No question that the day of the large, gas hoggish, SUVs are over. With gas mileage that seldom ventured north of high teen marks and engines that polluted the atmosphere far in excess of other vehicles. That was then, this is now. Enter the refined diesel engine with their superior towing capacities, at least 20 percent better fuel mileage, less maintenance, and higher resale value.
Top diesel cars of 2011
Don’t confuse these new rigs with the smelly, smoky diesels of old. The new ones are clean burning and quiet. Add to that the fact that they are well proven, in Europe diesel powered vehicle sales make-up nearly half of all sales from such noted manufacturers as Mercedes and BMW, Audi, and Volkswagen.
So which diesel powered vehicle is best for the family? Well, it depends on your needs. To that end we evaluated a wide variety of them and each on was impressive and filled a need. We tested the BMW 335d, the Mercedes R, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, and the Audi Q7. All of them were frisky, eager to please, and none of them gave anything less than 25 mpg. Our favorite was the Volkswagen TDI if for nothing else its price. Next was the comfortable and spacious Mercedes. The BMW was the best handling, but the 27 mpg fuel mileage wasn’t what we expected and the sedan lacked family sized room for long trips. It was great fun to drive. The Audi Q7 was a vast, sophisticated SUV that is loaded with features, but the fuel mileage is what is most impressive for this nearly three ton vehicle.
Buying a diesel pays off even if there is a premium price involved if you drive more than 40,000 km a year. Not only is there fuel savings, but the maintenance is less due to the fact that a diesel does not have an ignition system that needs to be tended to. A diesel also has superior pulling power and the new models start well even in the colder climates. The reason that these diesels burn so cleanly is that a urea mixture is squirted into the exhaust system to clean the pollutants. The urea container needs to be replaced, but other than that the diesels are nearly mechanic proof as they don’t have a need for any spark plugs or other ignition parts save a glow plug that helps ignite the fuel to start the engine.
BMW’s three series sedan is powered by a potent 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged diesel inline-6 that makes 265 horsepower and an enormous 425 lb-ft of torque that works through a six-speed automatic transmission. The seats are comfortable in front, but the rear seat is best left to smaller folk. The interior is bland and the trunk, at 12 cubic feet, small for such an expensive vehicle. Overall, this BMW is a terrific sporty diesel that clearly proves that a diesel can be fun to drive. It is very fast for a diesel and a delight to drive.
Next we tested the Mercedes Benz R-Class with a 3.0-litre BlueTec diesel V-6 producing 210 horsepower and a he-man 398 lb.-ft. of torque. This MB reacts immediately to throttle input, albeit only until the tachometer reaches around 3000 rpm when the seven speed transmission shifts and allows the acceleration to continue to well above 170 kph, we are told. It is loaded with safety equipment that includes everything from airbags nearly everywhere, to warning devises, to traction, stability, and braking controls and more. Very safe.
The R Class is very long station wagon, indeed in length it dwarfs the hulking Hummer H2, but is much safer than that living example of why General Motors went bankrupt. The R Class is very family friendly with an abundance of room, even behind the third row of seats. However, this Mercedes does not have the easily removable middle row of seats.
At first the R Class felt cold and stiff. But once we were able to sample it fare this vehicle easily is the best family transport for those who have a need for a classy workhorse. A true pleasure to drive and the diesel engine was as un-diesel as we have ever experienced. If it were not for the price of this vehicle it would have been our first choice. For example the rear seat backs recline, there are air vents for everyone, a low loading height, and cupholders galore. You can order the optional entertainment center, too, with LED screens behind the front headrests and each seatback monitor can show a different image from movies to video games to MP3 music.
The ride is very stable and it handles well, but what we especially liked was how easy it was to park in tight spots. Visibility to the sides is a bit tarnished by the wide panels and the rear doors are quite heavy and require a great deal of room to fully open. Outside of those few tarnishes, the R is a pleasure to drive to the corner store or on a long vacation trip. The one concern we had were the optional 19-inch tires that were just too noisy. They were very wide and this added to its handling, but took away from the fuel mileage.
This is an under-rated family vehicle with the unique ability to fit into most garages, venture out into inclement weather, and provides safety and great fuel mileage with at least 20 percent more travel from each gallon of diesel. And, on average, diesel is normally20 percent less expensive than the high octane fuel other big rigs require.
The most futuristic of all diesel vehicles, the R Class is a true utility vehicle for the future. And with the back two rows of seats folded flat you have a huge 85 cubic feet of space to bargain hunt with.
This is an example of a people mover with room for four adults, a 2.0-litre common rail turbocharged diesel engine that produces 140 horsepower and a 236 abaft of torque and surprisingly great handling. This is nearly as good of a handling vehicle as the twice as expensive BMW. We recommend you don’t get the standard six-speed transmission as it simply does not pay either in better fuel mileage or drivability. Buy the automatic unit, which you can control with paddle shifters if you feel the need to exercise your decision making. While the sedan Jetta is cheaper than the wagon, we still think the SportWagen is worth the extra money. Stick with the automatic transmission for smoother driving and better fuel mileage. The engine is certified to run on B5 biodiesel and is very responsive and goes well with its exceptional handling. Unlike the other vehicles tested, this one is front wheel drive.
The interior is rather bland with the seats having manual adjustments. The rear seats have a 60/40 split so you can haul longer items. Safety wise we highly recommend the optional rear air bags. The rear hatch is easy to open, but the rear doors are small and adults may have a problem getting in and out if they have large feet or long legs.
Overall, this is one very fun driver. The brakes are good, the suspension just right for a family wagon, and the engine supplies its torque at a low speed making cornering easy. While driving on a busy highway a tyre exploded on the car ahead of me and I was quickly able to maneuver out of the way with the responsive steering. All of this and the Jetta engine is rated as being the cleanest burning of the diesels. Of note, for those who want a more glamorous and expensive ride, the Audi A3 diesel is available with similar attributes.
This all wheel giant is for those who desire a large SUV with the fuel mileage of a smaller SUV. Our recommendation is that unless you need the room; look at the smaller and more nimble Audi Q5. Audi’s stellar V6 TDI develops 221 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque from a low 1,750 rpm, and the acceleration continues to the redline of 4,500 rpm is reached. Acceleration is no problem for this 5000+ pounder. What is surprising is how quiet the big Audi is. Obviously, Audi has done a good job of soundproofing. The turbocharged engine can get you to 60 mpg in nine seconds and passing power is made simply thanks to a very cooperative six-speed automatic transmission.
Driving the Q7 you never forget you are driving a heavy vehicle as it feels ponderous at times. Add to that concern is the poor visibility to the sides and rear and you understand why you can order the Audi with its exceptional side warning lights and superior rear view monitor. Both are must haves. The tires are very large making getting in and out a bit of a trial, especially with the low ceiling height. This means you have to duck your head if you are over average height. We would go with smaller tires and sacrifice the added vehicle height for less road noise. The turning rate is good for mall parking, but it is way too large for making U turns and the like.
As all Audis, the interior is a study in quality. The seats, controls, gauges, and layout are all first class. The weakness is the multimedia interface that controls such features as heated seats and radio selections. It is easily mastered, but you need to take your eyes from the road for the most part.
Sharing its underpinnings with the less expensive Volkswagen Touareg and the trouble prone Porsche Cayenne reveals that the Audi has taken the middle passage with more luxury than the VW and the Porsche, but less sport than the competition. The VW should be considered an alternative if you don’t want Audi’s well proven all wheel drive system and the third row of seats.
Safety wise the Audi Q7 offers anti-lock four-wheel disc brakes with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and brake assist, Hill Descent Control, traction control, electronic stability, rollover sensing, dual front air bags, front side seat-mounted torso air bags, and side-curtain air bags for all rows.
The best that spans all three rows of seats. A tyre-pressure monitor is also standard. Rear-seat side torso air bags are optional, as is the Audi Side Assist blind spot warning system.
Except for some chatter at low speeds these diesel powered vehicles were much better than their gas powered siblings in every way. Mom liked the long and futuristic looking Mercedes Benz R Class best due to its many safety features and extremely roomy interior. The fact it fit in the garage and performed flawlessly were nice, but the most compelling feature is the exterior. Dad loved the Volkswagen Jetta SportsWagen due to its handling and gas mileage. It is heavy on the sport and it is easy to maneuver and park. The young working woman went with the BMW because, well, it is a BMW. The young working male didn’t like any of them. Too big or too little. He did find the interior of the Audi the best and he was the only one able to quickly learn how to use the controls for the audio. Overall, the Jetta was our favorite for the smaller family and the Mercedes for the larger one. These vehicles are all worthy of consideration and certainly are proof that the diesel is not just for trucks.