We've all heard the predictions calling for the downfall of the diesel engine. The VW scandal of last fall, combined with consistently unimpressive sales figures for oil-burners south of the border, have pretty much sealed the deal. No need to speed-dial the Amazing Kreskin, this is largely un fait accompli.
Of course, there are the unrepentant, self-styled experts who maintain that diesels are more fuel-efficient and eco-friendly than any form of four-wheeled conveyance on the planet, including EVs. Maybe they're right. But this stance disregards one simple fact: A pile of diesel-powered cars (possibly a great, big pile) has been found to be non-compliant with environmental regulations in the United States and this (deliberate, it must be said) non-compliance has gone on for several years.
There's also no evidence to suggest that the non-compliant vehicles can be made to meet the regulations while retaining promised levels of performance, reliability or fuel economy. But there are customers in North America who may still be accepting of diesel engines – truck buyers.
Diesel engines are renowned for having two significant advantages over comparably sized gasoline engines: greater reserves of torque and the ability to travel further on a given tank of fuel. While there are no doubt truck owners who care about emissions and the environment, the fact of the matter remains that there are loads to haul and trailers to tow. And, sometimes, these tasks are integral to making a living.
The diesel-powered pickup is creeping up on its 40th anniversary in North America. In 1978, the Chevrolet C10 and Dodge D Series became the first trucks to offer such an engine. (An earlier D Series diesel from the 1960s was for export only.) Four years later, Ford entered the fray with a mammoth 6.9-litre V-8 diesel supplied by International Harvester for its F250/F350 line of medium-duty pickups.
Although the Ford/International Harvester link-up proved popular for serious work trucks, diesel engines did not initially gain much traction with the light-duty segment. The first C10 and D Series were not compelling enough from a performance standpoint to convince long-standing truck buyers to make the switch from gasoline. In fact, the Dodge diesel disappeared in 1979 and remained on the sidelines for a full decade.
Now, there's evidence to suggest that a new wave of diesel pickups is ready for the spotlight. From a philosophical standpoint, this makes sense. Diesels have been pulling their weight in the heavier duty segments for years now and there's no sign this is about to diminish.
Also, despite the ongoing "clean diesel" bait-and-switch, oil-burning engines are actually cleaner than ever before. A 2012 study by the Clean Air Task Force, a non-profit organization operating in the United States and China, found that a "clean diesel" bus emitted 94 per cent less nitrous oxide, 98 per cent less particulate matter and 89 per cent fewer hydrocarbons than a comparable bus from the 2000 model year.
Over and above all this, truck buyers like to compare torque, payload and towing capacity measures in the same way that sports car aficionados speak about horsepower and 0-to-100 times.
Two of the big three pickup truck builders already have a diesel in the fleet. The 2016 Dodge Ram 1500 is available with a 3.0-litre V-6 EcoDiesel, making it the only half-ton pickup on the market with a diesel engine. The manufacturer also quotes the best fuel-efficiency and most low-end torque in its class (420 lb-ft).
At least some of these claims may be difficult to substantiate with the arrival of the all-new 2016 Nissan Titan XD. This light-duty half-ton pickup features a 5.0-litre V-8 turbodiesel engine from Cummins, the diesel specialists that have long partnered with Chrysler. Nissan claims a stout 555 lb-ft of torque for this engine, meaning the Titan XD could be the most serious competitor for the big three in history. Here's another sign that Nissan means business: Their truck comes with an available goose-neck trailer hitch engineered into the frame to haul fifth-wheel trailers. Towing capacity is a credible 12,000 pounds.
The other new entrant in the diesel pickup sweepstakes is the Chevrolet Colorado/GMC Canyon duo. Originally discontinued in 2012, this mid-size truck has re-entered the market with the choice of three engines, including a Duramax 2.8-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder. GM estimates that this diesel will have close to 369 lb-ft of torque, a big number for a small engine.
None of the other entrants in the light-duty pickup truck segment – Ford, Honda and Toyota – offer a diesel engine. The latest version of the Ford F-150, the segment sales leader north and south of the border, is staying competitive with an aluminum skin and a range of gas-powered engines, a number of them under-sized and turbocharged.
There's no guarantee that the diesel engine is going to emerge from these dark days. But if it does, chances are it will be powered by momentum in the pickup truck segment.
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