The two camps in the gasoline engine versus diesel engine debate have their arguments as to why their powerplant of choice is better, and each side spends a fair amount of time jabbing each other with sharp-witted facts. This will not end anytime soon. The gasoline engine has dominated light-truck and SUV sales through the years, but there have been forays into diesel power, such as the Ford Ranger, Jeep Cherokee XJ, and Chevrolet Suburban, to name a few. Today, the diesel engine is in a resurgence here in the U.S., and it is being fitted into everything from cars to SUVs to light trucks. As a matter of fact, recently it was made public that a diesel engine will be offered in the Ram 1500 for the 2014 model year. Does this renaissance signal that the diesel is on track to become the dominant engine or is the tried-and-true gasoline engine the force to be reckoned with? Senior Editor “Diesel” Brubaker and Tech Editor “Gasoline” Mansour duke it out.
Gasoline: Fuel of Good Things
In these times of spending cuts and high cost of living, the gasoline engine is the engine of the everyman. Given that a diesel engine option can cost you upwards of $10,000 and a gasoline engine is standard issue on most 4x4s, you have to really want, better yet, need one. Speaking of cost, it’s important to note that the price of diesel fuel has now passed premium gasoline at the pump. Talk about a diesel downer.
OK, diesels are not all bad, but owning one isn’t easy on the wallet. Yes, a 1-ton diesel truck can tow more than a gasser, but unless you absolutely need the payload and towing capacity that it provides, that’s a heck of an investment just to say you have a diesel. Modern fuel injection, more specifically direct injection, has changed the way we build diesel and gas engines significantly. The same diesel truck-exclusive towing figures that manufacturers were claiming 10 years ago is what the average gas-powered ½-ton pickup can achieve today.
People will always argue that a diesel will last much longer than a gas engine. OK, I will give you that, but consider the following. Assuming you drive the national average of roughly 15,000 miles per year, and your diesel engine lasts 450,000 miles, how will the rest of the truck look in 30 years? Will it still be relevant? Will the rest of the truck fall apart around the engine? The bearing life of most modern gasoline truck engines is over 250,000 miles. With routine maintenance, there is no reason that your gasoline engine can’t go the distance.
Seeing that diesel engines typically hold more oil than their gas counterparts, it will also be more expensive to service. One factor that has allowed the diesels to have the upper hand for years is plug-and-play tuners. Too bad more states are moving to diesel emissions testing and with the new regeneration systems fitted on the modern diesel engine, its way more challenging to tune up the rigs for more power and economy- and still be legal that is. And given the exhaust fluid additive required on many, along with the higher cost of diesel fuel, gasoline-powered pickups are starting to get an edge on the mpg battle. We are seeing gasoline engines make more power and achieve the best fuel economy in the history of man.
When you look at the fact that gas engines are less expensive, smaller (easier to package), and can be equally as powerful in the horsepower department, it’s no wonder that they are placed into the majority of cars and trucks on the road today. From a 4x4 and builder’s perspective, the fact that gasoline engines are much more accessible (junkyards nationwide) and exponentially lighter (usually by a few hundred pounds) the gasser is the go-to engine for buggies, beaters, and custom wheeling machines.
Summary: Look, if you need the towing capacity of a diesel, buy one. Before you do, though, really look at how much you actually tow and how you use your 4x4. Chances are that a modern gasser will work just fine. When it comes to off-road, I stand by lighter is better. Sticking a diesel in your trail rig will just add weight, and sometimes, unwanted complexity. Diesel engines will always have a place, but in my 4x4, I prefer gas any day of the week.
Diesel: Powerful, Durable, and a Great Investment
In the early ’80s I purchased a Pontiac Parisienne station wagon fitted from the factory with a non-turbocharged 5.7L diesel engine. It was not a great engine from a performance standpoint, but it had decent power and it returned over 20 mpg on the highway. I had been around diesel-powered tractors and light trucks, but this was my first experience with a diesel-powered car. After the Pontiac suffered a catastrophic engine failure I was left with mixed emotions. On the one hand I loved the mileage and overall drivability, but on the other I was stung by the unreliability.
I tell this story to illustrate how far diesel engines have come technologically and in regard to durability. Turbochargers, cutting-edge design, and high-tech components have made modern diesel engines reliable powerhouses. Yes, in almost all cases adding a diesel powerplant to a vehicle will set you back some serious coin, but in return you’ll get some serious power.
It doesn’t matter whether you live in the mountains or flatlands, there’s always a need for power. Gasoline engines tend to capitalize on horsepower, diesels on torque. Torque is the key to capable towing and hauling. Let’s face it; the diesel engine is designed to excel in a work environment. Whether you need to push snow, haul heavy cargo or tow a heavy load, the diesel will outperform the gasoline engine almost every time. When was the last time you saw a gasoline-powered semi? Speaking of semis, the modern diesel-powered light trucks have darn impressive tow ratings, too.
I’ve found that when using a diesel-powered truck for work the engine will typically return better fuel mileage than a comparable gasoline engine under the same load. And my experience has been that the diesel will hold up to the work better than the gas engine in the long run. Yes, you could buy a lot of gasoline for the price of the diesel engine option, but if you plan to keep the vehicle the diesel will continue to produce long after the gas engine has expired, thus saving you money in the big picture.
If only occasional work is on your agenda and you just want a diesel, you’ll find that the new crop of diesels is on par with gasoline engines in drivability and noise. Great strides have been made in quenching the diesel noise that is inherent to these engines. Nowadays you don’t see people rolling up their car windows to escape the diesel racket that was inherent to older diesels.
Earlier I touched on the high initial cost of a new diesel engine. The uninformed may call this a bad investment just on general principle, but here’s the thing: Diesel-powered pickup trucks have a resale value far above the same gasoline-powered pickup. For this reason alone you don’t have to worry about “taking a bath” on a diesel truck because chances are you’ll get that premium back when you go to sell it or trade it in. Heck, even rotted out pickups with diesel engines are being purchased for top dollar so the engine can be transplanted into other rigs.
Want to modify your diesel? No problem. The aftermarket offers strong performance support and the result can be an even more potent powerplant. Worried about cold winter starts? Don’t worry about it. The new crop of diesels is designed to start incredibly well in most cold weather without using a block heater. Do you have an older diesel? Simply plug in the block heater and it’ll typically start like a summer day.
Summary: The diesel market is red hot. In addition to growing OE options, an entire industry has sprung up that enables diesels of all sorts to be retrofitted into a wide variety of vehicles. This proves that many 4x4 buyers want what the diesel engine has to offer.