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When Is a Diesel Engine Worth the Extra Money?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro May 2014

If you're searching for a fuel-efficient car, you've undoubtedly included some diesel-powered models on your shopping list. So when do you choose a car with a diesel engine over a hybrid or gas-powered vehicle? We explain when diesel is worth the added expense.

Pros and Cons of Diesel

Diesel power is excellent technology, but it offers both pros and cons. One of the biggest benefits, of course, is gas mileage, but diesel also offers other advantages. For instance, diesel-powered trucks and SUVs offer better towing capabilities than their gas-powered counterparts. And diesel-powered vehicles have better low-end acceleration than gas-powered cars because they build up so much torque from a low speed. But there are also a few drawbacks to diesel, including cost and city fuel economy. So, under what circumstances is diesel the right choice for you?

Highway Driving

If you do a lot of highway driving, diesel is worth a serious look. Diesel engines don't need to work very hard during highway cruising, which means they can boast serious fuel economy improvements over gasoline powerplants. In fact, diesel-powered cars can even outshine hybrids on the highway, largely because hybrids gain a major fuel economy benefit from regenerative braking, which is rarely done on the highway.

On the other hand, shoppers who spend most of their time in the city will probably want to check out hybrid- or gas-powered technology over diesel. Diesel doesn't offer as many benefits in the city, especially given its extra cost over gas-powered cars.

Small Price Difference

Another major reason you might want to consider a diesel engine is if the technology only adds a small price difference over a gas-powered car or truck. For example, adding a turbodiesel engine to a Volkswagen Jetta only boosts the price by around $2,500 over a similarly equipped gas-powered model. For shoppers who do a lot of highway driving, that figure can be made up over time. Likewise, a Volkswagen Golf TDI boasts a similarly small price increase.

On the other hand, certain diesel models are only available with a huge price jump over base-level engines. The Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel is one such example: Although it's an appealing engine, the Grand Cherokee's diesel powerplant adds a whopping $4,500 to the SUV's base price, and it's not available on low-level trims. That figure would take years to recoup in any sort of driving.

Towing

Diesel power can also be a huge benefit if you spend a lot of time towing. Diesel engines are designed to provide excellent low-end torque, which is a huge benefit when you're trying to use your car or truck to pull heavy objects. As a result, we strongly recommend diesel power -- especially for an SUV or pickup -- if towing is a frequent activity.

Resale Value

Diesel cars typically offer better resale value than their gas- or hybrid-powered counterparts. This leads to several benefits for car owners. One is that shoppers who frequently trade cars won't lose as much money in depreciation as they may on the same vehicle with a gas engine. Although you won't see that cost savings up front, improved resale value can still help justify the premium of a diesel engine if you're on the fence about which powerplant to choose.

Better resale value can also help if you're interested in leasing. Because a lease essentially pays the depreciation on a vehicle, diesel cars may offer a better deal than gas-powered vehicles because their depreciation curve isn't as steep.

Go for Diesel?

In the end, diesel technology offers many potential benefits -- and drawbacks -- compared to traditional gasoline engines. We recommend diesel power if you spend a lot of time on the highway, if you're looking to tow, and if there's only a small price gap between diesel and gasoline. It can also be a good idea to lease a diesel car, since they offer better depreciation than most gas-powered models. But if you spend most of your time in the city, and if diesel power is an expensive add-on to the car you're considering, we might choose a different engine.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
When Is a Diesel Engine Worth the Extra Money? - Autotrader