It’s getting increasingly difficult for SUVs to meet car companies’ fuel economy targets, especially the larger ones loaded with features, which are so in demand (and profitable). Lots of vehicle buyers want to carry people and belongings, and prefer the higher seating position.
What’s helping some now — and will likely help more in the future — is the new generation of clean diesel engines. Powerful yet fuel efficient, a diesel is really the ideal engine for the way most people use their SUVs.
In recent weeks I’ve gotten to sample both the VW Touareg TDI and the BMW Xdrive35d. Both with six-cylinder diesel engines displacing 3.0 liters, and both getting impressive mileage, particularly during highway travel.
In the case of the Volkswagen, the TDI is the choice now if you want to have some grunt for hauling or towing. There used to be a gasoline V8 available in the Touareg, but its fuel economy was pretty dreadful in normal driving.
With the TDI engine, the grunt (torque) is still there, but EPA estimates are 20 mpg city and 29 highway. And with diesels, generally, real-world use tends to beat the EPA estimates, essentially the opposite what gasoline engines do.
In the case of the BMW X5, you can still get a V8, but I don’t really know why anyone would. The diesel engine is smooth, powerful, and relatively quiet. And, unlike the diesel engines of years ago, there’s no more sooty exhaust to be ashamed of.
The X5 is also capable of some serious distance on a tank of fuel. Using the EPA’s estimated highway fuel economy of 31 mpg, and the tank’s capacity of 22.4 gallons, you could conceivably cover nearly 700 miles between fill-ups. Needless to say, the driver’s “personal needs” would require attention long before the fuel supply would.
What’s interesting about the diesel version of the X5 is that BMW has chosen to play it very low-key as far as exterior badging. No indication at the rear whether the engine under the hood runs on gasoline or diesel, and you have to look very closely at the emblems on the front doors. There, a lower-case “d” is the only clue that you’re looking at a diesel.
That might be a good strategy, really. If you can’t hear the diesel engine, can’t smell the exhaust and can’t see any smoke, why not just let the power plant be a mystery to other drivers. In contrast, VW puts “TDI” on the back of their Touareg models running on diesel, and Mercedes-Benz proudly shows the trademark “Bluetec” on the backs of theirs.
You may start seeing more Jeep Grand Cherokees on the road with “Eco Diesel” badges on the back. Parent company Fiat Chrysler is now sourcing an excellent V6 diesel engine from a supplier in Italy. That same engine goes into the Ram 1500 , which is the only light-duty pickup truck offering a diesel. So far, that is.
Rumors persist that General Motors is looking into offering diesel power in its full-size SUVs. Given that that they have over 70% of the market when it comes to maxi-size sport utilities (the Chevy Tahoe, Chevy Suburban, GMC Yukon, and Cadillac Escalade), a modern clean diesel engine could do wonders for their overall fleet fuel economy numbers.
Ford is so far relatively quiet on the diesel front. They seem to be sticking with smaller, turbocharged gasoline engines for their various SUVs. But there is supposedly an all-new Expedition under development for the 2017 or 2018 model year, so perhaps they are considering diesel power.
And by then, there will be lots of diesel SUVs on the road. You may not even be aware of their existence, but they’ll be keeping their owners happy with good fuel economy and driving range.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @ABC7DaveKunz, Facebook: ABC7DaveKunz