Andrew Frankel

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Diesel beats hybrid

Even in the insanely busy world of those who report on the car industry for a living, there is the occasional quiet month. Spaces appear in the schedule of new car launches and you get to stay home for long enough for your wife and children to remember who you are and to no longer risk being savaged by the dog every time you walk through the door. I should take this time to relax and catch up with the multi-storey skyscraper of paperwork sitting in my office, but I never do. Instead, like a child deprived of its dummy, I ring up car manufacturers and arrange to drive more cars. It’s pathetic, I know, but I’m past saving or caring now.

And this has been a particularly bad month because, at its start, a man came to collect the BMW 335d Touring I’ve been driving for the last year. My plan was to keep quiet about the car, hope BMW forgot about it and keep it forever (don’t laugh – it happens: Jaguar once lent a well-known television presenter a brand new XJ6 and only asked for it back when they realised it was overdue for an MoT test). And it might have worked had a colleague from another magazine not walked into a chat I was having with someone from BMW and said conversationally ‘You still got that 335d?’ It was gone within the week.

For a person like me with a small family, it was the best car in the world. Just consider the following facts: its 3-litre engine produces 286bhp and produces damn near as much torque at 1750rpm as a 5.7-litre V12 Ferrari 612 Scaglietti does at its 5750rpm peak. According to my timing, it will hit 60mph in under 6sec and judging by the rate at which it flings itself into its 155mph speed limiter, its unmoderated top speed would be at least 170mph. And yet, its EU combined cycle fuel consumption is 41.5mpg, which is rather better than, say, a 1.8-litre Vauxhall Astra with considerably less than half the power. And it emits just 178 grams of CO2 for every kilometre covered – which the Astra can’t match either.

Even if you don’t care about your fuel or company car tax bill, this is a car that will do 500 miles between each unpleasant encounter with a petrol station. And we all care about that. You might now be tempted to think this car is an engineering aberration, one which turned out to be better even than its maker intended. But that is not the case: if it has a secret it is the worst- kept secret in the world – it is simply that it is powered by diesel, and there is no better exponent of the oil-burning art than BMW.

So, to ease myself through the mourning period, I decided to try a couple of new BMW diesel engines, each distinctly different from that in the 335d. First came the 123d Coupé, the latest addition of the dreadful to look at but pleasant to drive 1-series range. And its engine, while less powerful than that in the 335d is, if anything, more extraordinary. About 50 years ago, Formula 1 constructors started to extract 100bhp per litre from their engines; now there’s a turbodiesel that will do the same, for the 123d has a 2-litre motor producing 204bhp. It will reach the door of 150mph, and Autocar got one to 60mph in 6.7sec. Yet it uses less fuel than the cheapest petrol-powered Ford Fiesta and, you guessed it, produces less CO2 as well.

Cars such as these prove the case for diesel and there is no doubt in my mind that this is where the car’s short-term future should lie.

But there are problems: though the on-paper advantage of diesel over petrol in most types of car is now beyond serious dispute, the price of pioneering the technology has been high which forces car manufacturers to pass it on to the customer. And while few car buyers at the upper end of the market would struggle to absorb the typical £1-2000 extra, at the other end of the scale, it is a deal-breaker. We should also remember that while diesel is no more or less common in Europe than petrol, in the US it is almost unheard of unless you drive something made by Peterbilt. For diesel to gain the global audience it deserves, for volumes to increase and costs therefore to come down, there needs to be a total change not just of attitude but of infrastructure on that side of the Atlantic. And despite a few brave manufacturers now offering diesel passenger cars for sale in the US, sales remain microscopically small.

And if certain car makers have their way, that is how things will stay. More than any other, Toyota has nailed its colours to the mast of the only credible alternative that exists right now: the petrol-electric hybrid. Its best-known hybrid model, the Prius, has been selling strongly, particularly in the US where, in the absence of a diesel market, it has become the way to parade your environmental credentials. And while you’re in the city it works brilliantly, often running on electricity alone, generated not by a coal-fired power station but recovered from the energy that would otherwise have been lost during braking.

So far, so good. The problem is that most of us don’t do many miles in town – away from urban areas, what you’re left with is a 1.5-litre petrol engine lugging around a rather heavy battery pack. Even so, a Prius is widely regarded as the most environmentally considerate car you can buy and one of the most frugal.

I beg to differ. The second BMW-powered diesel car I’ve been driving recently is a MINI Cooper D. You’ll not be surprised to learn that it will out-accelerate the Prius, has a higher top speed and is wildly more fun to drive. What might surprise is that while the Prius manages a commendable 67.3mpg on the out of town cycle, the MINI posts a scarcely credible 80.7mpg. But that’s not the killer – what pulls the carpet out entirely from under the Toyota’s feet is the fact that the MINI is substantially more economical, even on the Prius’s chosen urban turf. And it matches the Toyota’s CO2 emissions to the gram. It’s more than three grand cheaper, too.

Volkswagen has pushed the boundaries further still with its Polo BlueMotion. By fitting a more aerodynamic nose, lengthening its gearing and re-engineering its 1.4-litre diesel engine, it has produced the only car on sale with double-digit CO2 emissions. And that means no Vehicle Excise Duty and no Congestion Charge, as well as a slightly smug, holier-than-thou feeling to accompany your every journey. And although its EU combined fuel consumption figure is no better than the MINI’s, I’ve been driving one for the last week in what can safely be described as a purposeful fashion – and the needle on the fuel gauge has not yet budged to any noticeable degree.

It has been, without doubt, my most saintly motoring month on record and, to celebrate, I’m going to Bologna tomorrow to see how fast I can drive a 650bhp, million Euro Lamborghini called the Reventon.

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