Driving After Secession

February 9, 2011

63 MPG on the Highway…Just Not US Highways

by Eric Peters

(Editor’s Note: I look at everything through secession goggles. And when I saw this article at Rockwell’s site, I just had to make it a secession article.

My first diesel car was a 1982 Volkswagen Jetta 4-dr. Day in and day out, it got 42 miles per gallon. On trips, it got 54 miles per gallon. I drove that car until a drunk driver hit me and totaled it in 1987. Never had a moments’s trouble with it. In 2007 I bought a 2005 Jetta Diesel, thinking I was going to get comparable mileage. It never got better than 38 mpg at any time. The dealer explained that VW had to drastically change the engine to meet EPA regs, and that cost mileage. I sold that car and bought a Mercedes diesel…comparable mileage with much more comfort.

In a newly seceded American nation/state, all the EPA regulations would vanish in a puff of smoke. People could actually drive and operate vehicles of THEIR own choosing. Worldwide automobile manufacturers could import fuel-efficient vehicles to that new nation/state, or they could manufacture them there. Take Texas as an example. With over 24 million people, Texas is a big automotive market that would be growing very rapidly. Highly efficient diesel autos and trucks would be welcome here. And some of the major American car companies like Ford and GM have automotive assembly plants in Texas already. Retooling a plant is much easier than building a new one, isn’t it? Don’t you think that the American automakers would LOVE to build highly efficient vehicles for that new market? And don’t forget that Texans know how to distill crude oil into clean diesel fuel. I envision big ships at the Port of Houston, offloading thousands of new, efficient vehicles. Just one more reason to support secession, coming to a state near you.)

The just-launched Mini Cooper Countryman can get 63 MPGs highway – just not on our highways.

Like so many other diesel-powered vehicles, it’s not available in the United States. Instead we get gas-electric hybrids like the Toyota Prius – which maxes out at 48 MPGs on the highway.

It’s very strange.

Our government (well, maybe calling it “our” government is a stretch) has been browbeating the car industry to produce more “fuel efficient” cars for decades, yet at the same time, for decades, made it very hard to sell high-efficiency diesel-powered passenger cars. VW, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Land Rover and other European brands have been selling their cars here for a long time – just not their diesel-powered cars. In Europe, diesel cars constitute about half the new cars sold; over here, less than 5 percent – chiefly because only a handful of diesel-powered passenger cars are even available.

For two reasons, mainly.

First, for years, we had not-so-great (for emissions reasons) diesel fuel that was fine for big rigs (which until recently could pollute to their hearts content, legally) but wreaked havoc with the finely tuned pollution control equipment fitted to modern passenger car diesel engines.

This, in turn, set up the potential not just for lots of warranty-related expenses and hassles for potential diesel-car buyers but also for even greater hassles and expenses for the car companies that sold them, when the government went after them for selling “dirty” diesels.

So we don’t get diesels like the Mini Countryman D.

No 63 MPGs, either.

Even though our diesel is now “clean” diesel – and the warranty/pollution control issues have been dealt with.

The European car companies are still super leery of bringing to market vehicles that could lead to problems for them with the EPA politburo. Their diesel-powered cars may be “cleaner” (in terms of tailpipe emissions) than a nun’s conscience but there’s still the endless pedantry of slightly different American vs. European regulatory codes. And not just federal codes, but also the different state codes, notably “California” codes that are both different and stricter than “49 state” codes. Some Northeastern states have also adopted “California” codes – which makes achieving compliance with all the varying codes – essential to being able to profitably sell a given car, nationwide – very difficult and very expensive.

Rather than spend beaucoup bucks on lawyers and other forms of paper-pushing to make the EPA happy, the European car companies cut their losses and (mostly) keep their diesels to themselves, selling a few token models here.

You’d think the government (federal and state) would make it a priority to ease the regulatory chokehold a little, to get these high-mileage diesels into mass circulation. Think what a difference a 10–15 MPG average uptick in the fuel economy of the typical passenger car would mean – not just in terms of reducing the aggregate fuel consumption of the nation but also in terms of placating the great god of global warming. Less fuel burned means less greenhouse gasses emitted – and a 10–15 MPG uptick in fuel efficiency spread out across say 20–30 percent of the passenger car fleet would mean a huge reduction in “greenhouse gasses.” And it could be done without elaborate technology (hybrids) or another round of government edicts (CAFE) that just make new cars more and more expensive to achieve minimal, incremental upticks in their average “fleet” economy numbers.

Diesels deliver. They make sense. They work. People would love ’em if only they had a chance to drive ’em.

But they don’t – because they do (make sense).

Maybe things will change. I don’t expect them to.

Our government is run by lawyers, not engineers. Talkers, not doers. I doubt one out of 100 of them even knows how a diesel engine differs from a gasoline engine (other than the fuel it uses). So I’m not surprised by the government’s inability to see how much it would help – everything from “the environment” to the economy – by knocking down the stupid regulatory roadblocks that are keeping diesel cars on the other side of the pond.

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Copyright © 2011 Eric Peters.