The revelations of Volkswagen’s Dieselgate scandal shocked the world last week. How could a company of VW’s size and reputation deliberately deceive the government and breathing public about emissions from 11 million vehicles? As the sting of such a violation wears off, you might wonder what it means for car shoppers simply wanting affordable clean cars that still deliver a little fun on the road.
We won’t know a lot of the technical details about VW’s diesel cars—and how badly they pollute—for some time. Some of the confusion comes from this fact: in the same tests at West Virginia University where the cheating was discovered, a BMW X5 turbodiesel passed all tests.
Does that mean that BMW diesels are still compliant? Unless more shenanigans are discovered, I’d say yes. As long as you like the X5 TDI’s 255-horsepower 400 pound-feet plus of torque—along with 24 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway—then the diesel X5 can remain on your consideration list. You might as well also keep diesels from other non-cheaters (like Mercedes, Chevrolet, and Ram) on the list.
The BMW X5 diesel achieves its impressive performance/efficiency combination without abusing pollution laws, by using an ammonia treatment system. Don’t sweat all the details about how the system works. Just know that smog-forming pollutants remain in check with a small amount of special fluid on the car (that needs to be changed every 10,000 miles).
It’s hard to make heads or tails out of the situation. My best guess is that diesels can pass emissions tests if engineers strike the right balance between a decent amount of performance—especially speedy launches from a standstill—and enough restraint on that performance to avoid spewing excessive amounts of the nitrogen oxides that cause smog. VW failed to find the balance, but simply cheated by babying acceleration during the test, but letting it rip when back on the road.
Take Another Direction?
Of course, if you want to entirely avoid the question, and if green is your thing, then you still have two very viable choices. First, there are vehicles that use some form of electrification (from hybrid and plug-in hybrid to pure EV). You certainly don’t have to worry about emissions from a pure electric car—because it doesn’t have a tailpipe.
Maybe Dieselgate will get you EV fence-sitters out there to finally make the move. You’ll need to think about whether or not your daily driving needs are within the range of your desired electric car. But if so, then you will be steering clear of any internal combustion.
Hybrids and plug-in hybrids use some amount of gasoline, but they fall right behind EVs for cleanliness, while providing the same amount of driving range as pure gas-powered cars. It’s entirely subjective how any specific model feels on the road. But at this stage, there are more than 10 plug-in models to consider including the practical and affordable Nissan Leaf and the hip stylish Fiat 500e, as well as the 2016 Chevy Volt that provides about 50 miles of all-electric range before the gas engine comes on.
The other choice is the obvious one: instead of getting a diesel, get a regular gas-powered car that also happens to be efficient. They range in size from the subcompact Ford Fiesta SFE with a combined city-highway fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon, to the Honda Fit small utility, also at 36 mpg combined, and the mid-size Hyundai Sonata, offering a combined 32 miles per gallon. The industry has in recent years made enormous strides in reducing emissions from gasoline engines. Technologies like fuel injection, turbocharging, lightweight materials, and advanced aerodynamics are enabling many gas cars to compete head-to-head with diesels for efficiency and power. And the challenge of reducing smog-forming emissions is inherently less difficult for gas cars compared to diesels.
It could take years before shoppers trust a company that deliberately violates pollution laws. And perhaps, many buyers will find it nearly as hard to trust any diesel car from any carmaker. But the silver lining in this dark cloud is that progress on the full range of greener car technologies will not be stopped by the scandal. That means car buyers will continue to have great clean alternatives—from non-cheating diesels and efficient gas cars, to hybrids and EVs.