When you think of diesel-powered cars, what are the first thoughts that come to mind? If you share the view of most Americans, you'll likely think of smelly, clattering and hard to maintain engines. Not so fast. There's been a bit of a renaissance in the last few for diesel engines in North America, already enjoying more than 50% of the passenger car market in Europe.
Led by entries from Volkswagen and its luxury brand Audi, today's diesel engines not only meet 50-state emission requirements – in fact, they often produce fewer harmful emissions than similarly powered gasoline cars – but they're also known for big, usable torque and outstanding fuel efficiency. No longer only found in heavy-duty trucks, modern cleaner diesel engines are finally beginning to gain some headway in the United States. Here are our top choices for diesel cars for 2013.
There's no question that among diesel cars available now, Volkswagen's model lineup leads the pack. Most of the company's passenger cars can be had with the brand's excellent 2.0-liter TDI turbodiesel engine choice, and while it's significantly more expensive than the base gasoline models, in the compact Jetta this remarkable powerplant achieves an EPA-rated 30 city/42 highway mpg with either the 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.
Conservative drivers have been known to achieve even higher efficiency numbers. Making 140 horsepower and a welcome 236 pound-feet of torque, the Jetta TDI's diesel does not require an expensive-to-maintain urea injection NOx treatment system to meet emissions requirements. Couple that with a generally well-built, comfortable and luxurious compact sedan, and you'll find a recipe for success.
Don't forget to check out the 2013 Jetta TDI SportWagen, which trades the sedan's smallish trunk for a spacious rear cargo area that brings the utility of a small SUV with the driving dynamics of a capable compact. Just be careful on the option sheet for TDI models, or you're liable to rack up an out-the-door price approaching $30,000.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 30 city/42 highway.
The completely redesigned 2014 Mazda6 midsize sedan has just hit dealerships packing an efficient 2.5-liter gasoline four-cylinder engine, but the diesel model is the one to watch. Set to release by mid-Summer, the Mazda6 Diesel will come packing the Japanese brand's new 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D engine. Thanks to a relatively high 5,200 rpm redline coupled with a low compression ratio to help prevent per-detonation, the 2.2-liter will make approximately 167 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque in North American-spec, bringing sprightly acceleration throughout the rpm range.
With the gasoline Mazda6 already achieving 38 highway mpg, the Skyactiv-D model is expected to attain well over 40 mpg on the highway, placing it right up there with VW's 2.0 while making significantly more power. Now featuring pleasing, streamlined styling under Mazda's new “Kodo” design language, the Mazda6 is fun to drive, especially with the optional 6-speed manual transmission.
Built from the ground up with light weight as its chief virtue, the Mazda6 competes well against the top midsize sedans on the market from Honda, Ford and Toyota. While it may be missing some of the advanced interior technology of the class sales leaders, the Mazda makes a great choice for those with a true passion for driving. Mazda has not announced a V6 model, so the torquey Skyactiv-D engine will fulfill the wishes of those who crave even more performance.
EPA-rated fuel economy: At least 26 city/40 highway .
While it has a bit more weight to haul around than the smaller Jetta, the 2013 Passat TDI is actually rated slightly higher in the fuel efficiency department, attaining 31 city and 43 highway mpg with the 6-speed manual transmission.
The 6-speed automatic model is not far behind at 30 city/40 highway mpg. VW's tried-and-true 2.0-liter TDI engine is to thank, making the same 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque. Passat drivers can expect a highway driving range of around 795 miles without the need to fill up.
Though it can get a bit costly, the current-generation Passat is indisputably a better overall car than the Jetta, and was the winner of the 2012 Motor Trend Car of the Year award. Featuring rear seat and trunk space that are among the best in the midsize class plus overall outstanding build quality, the Passat has all the virtues of impeccable German engineering, only without the luxury car price premium. One of just a few cars to date to ace the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new more rigorous 2013 crash testing protocols, the Passat has earned a Top Safety Pick+ award, bringing peace of mind to go along with real savings at the pump.
EPA-rated fuel economy: 31 city/43 highway.
The sporty, compact Mazda3 is due for a redesign later this year, and should debut with diesel power by the end of calendar-year 2013. Mazda has not yet announced exactly which diesel-burning engine the brand has planned for U.S. buyers.
The 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D from the Mazda6 is one possible option, though a better bet is a revised turbodiesel with slightly smaller displacement and power output. With Skyactiv engineering leading to big weight savings over the outgoing 2013 model, we anticipate the new Mazda3 Diesel could attain as high as 45 highway mpg, making it the most efficient of diesel production cars.
Other Mazda3 points of interest: a new design echoing the best features of the new Mazda6 and CX-5, finally doing away with the current model's rather awkward happy-face front end. Expect the diesel model to be offered as either a sedan or hatchback. Production will move to Mexico from Japan, allowing Mazda to pass along labor, shipping and currency exchange rate savings to consumers: the next-gen Mazda3 should actually receive a price drop compared to the current model, which starts at around $18,000.
EPA-rated fuel economy: At least 27 city/45 highway.
Looking for a bit more refinement to go along with diesel fuel efficiency and effortless power? The Audi A3 TDI may be the German luxury brand's smallest model, but its big-car features help it stand out from the Volkswagen models with which it shares an engine.
That means the same 2.0-liter turbocharged TDI powerplant, and like the Jetta, the A3 TDI is capable of 30 city/42 highway mpg. In Consumer Reports testing, which nearly always returns lower numbers than with EPA methods, the Audi achieved combined fuel efficiency in the high 30s.
One feature missing from the TDI model that you'll find in the gas-powered A3 is Audi Quattro AWD, but Audi's FronTrak FWD system still leads to willing performance. The A3 TDI comes with the brand's S Tronic 6-speed automatic transmission standard; you won't find the gas-powered model's traditional 6-speed manual transmission. What you will find is the same outstanding fit-and-finish, luxury and technology from larger Audi models, including Xenon HID headlamps with LED daytime running lights, sumptuous leather seating surfaces and trim, and one of the best navigation and infotainment interfaces on the market.
EPA-rated fuel economy:Up to 30 city/42 highway.