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The Last Diesels Still Deserve A Look

The Last Diesels Still Deserve A Look

In the late 1980s, buyers shunned diesel cars as too smelly, noisy, and sluggish. But with fuel economy back in vogue, diesels look attractive once more. The simple reason: They're frugal fuel users.

Just two carmakers offer diesel models in the U. S.: Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen. From VW comes the Jetta diesel, one of the 10 most efficient cars on the road, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It averages 40 miles per gallon and can cruise 600 miles before refueling. Mercedes' three diesels, the 300D, 350SD, and 350SDL, can't match the Jetta's fuel economy, but they're significantly less thirsty than their gas-powered counterparts. (Diesel fuel costs about the same as premium unleaded and is now available at one-third of the nation's service stations.)

SLOW SPARK. The Mercedes diesel engines have just been redesigned to redress most of their predecessors' drawbacks, including pollution. Gone are the clouds of acrid, blue exhaust. Although the telltale diesel odor remains, it is much subdued. Gone, too, is the raucous clackety-clack under the hood. But the engines still take a moment of electric preheating before they will start. In freezing weather you may wait 10 seconds or more.

Turbochargers make the Mercedes diesels downright peppy. The 3,900-pound 350SDL hits 60 mph in just 11 seconds. That's a mere 2 seconds slower than the gas version. The 300D, which has a five-cylinder engine in lieu of a six, takes a more leisurely 13 seconds. Once at cruising speed, it also takes longer to accelerate to pass.

Still, fuel economy in the big 350SDL is a respectable 24 mpg. By comparison, the gas version gets 17 and an Infiniti Q45 does 18. The 350SD, with its shorter wheelbase, also gets 24. The 300D goes 29 miles on a gallon.

In either gas or diesel, these Mercedes are among the best sedans in the world. Even at high speed, they feel rock-solid. Inside, the leather seats are firm and comfortable, and the controls are easy to operate. They are among a handful of autos that offer driver and front-seat passenger airbags.

SPARTAN. While these cars can help fight higher fuel bills, the initial investment is steep--though no more than a gas-powered Mercedes. The 350SDL has a list price of $57,800; the 350SD, $53,900. The smaller, more aerodynamic 300D runs $41,000.

At $10,385, the Jetta costs a fraction of the Mercedes diesels. Not surprisingly, it's a Spartan car, available only with a five-speed manual transmission. While it gets 13 more miles per gallon than its gasoline-powered VW cousins, it suffers from many of the same drawbacks that have always plagued diesels. Turn the key, and a clatter emanates from under the hood. At idle, the engine shakes the car. While the noise abates at moderate speeds, on the highway it becomes an annoying buzz.

The Jetta is also slow. Under ideal conditions, it takes more than 16 seconds to reach 60 mph, compared with less than 10 seconds for the gas version. On the positive side, the Jetta has lots of interior space. There's plenty of legroom for tall folks, front and rear. And the cavernous trunk has as much space as the larger Ford Taurus. One complaint: The door-mounted front-shoulder belts get in the way during entry and exit.

SURE-FOOTED. Anemic acceleration aside, the car drives nicely. The suspension is firm for steady cornering but supple enough to handle potholes. The controls are laid out simply and thoughtfully. And it has a solid road feel, unusual in cars its size. Front-wheel drive makes it more sure-footed in snow than the rear-drive Mercedes.

Diesels may not regain the popularity they had in the early 1980s. For one thing, all cars are more fuel-efficient than they were a decade ago. But for those who want to do a bit more for fuel conservation, these diesels may just fill the bill.