Diesel cars for the end times | Six of the Best
Oil burners to see out our days with? Diesel do nicely…
By PH Staff / Saturday, November 21, 2020
Of course, when we say 'cars' we really mean 'engines'. And we say 'end times', we mean 2030. You won't have missed the government's turgid 10-point plan for a 'green industrial revolution' which decrees the ending of all new petrol and diesel cars sales in ten years. Of course the scheme verges on the unworkable, and is likely to result in an unholy mix of frenetic customer demand and ruthless profiteering as the decade comes to a close (remember the fuss when Land Rover Defender production ended? Imagine that occurring on an industry-wide scale with nothing like it to follow, ever).
Discussion of which car you would like to keep safe in the garage for the great grandchildren will inevitably pick up pace as time goes on. But don't wait too long to give it some serious thought; as ever, it's later than you think. By 2025, EU rules decree that an additional 15 per cent must be slashed from fleet-wide CO2 emissions – that is all but impossible without far-reaching and near universal electrification. When it comes to cars, the internal combustion engine as we know it – a veteran of nearly 150 years – is already very much in its twilight.
And that's just petrol. For diesel, it is fast approaching midnight. The humble oil burner's abrupt fall from grace has been brutal. Some of the descent is richly deserved; barely concealed manufacturer contempt for clean air regulations has reaped a sustained whirlwind, and anyone who has suffered a lungful of soot belched from an ancient lorry or bus or taxi is unlikely to protest in compression ignition's favour. But the nail in the coffin is less about emissions (the very latest generation of diesel engine is said to be scrupulously clean) and more about customer demand – which is slowing like a derailed train.
Unlike the petrol engine, oil burners will not be venerated in their dotage. And while they are obviously not tuneful or frenetic or soulful in the same covetable way, that is a shame. Because the last fifteen years has produced some humdingers. True heavyweights. The most bombastic are already gone; V12s and V10s were always vanishingly rare, but even eight cylinders is now virtually unheard of in new cars. As hybrids proliferate, six cylinders will be the next to inevitably go – and when that happens, the best of them will already be behind us. Accordingly, we've chosen to salute Rudolf Diesel's bright idea while the choice is plentiful and barely used. No budget needed; only favourites will do. Black armbands on, lads.
BMW 123d M Sport, 2008, 75k, £4,500
A few years ago, when I was young and naïve, I bought a BMW 123d M Sport from a dealer in the rain. When I asked about previous owners, the answer was "not many"; what about any damage or blemishes that could be hidden by the rain? "It's mint."
Within one day, I'd discovered my not-so-mint car must have spent an entire winter sat behind a gritter. Within three days, I had remapped the 200hp twin-turbo diesel to 250hp and 332lb ft of torque. Within seven days, upon driving home from Wales Rally GB, I'd crashed it; a few more days after that, the V5 turned up with the actually-quite-many eight previous owners. Not my finest car-buying experience.
Lessons learned? Never buy a car in the rain, always check the V5 for previous owners, replace ditch-finder budget tyres as soon as possible and don't try to drive like Elfyn Evans. Ever. Apart from all that, I loved the car – or at least as much as you can love a diesel. It was great fun to drive, comfortable and would happily return over 50mpg. With a smaller turbo to take care of lower revs until the bigger second turbo takes over, it was a really impressive engine. It was just a shame the humble four-cylinder didn't sound like the six-cylinder 335d.
I'd happily buy another, should mileage requirements ever be high enough to justify a diesel. Especially with one like this, lurking on our CarGurus sister site, available for £4,500.
Range Rover SDV8, 2017, 44k, £45,000
There are as many cars I prefer the diesel option to petrol as there are films I enjoy watching on mute. The Range Rover is one of the exceptions, though, because its array of abilities and requirements suits a large, lusty diesel better – in my opinion, at least – than even the V8 petrol.
Lacking the very latest in diesel tech, the SDV8 has recently been replaced by a mild-hybrid straight six. And while the new engine does a very good job, never does it quite instil that same sense of boundless, bottomless power and torque quite like the V8 did. A Range Rover is about imperious, effortless luxury, and the old engine – if less efficient – performed that task to a tee. I shouldn't like them, but I really, really do.
Why this one? Dark green with tan, to be honest – I'm a sucker for it. The Range might not be in possession of one of the best diesel engines ever, but it has to be up there as one of the best diesel cars for its perfect alliance of powertrain and remit. Which is good enough for me.
Alpina D4 Bi-Turbo, 2014, 55k, £24,990
Week in and week out, I have been pestering those in charge of Six of the Best to put up a selection of best tow-cars. Without that specific request yet granted, I have resorted to merely squeezing in a fast estate wherever possible. Now, however, with a diesel week, we're about as close to the tow car category as I'm likely to get – perfect time to find the right car.
But I haven't. When thinking about great diesel cars there was one place I started my search – Alpina, and the standout was this D4 Bi-Turbo. Build number 11 is Melbourne Red, has a slightly below average mileage, just one previous owner and looks absolutely stunning. Under the bonnet is a tweaked version of BMW's N57 straight-six diesel, which puts out 516lb ft and should save you from any 335d mapped argument the forums may come up with. Well, hopefully…
In a recent Brave Pill, admittedly on a four-cylinder Alpina diesel offering, some of the comments suggested simply putting Alpina wheels on the BMW equivalent, but I think that misses the point – there are only 44 of these on the UK roads and every owner I have spoken to absolutely loves them. Who would pass up the opportunity to be one of those smug owners with an absolutely powerhouse of a diesel?
VW Golf GTD, 2013, 73k, £11,995
The fusion of oil burners and hot hatch chassis proved very popular during peak diesel. Ostensibly it made sense: corner-swatting GTI meets fuel-sipping motor – and the combination made sense in the outside lane of the M40. Unfortunately, it worked less well on the nearest B road, where the humble diesel unit inevitably failed to replicate the excitement of a high-revving petrol engine.
However, the tuneability factor cannot be overlooked. Something like the GTD will cheerily go from a dour 184hp to 236hp with a stage one map, along with a torque bump from 280 to 380lbft. For a few hundred quid that seems like money well spent, and goes someway to uprating the performance of the bombinating four-pot.
It'll still require a slightly different driving style, of course – but you'll likely have landed your punchier GTD for considerably less than a GTI, and therefore might be too pleased to notice. At a fiver under £12k this example is noticeably cheaper by a couple of thousand pounds than its petrol-powered sibling. Imagine how much more performance could be extracted with all that money saved…
Porsche Panamera 4S Diesel, 2016, 28k, £58,000
I've banged on about the Panamera Diesel 4S before. I make no apology for doing so again. Yes, the 4.0-litre V8 appears in other models in slightly different variations, and yes it is sublime in them, too (not least the Bentley Bentayga, where it was no more out of place than six feet of walnut veneer). But the twin-turbocharged, 422hp unit really found its calling under a Porsche badge.
Why? Well, for a start, it suited the Panamera down to the ground. Yes, the model was uncannily good at spiriting itself up a B road in GTS trim, but really it wanted to be on a motorway, spearing toward some distant location at warp factor 9. The diesel would facilitate that with the low growl of a lion and the liquid consumption of a field mouse. Thanks to a 90-litre fuel tank it seemed to go forever. It was epic.
It was so epic in fact, that it made conspicuous mincemeat of its petrol-powered equivalent. Porsche's official 0-62mph times made the 2.9-litre V6 an optimistic tenth or two quicker based on its modest weight and 18hp advantage. But the diesel was a massive 221lb ft of torque to the good, and destroyed its stablemate in virtually every real-world scenario. It possessed more twist than even the Turbo S. And now you can buy one for less than £60k with trifling miles on the clock. For arguably the best diesel engine ever made, that's quite the bargain.
Land Rover Defender, 2012, 101k, £22,995
Usually these Six of The Best articles are a theoretical exercise for yours truly, but this week I'm actually able to speak from experience. My wife and I picked up a TD5 Land Rover Defender a few years ago, in part because it would be a future classic. We love it for various reasons: the timeless looks, the simplicity of its operation, the TD5 making all the right noises Defender-y noises and, interestingly, for its reasonable reliability.
We've dealt with a lot of anti-diesel government legislation in our ownership. Imagine our shock receiving a £250 fine in the mail after our first trek into London. Seems TfL thought our little Defender 90 was a commercial vehicle needing to be LEZ compliant! Fortunately, it turns out there is actually a Land Rover Defender Station Wagon-specific exemption to this which required some phone calls to sort out. It's important to find a Defender with back windows (from the factory) if you're in the market.
Legislation is not helping diesel out, and I have to say I get it. I've had the unfortunate pleasure of walking down the road after my wife has left the house in the Defender and the smell really does linger. But when you're out on a drive in one there's really nothing like it. You seek out puddles, towns with fords, dirt tracks, and all other sorts of interesting ground to drive over. You don't care about scratching the paint because it provides character. It puts a smile on your face, and I couldn't want for more.
So this is my pick this week. To me, there is only one colour for a Defender and that's green. There are cheaper options, but this Defender 110 is a perfect example of a used but very well taken care of Defender. And it has rear windows!
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