Diesels rarely get their due. Consumers looking for great mileage often overlook them in favor of hybrids. Yet for the kind of driving that many Americans do, and especially those who drive a lot of highway miles, diesels may be a better choice.
To be sure, consumers have had good reasons to avoid some diesels; until recently, all diesel cars were built by European automakers that didn’t have the best reliability track records and were often fit to pricey, upscale models. However, diesels are now starting to trickle out in a growing range of body styles from a wide variety of automakers.
The latest we’ve tested is the Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel, with a base price of about $25,000. At a glance, its overall fuel economy is respectable at 33 mpg, but it is not impressive. However, the Cruze Turbo Diesel returned an outstanding 49 mpg on the highway. That’s the third best highway figure for any vehicle we’ve tested. The only cars that can beat that lofty number are the Volkswagen Passat TDI diesel (51 mpg) and the Toyota Prius (55 mpg). It is worth noting, that among those three, the Prius is a purpose-built hybrid with an ultra-aerodynamic shape, whereas the Cruze and Passat are traditional sedans with super-efficient powertrains.
Likewise, the Volkswagen Passat TDI diesel gets just 37 mpg overall, but it returns an amazing 51 mpg on the highway.
Diesels tend to get about 30-percent better fuel economy than their conventional counterparts, while most hybrids concentrate their savings in stop-and-go city driving. That’s because hybrids’ electric drive works at low speeds and reduces most gas consumption in urban environment. Highway driving doesn’t involve much of the electric assist, so the savings there aren’t so great. (Hybrids also recoup some energy by coasting and braking to fill their battery, but those instances are few and far between on the highway.) For example, the most efficient midsized sedan we’ve tested, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, gets 39 mpg overall, but it barely improves that number to 41 mpg on the highway.
For those looking for a conventional powertrain, the Mazda 6 gets the best overall fuel economy of any conventional midsized sedan we’ve tested at 32 mpg overall and 44 mpg on the highway.