Can Diesel Be Fun?

The first documented operation of a ‘compression-ignition engine’ was recorded in 1897, when French genius-inventor Rudolf Diesel fired up his first single cylinder motor. The engine was first appreciated by the heavy machinery industry and truck manufacturers, being praised for its economy and very good torque values, exactly what trucks needed when hauling heavy loads up hills.
The first diesel engine to be used in a production car was, in-keeping with the nationality of the engine’s inventor, used in France, by Citroen, in their 1933 Rosalie. They were closely followed by Mercedes-Benz, with their very beautiful (and rare nowadays) 260D and the Hanomag Rekord in 1936.

By the late 1950s, the advantages of strapping a turbocharger onto a diesel engine were in full exploitation in trucks and ships, with Rover building a handful of 2.5-liter 4-cylinder motors for use in small passenger automobiles, but never putting them into production (back in 1963).

It took another 15 years before the first turbodiesel was launched in a production car, the 1978 Mercedes-Benz 300SD. Why did it take 15 years for turbocharging for diesels to reach the automotive industry? Maybe somebody was able to benefit financially from the suppression of more efficient engine technologies, to sell more petrol. We’re not giving names... GM.

But enough with the history lesson and conspiracy theories. The title of this editorial contains the word fun, and we’ve had none of that so far. So, can diesel cars be fun? It’s an increasingly asked question as turbodiesel technology has progressed hugely since the days of the laggy and slow Merc 300SD. Performance was not the prime concern, though, and with 90s diesels’ vibration ruining the refinement of some cars, so they were still not widely accepted by mainstream buyers, despite the obvious improvement in fuel economy over their petrol counterparts.

Some manufacturers have attempted and still attempt to sell certain diesel cars as being sporty. Can that be true?

Well, considering that more than 50% of new cars sold in Europe are now fitted with a diesel engine, the manufacturers made the startling conclusion that people were actually enjoying driving their diesel powered cars. The proper performance diesel is actually a very new ‘thing’, with only two manufacturers currently putting a bespoke built-to-be-sporty diesel engine in their production cars, BMW and Audi, with BMW being the first to make a proper sporty diesel, in 2008 with their 123d. It featured a properly sporty-sounding twin-turbo 2-liter diesel, with 204hp and 400Nm (295 lb-ft).

With it being purpose-built for sportiness, the twin turbo set-up allowed it to rev much higher than conventional engines with a single turbo, with its peak power arriving at 4400rpm, it thrived on fun! The big power and huge torque figure, coupled with the excellent BMW rear-wheel drive chassis, and the small size of the car made it properly fun, when you’d find yourself on a deserted back road, at dawn, with nothing to keep you from just driving – not even fuel would stop you, because you could (theoretically) go 883km (551miles) on a single tank, if you average its (theoretical but not completely inaccurate) 4.5 l/100km (62mpg).

The 123d is an interesting proposition, it’s excellent fun and properly quick, reaching 100km/h (62mph) in just under 7 ticks of the stopwatch. It is however not powerful enough to really be considered sporty. So, where to we turn for a sporty diesel with more power? We stay in Munich, as it’s BMW again with a new sporty diesel. It’s their new (yes, you are reading correctly) tri-turbo 3.0-liter inline six with 381hp and 740Nm (546lb ft) which literally catapults the all-wheel drive M550d to 100km/h (62mph) in 4.7 seconds, three tenths slower than the ‘speaker powered’ M5 – an amazing feat.

With the aid of its four-wheel drive system, the awesome power of the engine is not squandered and in the real world, this is all the car you’ll ever realistically need. Something which can keep up with sportscars, should not be this economical, comfortable and refined. If it’s reliable, and BMW’s tri-turbo technology holds up to the test of time, this car could be called perfect. It looks good (if a bit bland), it can carry 5 people and their bags, and then scare them within an inch of their seatbelts.

The sporty diesel isn’t only a novelty, something we read about, then go discuss over a cup of coffee and half a pack of cigarettes with a mate. With this engine, BMW have genuinely created the perfect car – the ‘sporty diesel’. With Audi hot on their trails with their new performance oriented oil-burner, the 313hp BiTDI V6 diesel, the market is wide open for other manufacturers to make their presence felt.

I, personally think that the sporty-diesel is the future of the performance car. What we nowadays call diesel engines, were originally designed to run on peanut oil, but diesel was offered as a cheaper and more abundant alternative in a post-oil boom world, and we just got used to getting screwed by the oil companies over the years and we accepted their dominance.

So, when all the oil runs out, and it will run out eventually, we’ll all be forced to start driving electric cars which we’ll charge with self generated electricity (I still believe the future will be a better ‘place’) by harnessing the natural elements (ok, this is getting weird). As we’re driving around in our electric cars, we’ll miss changing gears, the rattle of proper internal combustion, and the general feeling of driving something alive, as everything electric these days just seems to dull the experience in a similar way to how electric power steering detaches from the driving experience.

The diesel engine will run on anything which can lubricate and combust and we can already successfully create alternate fuels to power the current generation of diesels.

In the oil-less future, we will be able to have fun in internal-combustion cars, thanks to the technology invented by Rudolf Diesel, back in the 1890s. In the future, ’petrol heads’ won't be called that, they’ll probably be called ‘diesel heads’. So yes, it can be fun, or rather it had better be fun!
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