Diesel Cars Save on Mileage

Saving cash at the pump is as easy as driving one of five fuel-efficient small diesel cars.

Although much ballyhooed, gas-electric hybrids and electric cars aren't the only vehicles capable of fuel-cost savings. Diesel-powered cars save money, too.

Despite costing $2,000 to $2,500 more than a comparably equipped gasoline version of the same car, doing a little math proves that, through higher mile per gallon capability, diesels recoup the premium paid at purchase more quickly than hybrids by as much as three years.

Moreover, the majority of vehicles with diesel-engine options still demand more than 100 percent of that option's manufacturer's suggested retail price three years after purchase, says Ricky Beggs, vice president and managing editor of Black Book, the publisher of used-car values. "Hybrids with their initial premium over regular gas models do not have the positive return," he says.

European carmakers have kept diesel technology alive. Consequently, Bankrate's five small diesel cars are all German imports. Some reflect 2011 pricing, but performance and specifications will apply to 2012 models.

There was no qualifier for this list other than the vehicles should be small, diesel-powered cars. Fuel economy numbers are Environmental Protection Agency estimates and are presented as city/highway/combined.

2012 Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen TDI

Price: $25,260
Mileage: 30 city, 42 highway and 34 combined mpg

As the only small diesel-powered station wagon on the market, the VW Jetta SportWagen has no peers. Its fun-to-drive dynamics, impressive fuel economy and voluminous 67 cubic feet of maximum cargo space collude to make one very unique vehicle.

A 140-horsepower, 2-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine generates the go. The same 2-liter engine powers this list's Audi A3 and Golf TDI as well. A six-speed manual transmission hustles engine output to the front wheels. For an additional $1,100, a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic tranny can be substituted for the manual and will scrub 1 mpg from the combined fuel number.

Furnished for five, the SportWagen's cabin is roomy and comfortable. The seats are clothed in a vinyl, faux-leather upholstery. With the 60/40 split rear seat upright, there is nearly 33 cubic feet of cargo room in this diesel car.

On the standard equipment list are full power accessories, heated outboard mirrors, air conditioning, cruise control, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, Bluetooth connectivity, six air bags, trip computer, and a 10-speaker audio system with in-dash six-disc CD player, satellite radio, touch-screen control, iPod integration and an auxiliary input jack.

2012 Audi A3 2.0 TDI Premium

Price: $30,250
Mileage: 30 city, 42 highway and 34 combined mpg

Audi calls its front-wheel-drive 2011 A3 a Sportback. This is luxury-speak for hatchback, but it looks suspiciously like a wagon to us. In any event, what's important is its utility and stingy fuel economy.

Under the A3's hood is a 140-horsepower, 2-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder diesel engine. Although the pony count may not be impressive, it generates 236 foot-pounds of torque, which is what gets a vehicle moving from a standstill. Getting to 60 miles per hour from a stop takes 8.9 seconds by Audi's stopwatch.

Standard is Audi's S tronic six-speed, driver-shiftable, automatic transmission.

Five can ride comfortably with almost 20 cubic feet of luggage space behind the 60/40 split rear seat of this diesel car. That grows to 39 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. A station wagon would have more. So, maybe it's not a station wagon after all.

Among the other standard features are full power accessories, dual-zone automatic climate control, leather seating, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, six air bags, trip computer and a 10-speaker audio system with CD player, satellite radio and an auxiliary input jack.

Laying out another $2,000 for the Premium Plus package adds such features as Bluetooth, steering wheel-mounted shift paddles and redundant audio controls on the steering wheel, and a power-adjustable driver's seat.

2011 BMW 335d

Price: $44,150
Mileage: 23 city, 36 highway and 27 combined mpg

As the most versatile, entry-level diesel car on the market with its many configurations and engines, BMW's 3 Series is the ideal platform for a diesel engine in the guise of the 335d. Representing the acute handling attributes and best fuel economy of the 3 Series, it costs $2,100 more than the comparably equipped 335i and gets 5 mpg better fuel economy in combined driving.

A 265-horsepower, 3-liter, twin-turbocharged, diesel six-cylinder inline engine turns the rear wheels via a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. Torque is a remarkable 425 foot-pounds. Hitting 60 miles per hour from a standstill takes just less than 6 seconds by BMW's watch.

Configured to seat five, the 335d really seats four comfortably. Trunk space is a tidy 12 cubic feet.

Included among its standard features are full power accessories, heated outboard mirrors, power-adjustable front seats, automatic climate control, tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, rain-sensing wipers, trip computer, six air bags, sunroof, and a 10-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary input jack.

2012 Mercedes-Benz E-350 BlueTec

Price: $51,690
Mileage: 22 city, 33 highway and 26 combined mpg

By no standard are Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars small, but the E-350 BlueTec is the brand's smaller diesel car and worthy of mention here.

With seating for five, the E-Class cabin is roomy and comfortable. Its trunk holds nearly 16 cubic feet of gear.

Motivating the E-350 BlueTec is a 210-horsepower, 3-liter, turbocharged V6 diesel engine that generates 400 foot pounds of torque. A seven-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission ushers engine output to the rear wheels. According to Mercedes-Benz, it goes from zero to 60 in 6.7 seconds.

Standard is the COMAND, or Cockpit Management and Data, system that integrates control of several of the car's systems, such as audio and climate, into a single computer mouse-like knob.

The standard features include full power accessories, heated outboard mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, power-adjustable front seats, nine air bags, power tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, sunroof, trip computer, and an eight-speaker audio system with in-dash six-disc CD player and auxiliary input jack.

2012 Volkswagen Golf TDI

Price: $23,995
Mileage: 30 city, 42 highway and 34 combined mpg

The fun-to-drive Volkswagen Golf TDI is the second VW on our diesel car list because VW offers more passenger-car diesel models than any other manufacturer. It is also the most affordable of our five entries; yet the cabin is well built and nicely appointed.

The listed price is for the two-door hatchback; the four-door costs $700 more.

A tight squeeze for rear-seat passengers, Golf can accommodate five. Four will be more comfortable. With the split-folding rear seat in place, there are 15 cubic feet of cargo room.

Turning the front wheels falls to a six-speed manual transmission that transfers production from a 140-horsepower, 2-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine. Substituting the six-speed, driver-shiftable, automatic tranny will add $1,100 to the bottom line with no effect on the EPA-estimated fuel-economy numbers.

Included in the base price are full power accessories, heated outboard mirrors, air conditioning, leather-wrapped, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, six air bags, cruise control, trip computer, Bluetooth connectivity, and an eight-speaker audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD player, satellite radio, iPod integration and an auxiliary input jack.