August 16, 2012 at 9:48 am EDT | by Joe Phillips
Diesels on the go

Noisy. Sooty. Stinky. That’s the decades-old rap on diesels.

It’s like that old “Seinfeld” rerun — “The Smelly Car” episode — where Jerry and Elaine go to dinner. When they get back in the car, they realize the valet had B.O. and no wants to ride in the car ever again.

Ditto for diesels of yesteryear, with their belching black smoke.

But that wasn’t my experience this summer. Today’s diesels are odorless, quiet and eco-friendly, thanks to new technology and low-sulfur fuel.

In Europe, 50 percent of the cars have diesel engines. Here, diesel sales were up 27 percent last year, and there are now more than two dozen models available. These cars are about 30 percent more fuel-efficient than gas engines and the fact that diesels really are “clean” seems to be sinking in.

My mind knew all the new arguments for diesels. But could these cars actually live up to the hype?

Mercedes S-Class 350 BlueTEC
Mpg: 21 city/31 highway
Destination: Indiana/Michigan

Mercedes S350 Bluetec Diesel

Here was the checklist: A 10-hour ride to the Midwest, two brief pit stops and enough room for my partner and a pampered Rhodesian Ridgeback to sprawl out. While a pricey Mercedes should be a no-brainer for a long trip, I remembered feeling “range anxiety” earlier this spring when the battery on a Nissan Leaf almost ran out. Would it be hard to find diesel stations along our rural route? And had Mercedes followed other automakers in adding a confusing array of high-tech gizmos?

Not to worry, because the S-Class nav system displayed all gas stations as well as Zagat Survey ratings for restaurants, hotels and golf courses. And while there’s a central command dial to control audio, climate and other systems, Mercedes included some old-school knobs as a backup for quicker access. There’s no long-wheelbase version as there are with other high-end flagships, but the cabin and trunk were more than spacious. This BlueTEC can go a whopping 700 miles on one tank of fuel, which beats the competition, even the S-Class Hybrid. It’s also quieter, with noise-reducing infrared-reflecting glass.

The 16-way power seats come with heating, cooling and massage functions. And performance and handling were superb, whether on highways or navigating fruit orchards outside the gay-haven of Saugatuck, Mich.

Audi Q7 TDI
Mpg: 17 city/25 highway
Destination: Long Island, NY

Audi Q7 TDI

Ask anyone in Manhattan, and there’s a narrow timeslot to beat beach traffic to Fire Island or The Hamptons. Miss it, as we did, and minutes turn into hours with lots of honking and raised middle fingers. Add in a thunderstorm and, well, it’s time for yoga breathing exercises.

Luckily, we were safely cocooned in the Audi Q7, with its posh cabin and high seating for prime visibility. Most important, though, was the 225-hp turbodiesel. This isn’t the fastest seven-seat SUV, but it quickly darted out of harms way thanks to superb all-wheel drive and grippy 20-inch wheels.

Optional air suspension offered choice of a cushy or sporty ride, a real plus on the bumpier back roads. And the rearview camera and blind-spot warning system came in handy. So did the rear and side sunshades, once the sun finally came out. While cargo space isn’t as big as some competitors, it’s fine for a long-weekend jaunt. And the 14-speaker B&O surround-sound stereo was perfect for hours of tunes, a saving grace in any kind of traffic.



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