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Why are there so few diesel cars in Canada?

2012 Volkswagen Golf Wagon

Darren McGee/The Globe and Mail

Hello: Last fall, we (two couples, plus baggage) rented a Volkswagen Touareg diesel in the United Kingdom for a couple of weeks. It got 55 mpg city/highway by our calculations and we got the same result from a Toyota diesel four-door sedan we also rented for a week. The engine was noisier than we are used to, but there was no noticeable diesel smell from the exhaust. We are getting a new car this year and were interested in a diesel, but find there is a limited selection available here. Any thoughts on why diesel has not caught on here given the great mileage results? Any suggestions on make and model, $30,000-$40,000 range? – Terry in Richmond Hill, Ont.

Vaughan: Cato, there's something familiar about this story. Oh that's right – it's my story, too.

I discovered the superiority of diesels on European rentals and bought one nearly 12 years ago. Fabulous fuel economy and they also drive better on the highway. So smooth, yet tons of torque.

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Cato: You, Michael Vaughan, are not the typical new-car buyer. You are nothing like the typical consumer of anything, as a matter of fact. So-called "value" shopping is rooted in your bones.

And therein lies a lesson for you, Terry. If you shop for the best diesel value in Canada – like Vaughan – it's the most basic diesel version of the Volkswagen Jetta sedan ($23,875). The cheapest VW Golf diesel is a four-door hatchback starting at $25,425.

Either has an engine that will easily last for 300,000 to 400,000 km with minimal maintenance. Maybe more. The car around your diesel engine will fall apart before the engine. Vaughan is willing to live with his diesel Golf for a lifetime. Are you?

Vaughan: Well, I'm glad Terry doesn't want a Touareg because that thing is way too expensive. It's on the same platform and shares parts with the Porsche Cayenne, so I guess that accounts for its high-falutin' price tag, which is just shy of 54 thousand for the diesel version ($53,575 base). But he chose the right manufacturer. He wants a Volkswagen, but one in his price range. As you pointed out, Cato, there are two – the Golf TDI and the Jetta TDI.

Cato: VW also has launched a new mid-size Passat sedan with a diesel engine ($27,475). More like these are coming. Auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers notes that a flood of new diesel-powered vehicles is coming between now and 2016.

But, Terry, to answer your question about why diesels haven't caught on in North America, the answer is that American car buyers think diesel engines are noisy, smelly and smoky. They belong in tractor trailers, not cars. Those who remember when American car companies tried diesels in the 1970s and 1980s think they are also gutless and unreliable.

Vaughan: Cato, today's diesels are as clean as any passenger car. Car companies have added exhaust filters and urea injection systems and other tricks to scrub emissions.

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Cato: But those moves add cost, weight, maintenance issues and complexity.

In Europe, governments nurtured diesels by monkeying with fuel prices and staggering emissions standards in ways that have allowed fuel-efficient diesels to compete effectively with gasoline-powered cars and even hybrids. No such thing here in Canada and the United States.

Vaughan: Cato, enough of the civics and science lessons.

The TDI engine is superb. I'd suggest Terry take a look at a Golf TDI, especially the Golf Wagon TDI.

This is a perfect little car for a diesel enthusiast. Solid as a rock and very comfortable. What great seats. You get the versatility of a small wagon ($27,025) in a nice compact form. If you're going diesel for the first time, this is the one for you. And within your budget, too.

Cato: You've nailed it, Vaughan. My choice, as well.

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But until all the coming diesels arrive, Terry has a couple of other options. One is to try something that attempts to mimic diesel performance and fuel economy. Try Ford's Edge SUV with its EcoBoost engine ($27,025).

Vaughan: In the winter when the price of diesel goes through the roof – it's basically heating oil and demand for that stuff in the U.S. is still enormous – I wonder if a really good gasoline engine wouldn't make more sense.

The fact is, I simply don't have enough driving experience in EcoBoost cars to know if they'll give the same driving performance and economy as a diesel. I do know that if you drive an EcoBoost really hard, that turbo will go through a lot of gas.

Cato: Ford's engineers say EcoBoost almost matches a diesel for fuel economy and performance, but at just a $1,000 premium – versus several thousand for a diesel.

And we should also steer Terry to a gasoline-electric hybrid. How about the all-new Toyota Camry Hybrid ($26,990 base) – efficient, affordable and nicely done.

Vaughan: Sure, try it. But the Golf Wagon TDI is my story. I know how it ends.



2012 Volkswagen Golf Wagon 2.0 TDI

2012 Ford Edge SE FWD w/EcoBoost

2012 Toyota Camry Hybrid LE

Wheelbase (mm)




Length (mm)




Width (mm)




Height (mm)





2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbodiesel

2.0-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged

2.4-litre four-cylinder with hybrid electric motor and battery pack

Output (horsepower/torque)

140/136221 lb-ft

240/270 lb-ft

200 hp net power

Drive system

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel drive

Front-wheel drive


Six-speed manual

Six-speed automatic


Curb weight (kg)




Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

6.7 city/4.6 highway

9.9 city/6.6 highway

4.5 city/4.9 highway

Base price (MSRP)




Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which appears Fridays at 8 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

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About the Author
Senior writer, Globe Drive

In 25 years of covering the auto industry, Jeremy Cato has won more than two-dozen awards, including three times being named automotive journalist of the year. Jeremy was born in Montreal and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. More

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