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Gas V. Diesel: *Not* Truck Edition

There are hundreds of debates within the automotive world: foreign vs. domestic, manual vs. automatic, and so on. As far as trucks go, the gasoline vs. diesel debate has been going on since the beginning of time. Here in North America, the debate has been markedly one-sided, with gasoline holding sway.

In Europe, however, it is a different story. On a recent trip to the U.K. and Ireland, a family friend was able to sample some cars similar to the ones he could get here in the good ole US of A. In his mind though, the cars over there were significantly better. Most of the cars he rented whilst on holiday were manual transmission and diesel engine configurations, giving him loads of economy and control over every aspect of the car. We’re not going to go into the manual/automatic debate right now, but we do want to dive into the diesel/gasoline debate by comparing some cars that have the option for diesel and gasoline engines.

A Quick Note About Our Process

Please note, we started with the diesel options because honestly, they were way harder to find. We then piggybacked a gasoline model in a similar price range on the secondary market and took it for a test drive. The results were fascinating. The diesel engined vehicles were quite a bit more expensive (in most cases), however their fuel economy was noticeably better. Being that they were all turbo diesels, there really wasn’t any noticeable lack of power between the two, and in fact, the torque figures were often heavily sided towards the oil burners.

2009 BMW X5

BMW X5
Image via Wikimedia, By IFCAR, Public Domain
With any powertrain, the BMW X5 is hands down one of our favorite people movers. Its combination of roomy interior, sharp exterior, and sure footed AWD makes it a favorite of many Northeasterners. For the purposes of this head to head comparison, we are going to be looking at the 2009, E70 model.

The X5d, as it is known, is an absolute masterclass. Quiet, refined, extremely comfortable, and with enough torque to jumpstart a dying star — this twin turbo oil burner is exactly what we look for in a SUV. Despite weighing in at over 5,000 pounds, this panzer knocks down around 25 mpg when you’re not driving it like an ape. The resale value on these cars is nuts, and if you find one for under $10,000, there’s probably something quite wrong with it.

The X5 with a 3 liter, turbocharged gasoline powered engine is also pretty fantastic. It doesn’t have the astronomical torque of its diesel brethren, but it is still a very good SUV. They have similar get up and go despite being a few hundred pounds lighter (not that it matters in something that weighs 2 and a half tons). These are a lot cheaper on the secondary market, with some solid examples being found well below $10,000. The only word of warning we have is with the V8 models. We’re not saying that they are bad cars, were just saying they are a lot more expensive to keep on the road than their straight-6 counterparts.

2015 Chevy Cruze

rear view of black chevy cruze
Image via Wikimedia, By Bull-Doser, Public Domain
This one was hard to find. When doing the due diligence for this article, we looked for literally anything that wasn’t a Volkswagen because the TDI such a staple of the diesel community. We wanted to go out of our way to get into one of these. Turns out all I had to do was walk down the street for a test drive because my neighbor has one. In all honesty, I never knew it was a diesel. It looks like a normal Cruze, it sounds pretty much like a normal Cruze. Either way, this car is thoroughly out of place here in the states. With its manual transmission and torquey inline 4 diesel, this configuration is basically seen as witchcraft here, but is commonplace across the pond. Finding a gasoline Cruze with a manual transmission for posterity’s sake in this review was actually harder than finding the diesel.

The weird part here is the branding. The diesel Cruze is billed as an upscale version of the normal one. For the most part, I totally agree with that, they’re a lot less common, the interior was nicely appointed and laid out, and the power was noticeably more present over the gas powered one. The diesel is a smart little car. It easily goes toe to toe with its TDI counterparts. It appears that the engineers over at GM have come a long way since their last attempt at a mainstream diesel sedan, by turning a 350ci V8 into an oil burner with absolutely horrendous results.

The normal, plain jane gasoline powered Cruze is not one of our favorites. Its competent, and significantly better than the Cobalt that it replaced, but it lacks the endless “chuckability” of the Sunfire or Cavalier. It’s a bigger small car. The biggest thing that you notice though after driving the diesel is how the gas version has much less torque it has than just about everything else in the segment. After driving the diesel, it really felt anemic, and while the manual transmission makes up for a bit of that, the powerband is still quite narrow and in desperate need of an iron lung of some sort. Compared to something like the Fiesta, it didn’t feel as solid.

2014 Volkswagen Beetle

With Dieselgate still a bit of a meme in the automotive community, I’m sure everyone was wondering when a Volkswagen would make it into the mix. This puts me into a weird position though, because even after Dieselgate, I like Volkswagen TDI’s. They really do get great gas mileage and perform well under just about any conditions you can throw at them. When I studied economics at Brockport the one thing I noticed was that about 90% of my professors in the subject drove Volkswagen TDI’s. These are people who are cheap for a living, and they all had one thing in common: TDI Passats and Jettas.

When this redesign came out, we all had different feelings on it. However, to this day the best line I’ve ever heard about it was that it, “looks more Ferdinand Porsche and less Hitler”. If that doesn’t sum it up, I don’t know what will. I like the redesigned bug. I think it’s sharp with bits of 911, Scirocco, and Cayman in the design. As for the ride, it’s classic Volkswagen TDI — 4 cylinders, 2 liters, a turbo, and a manual transmission. With 246 ft pounds of solid low down torque in a ton and a half package, you can find these on the secondary market in the $12-15k region. Oh and it gets in the mid 40s for mpg.

For the gas powered one, we picked a price competitive gasoline model. This one was a lot better appointed, with nav, heated seats, and all of the accoutrements that you would expect in a mid level BMW 5 Series. This model was the 1.8 liter turbocharged model, and where the apparent diesel dominance of this article starts to go away.

Considering that the entire drivetrain in this car is basically the one that you find in a Golf GTI, it wins. It’s about 200 pounds lighter than the diesel model, and in something that weighs only about a ton and a half, you really notice it. The GTI is a masterclass in fun, small car building, and the Beetle picks up the mantle magnificently. It’s a little bit less functional than a 4 door GTI, but it’s just as much fun, and sometimes that’s all it needs to be. The gas mileage is significantly poorer than its TDI counterpart, but in all honesty, no one buys a little VW for the fuel economy. You buy it for the fun.

2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee

beige jeep grand cherokee
Image via Wikimedia, Courtesy of M 93, CC BY-SA 3.0
This was easily the hardest car to find on this list — and after driving it, it was readily apparent. I actually had to call up a rental car service to rent it for a few days to get my hands on one. When this car was new, it cost right around 60k. Now this isn’t horrible in the luxury SUV market, but when you consider that the eco-diesel option accounted for $5,000 of that sticker price, you really start to wonder. Considering that the Dodge Ram Ecodiesel is basically the same vehicle underneath, I thought about cheating. Then I remembered that the Grand Cherokee isn’t body on frame and had to go the long way.

Right away the thing you notice is the mountain of torque. With 420 foot pounds of it, it’s hard to ignore. Paired with its 8 speed gearbox, it stays on the power quite well, and when it settles down into a cruise it knocks down 28 or so mpg. Considering this car isn’t mine or owned by a private seller, I took it offroad and found the terrain response system quite intuitive and fairly sure footed. But let’s be real, not a lot of people are going to ever take this through anything other than a snowbank. I like the interior quite a bit as well. They have truly come a long way since their heyday of the late 90s and early 2000s where literally everyone in my neighborhood had one and it was nowhere near as nice to ride in as my mom’s Navigator. That comparison actually works a lot better than I would like to admit. It feels like the Navigator, with everything being wood, leather, and very spacious. As for finding a used one — good luck.

The gasoline powered ones are much more abundant, considering they sold 212,000 or so of them in the 2016 model year. We tested the 5.7 liter Hemi powered one against our diesel competitor. Right away the thing you notice is the noise. The Hemi does make a lovely burble at idle and when you get on it it roars with the ferocity of your budget absolutely exploding. It’s so much more a traditional luxury SUV, with abysmal city gas mileage, but ample comfort and charm. If 5.7 liters isn’t enough, you could pick up the 6.4 liter SRT model that is way more fun. Either way, they’re both easier to find than the Ecodiesel. Also, if the trend of this article is the same, they should be cheaper. And how can you not like a 6.4 liter SUV that can go anywhere and do just about anything.

2011 Mercedes Benz E350 Blutec

Image via Wikimedia, by OSX, Public Domain
The Mercedes Blutec brand is…interesting. Going back, diesel Mercedes have been known to do half a million miles or more really without too much thought going into it. The 300d and 240d are still a staple of hipsters, hippies, and diehard Benz fans the world over. That is a big part of their charm- you can hit them with a panzerfaust and they really dont give a shit. These new ones though- I don’t know. They’re a bit too sterile, a bit too precise, a bit too boring. It’s like an accountant, it does its job, it goes home, and it never really makes a fuss. It’s technically a sports sedan, but we can’t really get behind that. The 400 ft/lbs of torque is omnipresent with its 7 speed gearbox, but the 210 hp really stunts the top end. That and the 2011 was RWD only, with the AWD being reserved for the gasoline models.

If there is one place where the E350 Blutec shines, it’s in range. With its massive fuel tank and ability to comfortably average 33 mpg on the highway, this thing has some range. It is also very comfortable and well appointed. The only wrench in the cog is the piece of meat driving it — it’s tank is bigger than yours. While it’s not the sensory orgy of its AMG brethren, or even as fun as a gasoline E-class, or as good looking as the coupe version, the E350 Blutec is a very comfortable, very competent, long range bomber, much like the B-17. There’s something weird about these though. They do not hold their value like just about every other diesel on this list. You can pick them up, in decent condition, in the 10k range. However, there is one major caveat. This is easily the least reliable diesel on this list. The list of complaints that Surfwrench Technicians had on this engine was as long as the barge that spawned them. So needless to say, buyer beware.

The gas powered E350 is a pretty middle of the road, mid-sized executive class German barge. This was the hardest to tell apart from the diesel model as Mercedes Benz has refined their E class to the point where you could put a nuclear power plant under the hood and it would probably be hard to notice. Unless you’re rocking the AMG, they’re all pretty good. We argue that the AMG soundtrack and torque takes a competent car and makes it spectacular. Again, if i had to have one, it would be the coupe.

Houston, We’ve Got a Pothole Problem

The Problem

As any New Yorker knows, pothole season is never really over. We know the primetime for potholes is during the early spring months, due to how they’re made, but potholes plague New York roads all over and all throughout the year. If you’re from Rochester and have ever commuted through Dewey or Lake Ave, you’ll know what we mean.

Potholes are patches of disruption in the road caused by soil beneath the pavement becoming weakened or displaced. In the winter and spring months, ice and running water from the snow and rain unsettles the base layers under the pavement. As the water seeps through the cracks in the pavement, it freezes and expands, then causing the pavement to break. When cars drive over the weakened areas, the pavement begins to erode, chipping away and leaving holes in the road. High traffic areas result in the worst potholes.

Potholes can have serious effects on your car causing significant damage. Some of the most common damage to cars include:

  • Tire Puncture
  • Wheel Rim Damage
  • Premature Wear on Shocks & Struts
  • Suspension Damage
  • Steering System Misalignment
  • Exhaust System Damage
  • Engine Damage.

This could range anywhere between 100 and 1,000 dollars in repairs. What would the auto-repair industry do without potholes?

Solutions – The Typical & the Not So Typical

The most basic way of explaining pothole repair is through the differences of hot and cold patches. When a hot patch repair is done, the surrounding pavement to the pothole is cut and then filled with hot asphalt and compacted. This addresses the underlying issues with potholes and is more likely to prevent another pothole from occurring. Cold patch repairs tend to be less effective. Asphalt is basically packed into the pothole as tight as possible. These do not properly fill or fix potholes, causing it to crack and break from traffic or allow debris or water to enter inside.

The least likely way of getting a pothole repaired is by calling your local Parks and Recreation department and having Ron Swanson show up at your door. Although unlikely, it may be the best option.

However, there are five main methods used to repair potholes which include either hot or cold patch repairs. Throw-and-roll, semi-permanent, spray-injection, edge seal, and full-depth roadway pothole replacement are the main five.

Throw-and-roll pothole repair is one of the most common and the simplest way to fix a pothole. Asphalt material is poured into the hole and then driven over with a heavy vehicle to solidify the mold. Semi-permanent pothole repair is considered one of the best methods used for repairing potholes. First, debris or water is removed from the area and clean cuts are made in the pavement. Then the pothole is filled with asphalt or patch material and compacted.

Bachlor This is Not a Pothole AnymoreAlternatively, have you ever heard of Jim Bachor? This guy has traveled to Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, and Detroit (and more) filling potholes in a way never seen before. Having studied art and ancient history in school, Bachor fills potholes by creating mosaics out of them.

Spray-injection pothole repair is done with special equipment. First, debris or water must be removed from the pothole. Then the hole is sprayed and filled with asphalt. The patched area is then covered with a layer of aggregate.

Edge seal pothole repair combines the throw-and-roll technique with additional steps. First the pothole is filled by compacting loose asphalt inside. Then a layer of asphalt material is used to seal the pothole with the existing pavement, and sand is laid to avoid sticking tires.

If there is a pothole or section of road where there are many potholes on the way to your house and Ron Swanson has not already showed up, you could also try calling Dominos. Not only will dinner be served, but with their new promotion, so will the potholes in your neighborhood.

Full-depth roadway repairs fixes potholes by completely removing them and replacing the roadway with entirely new pavement. It is the most efficient way to replace potholes and the most complex, simply because new road is being laid. The old asphalt from the road is pulverized and mixed with cement and water, then compacted as a base to which a new layer of asphalt is then poured and laid.

Not only does Dominos and Jim Bachor profit off of potholes, but Surfwrench itself and auto-repair companies alike are thankful for the annoying potholes all over upstate NY. The pressure your car undergoes from hitting a pothole is enough to make diamonds and worth all the same to your local mechanic.

The General Motors Hunger Games

Hindsight is a funny thing. With hindsight we gain a forced perspective of all of our actions through the clearest looking glass of them all: time itself. This becomes especially potent when it comes to business decisions, as profit and loss and all of the other financial indicators will tell you exactly where you messed up. Literally, business schools are churning out thousands of cheap suit wearing peons who will tell you exactly where you messed up. Realistically, the bigger the company, the more eyes are on you, especially in times of upheaval.

10 Years Ago, the Games Began

In 2008, General Motors put all of their American Brands through the business equivalent of the Hunger Games, killing off the likes of Saturns, Hummer, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Saab — while maintaining GMC, Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac. At the time this was seen as necessary cost saving measures and was used to propel the stricken company through the sales doldrums that were the late 00’s. With 10 years of hindsight though we are here to ask, did they kill the right brands? We weren’t sure, so we talked to a whole bunch of GM consumers, employees, mechanics, and dealers — and their answers might surprise you.

First we are going to look at the American brands — specifically based on the year 2000 — and their position within GM itself. How did they overlap with other brands in the company? Which makes had the best brand loyalty, and could that loyalty be turned with another brands nearly identical product? Where should have these companies positioned themselves within the greater marketplace in order to create a more monolithic car company? More importantly, did the short term survival decisions of GM potentially limit their overall reach in the future?

Continue reading “The General Motors Hunger Games”

Used Car Review – 1998 Chevy Blazer

Chevy S-10 Blazer#blazeit

At Surfwrench, we really like Blazers. We like that they are simple, capable small SUVs that can handle pretty much anything that you can throw at them (within reason). The early ones were a bona fide answer to the revolutionary Ford Bronco and they are pretty damn cool. Today though, we’re taking a look at a 2 door S-10 variant from 1998.

First of all, I had one of these early in my driving career and to me it was a genuinely great car. While the gas mileage wasn’t very good and I was commuting a long way to school, one of the main things that I remembered was just how liberating this car was. It meant that I could get where I needed to go in just about any weather because of the solid 4×4 system. This really was a very good car for a new driver being cheap, durable, and fairly capable when things get dicey. Continue reading “Used Car Review – 1998 Chevy Blazer”

Saturn: That Awkward Moment When GM Started a Japanese Car Company

Saturn: America's Japanese Car Company

Starting a company isn’t easy. Trust us — we’ve been there. Starting a car company — well that’s damn near impossible. The amount of capital, both human and physical, that is required is absolutely daunting. Since about the midpoint in the past century, few upstarts have been able to cope with the stringent regulations and vicious marketplace that is the automotive industry. This is why the seeming ethereal emergence of the Saturn company is so impressive, and why it caused more cocked eyebrows than Leo DiCaprio’s performance in Django Unchained.

In this article, we are going to be looking at one of the most fascinating companies to ever grace the automotive stage. A company that didn’t make the most innovative or even interesting cars, but a company that was built from the ground up to be new, innovative, and inherently competitive — and how it all went terribly wrong. Continue reading “Saturn: That Awkward Moment When GM Started a Japanese Car Company”