We don't see any exhaust emissions coming out of the tailpipe, and we have a very quick start off the line."
    Previous forays into diesel technology have given the engines something of a reputation. During the 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to build a diesel engine based on a gasoline engine design. But the engine suffered a high failure rate, and consumers complained even louder than their clacking engines. GM eventually offered a gasoline replacement engine for the cars.
    Since the diesel was invented in Germany, it probably makes sense that the most successful automakers to implement diesel engines have been German companies specifically Mercedes, and more recently, Volkswagen. But even those German-engineered diesels, while they were more reliable than the Oldsmobile model, still blew the tell-tale black smoke of burned diesel, and still sounded like a drunk tap dancer stumbling down a spiral staircase.
    But according to Schaeffer, all that's changed. The new diesel engines don't blow smoke, and while they still clack a bit more than gasoline engines, they're significantly quieter than their predecessors.
    "If you put a diesel beside a gasoline, it's really not that much difference," Schaeffer said. "The consumer is only going to notice the difference where it counts, and that's at the pump. They're going to be spending less on fuel, about 30 percent less, with a diesel as compared to a gasoline model."
    David Owen of Tahlequah, who owns a Volkswagen station wagon with a diesel engine, agrees with the assessment.
    "Thirty percent sounds about right, even though diesel's been pretty pricey the last year," he said.
    Diesel has traditionally been cheaper at the pump than gasoline, but the demand during the past year has driven the price up to levels equal to, or even higher than, gasoline.
    "Even if you're paying the same price as gas, or even if it's a few cents higher, you're still going to save money because you're going to get a lot better mileage than a gas engine," said Owen. "And the reliability's a factor, too. You'll have to rebuild a gasoline engine way before you have to rebuild a diesel."
    But there is a slight trade-off, according to Dennis Garde of Tahlequah Import Service.
    All the technology that's gone into making diesels cleaner and quieter has increased the cost of maintenance.
    "A diesel will average 35 to 50 miles per gallon, depending on the vehicle, and they've cleaned up the diesels so they don't smoke like they used to. But they have oxygen sensors and so much other stuff on them, they're not cost-efficient to work on at all," said Garde.
    He added that a rebuild for a diesel engine will cost 25 to 30 percent more than for a gasoline engine.
    "The tolerances have to be so close on diesels because of the compression," he said.
    But rebuilds are a minor concern for the DTF. Members are hoping to convince lawmakers to support the president's plan to provide tax incentives for diesel buyers.
    Bush told a business group recently that anti-pollution measures for diesel will "remove more than 90 percent of the sulfur in diesel fuel by 2010."
    The president called for expanding his existing tax credit proposal, which applies to hybrid and fuel-cell vehicles, to include those using new clean diesel technology.
    "Clean diesel technology will allow consumers to travel much farther on each gallon of fuel, without the smoke and pollution of past diesel engines," he said.

    Eddie Glenn writes for the Tahlequah (Okla.) Daily Press.

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