Saturday, August 26, 2006

1/2-Ton Diesel?

I'd better put the tinfoil back on, because it appears that GM was listening to a conversation I had just last week. In that conversation, and in other conversations over the last couple of years, I lamented the facts that
A) There aren't that many diesel vehicles on American roads (percentage-wise), and more specifically,
B) The only diesel trucks being produced are in the 3/4 to 1 ton range.
Unlike European and some Asian countries, who are producing and using diesel vehicles in ever-increasing numbers, Americans haven't really embraced diesels. Why? Well, the short (very short) answer is that diesel-powered cars were eschewed for the most part by domestic makes, who instead developed gasoline-fueled engines. Because of this, there wasn't much development in diesels. Sure, a good many auto makers built diesel powered passenger cars, but with only a fraction of the R&D dollars that they put into their gas-powered cars. Thus, diesels were always viewed as being louder, bigger pollution-producers, and having less quality than a comparable gas-powered car. There was a brief surge in the consumer buying of diesels back in the '70's, during the oil embargo, but for a number of reasons (not the least of which being the fact that GM-produced diesel cars, well, broke a lot) buying quickly tapered off. Today, most Americans view diesels as only being fit for tractor-trailers and commercial-type work trucks.

Which is a shame, in my eyes.

I don't want to go off the deep end with a technical discussion of the modern diesel engine, but diesels have come a LONG way since the bad old days, as any OTR trucker or heavy-equipment contractor knows. Modern computer modules have produced superb emissions, fuel efficiency, and power numbers from equally modern diesel engines. Of course, fuel efficiency combined with power is nothing new for diesels; after all, that was Rudolph Diesel's goal when he created his eponymous engine. Diesels also tend to last longer than a comparably sized and used gasoline engine; this is due to the fewer number of moving parts in a diesel compared to a gas engine, and also the generally higher level of strength of those parts. Not only that, but there's also a burgeoning industry of providing high-level aftermarket performance parts, the leader of which seems to be Banks, who are, and have been for years, making ECM's, exhausts, and all kinds of controllers and gizmos designed to get the most out of a diesel engine. By most, I mean horsepower/torque gains measured in the 100's above stock, without doing damage to the engine, and which are literally switchable; you can get the power increase by flipping a switch, turning a knob, or pushing a button. To get the same power gains in a gas engine, one has to either seriously endanger the engine itself, spend serious amounts of money, or both. Again, I don't want to get overly technical hear, so if you'd like to know more about how diesel engines work, the first place I'd check is the article on the subject, and go from there.

So far I've only talked about the mechanical benefits of the diesel over the gasoline engine, and I can't move on without briefly mentioning diesel fuel itself. Because of the way it's refined, diesel is less expensive than gas, which in today's market of increasing fuel prices, is a glaring benefit. Also, diesel fuel contains more energy per gallon than gas, which when combined with the higher compression ratio of the diesel engine, produces much better fuel efficiency when compared to a gasoline engine. Thus, diesel fuel is cheaper to use in two ways: inherently better energy yield and a less expensive refinement process. Oh, and did I mention that you can create diesel from plants and used vegetable oil, which can be used without (or at least, very minimally) modifying a diesel engine? Yeah, you can.

Now I need to get back to how I started this post: GM reading my mind. Obviously, I'm a fan of diesel powered vehicles, with some caveats: they must be as or more efficient than a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle, they must meet emissions standards, and they must have at least as much, if not more, power than a comparable gas vehicle. There are already a few vehicles being sold in the U.S. that meet these criteria, such as the latest Jeep Liberty and Volkswagen Jetta. Unfortunately, those don't really suit me; I want and need a truck, want because I like trucks (and I'm a little pink on the back of my neck) and need because my job often requires one. What's preventing me from just buying an F-250 or Dodge Ram 2500? Well, I don't need that MUCH of a truck, nor can I afford the hefty price tag those 3/4 ton trucks have compared to a 1/2 ton truck. Unfortunately for me, none of the pickup truck manufacturers produced a 1/2 ton diesel powered pickup truck. . . until now.

Or at least until 2010, which, as GM announced this week, is when a 360-horsepower V8 turbodiesel will make its debut in 1/2 ton, non-heavy duty trucks. Just what I've been waiting for. It's a shame that they're a few years away, but that's relatively understandable, given the increasingly stringent emissions control standards that are on the way. Some of GM's claims are pretty interesting, such as:
• GM promises the engine will use 25% less fuel than a comparable gasoline V8.
• It fits in the same engine compartment as GM's wildly successful small-block gasoline V8, which powers everything from the Chevrolet Corvette, Impala SS and Silverado full-size pickup to the Cadillac Escalade luxury SUV and Pontiac GTO muscle coupe.
• Emissions of particulates and oxides of nitrogen will be at least 90% lower than current diesels. Carbon dioxide emissions will be 13% lower than from a comparable gasoline engine.
Hmmmm. . . sounds like GM is starting to drink the diesel-flavored Kool-Aid. Granted, a diesel-powered 1/2 ton will cost more on the front end than a gas-powered 1/2 ton, but a buyer should be able to make up the additional costs (and then some) on the back end, via increased fuel-economy and better longevity.

Of course, that's assuming that GM can get quality control back up to a high level, a prospect that certainly dampens my enthusiasm. Still though. . . this sounds like exactly the vehicle I was lamenting the lack of last week. So I guess I'm somewhere in between "cautiously optimistic" and "testosterone-fueled giddiness."

We shall see.

No comments:

Post a Comment