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 X5With 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 CruzeThis 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 CherokeeThis 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 BlutecThe 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.