American Diesel

I started with a simple question: Why does Europe have ultra efficient diesel vehicles, but America does not? I had heard the claims, that some European diesels get up to 80 miles per gallon — yet those in North America eek 50. I had a hunch, that stringent EPA rules forced auto makers to sell second-rate vehicles in the United States, but I had to know for sure.

It should have come as no surprise that this is more complex. First, The United States’ low fuel prices make the upfront cost of diesel engines a tough pill to swallow. Americans also tend to want more speed than efficient, small diesel engines produce. In short, the market for diesels does not exist here. Gasoline reigns supreme because it checks all the boxes for almost everyone.

But what about that storied efficiency? I would pay more, and live with a slower vehicle, for 80 MPG. As it turns out, though, the European mileage test does an even worse job of faking real-world use than the American one. European ratings also use the five quart Imperial gallon used in the United Kingdom, rather than the four quart liquid gallon used in the United States. Accounting for these differences closes the gulf between these ratings to about 10%.

So what about that 10%? Thanks to some testing Consumer Reports did after the Volkswagen emissions scandal, we can thank the Environmental Protection Agency for this. Meeting the EPA’s stringent rules does have a price, but we cannot blame it for slashing performance by almost half.

This would appear to absolve the EPA of its role in keeping great diesels out of American hands, but not so fast. We cannot blame it for a major gap that does not exist, but we can blame it for making sure the United States never sees some of the best ultra reliable, high-output diesel engines in Europe, and some of the even better ones elsewhere. Coupled with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s overbearing safety standards, which ban certain vehicles by name, these groups have ensured Americans will never see Land Rover’s classic Defender, one of the greatest off-road and utility vehicles of all time — or the storied Toyota Hilux and Land Cruiser, which outclass every platform on this side of the globe.

The EPA does not deserve the flak it gets for kneecapping diesel engines in America, but these two agencies deserve much criticism for this.