Petrol’s renaissance may already be losing its spark
Europe’s car market is currently afloat (well, as afloat as any market so comprehensively holed beneath the waterline can be) on a sea of diesel. Driven by the need to keep emissions down and efficiency up, and with a beady eye always on the price per litre at the pumps, Europe’s car makers and their Japanese, Korean and Anglo-American competitors have kept us supplied with a recent glut of high-quality, refined, efficient and even sporty diesels. And given the Irish market’s aggressive volte-face from petrol to diesel when the switchover to Co2-based motor tax came, along with a cost of a litre of fuel that’s roughly twice the price of a litre of milk, that’s no bad thing.
In fact, it merely completes the prophecy of a colleague of mine some years ago. Having sampled Fiat’s then-new range of 1.9 Multijet diesels at a hush-hush event in Turin, he reported back that we petrolheads were all soon about to switch our allegiance to the black pump.
Of course, like so many, I scoffed. Pure, refined petrol could never be beaten by oily, scummy diesel. Why, the smell left behind on your hands after refuelling was enough to have you fleeing back into the welcoming arms of high distillates. And when, precisely, had a diesel engine ever been able to provide the thrills or soundtrack of a petrol?
The final argument seemed to be, a couple of years ago, the announcement of the EuroVI emissions and pollutants regulations, regs that would require diesel engines to become so filtered and clean-burning that their price would skyrocket to a point where no amount of efficiency gains would claw back the extra purchase cost. Added to which, the new model army of hyper-efficient downsized turbo petrols on the horizon would soon put paid to diesel’s dominion. Arise, petrol brothers and strike down those with high-pressure pizeo-electric direct injection!
Didn’t happen did it. In fact, I’ve just climbed out of a VW Golf Match, which despite being blessed (if that’s the word) with just 105bhp and being based on a model that’s being replaced in December still managed to be one of the most enjoyable cars I’ve driven all year. Allied to which, its 1.6 TDI diesel engine managed to convey me for almost 300km on barely one quarter of its 45-litre tank of fuel, all while costing a mere €160 in annual motor tax. Cough and indeed ahem. What petrol revolution?
Ah but, there seems to be new saviours in the shape of the Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost and Opel Insignia 1.4 Turbo. Surely these efficient, clever, light petrol engines will claw back the ground lost to DERV?
Nope. Well, not quite at any rate. The Focus 1.0 EcoBoost is one of the most pleasant cars I’ve driven for a long time. The Focus’ natural agility and dynamic nature only enhanced by the fact that the little 998cc three-cylinder engine in the nose weighs about as much as carry-on luggage (as compared to a diesel’s outsize baggage charges) and the little, fast-spinning turbo gives it a useful kick of 170Nm of torque from low revs. As a replacement for the old 1.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol, it’s just lovely and as it also manages to be in Band A for tax, remarkably efficient. But it’s just not economical enough. Ford claims that it can more or less match the 1.6 TDCI diesel blow-for-blow when it comes to economy, but in a week of mixed conditions and driving, I managed 35mpg. To place that in context, in the diesel, I’d easily have exceeded 45mpg, and probably gotten close to or better than 50mpg. Not to be sneezed at, especially when the 1.0 Ecoboost’s purchase price won’t leave you with much extra fuel buying budget.
The Opel Insignia 1.4 Turbo at first gave me a glimmer of hope for petrol. It averaged about the same as the smaller, lighter Focus in fuel consumption terms, which I reckoned was a bit of a victory for the larger car, and its combination of silent exhaust and wonderfully absorbent ride quality made it one of the most relaxing driving companions I’ve experienced for quite some time. Unfortunately, that relaxation extended to the straight-line performance, and compared to the 2.0 CDTI diesel Insignia, thew 1.4 Turbo felt positively slow. It certainly makes you wonder how well Ford’s 1.0-litre engine will cope when it’s inserted into the new Mondeo next year…
Actually, the only petrol-engined car I’ve driven recently that offered some hope for petrolheads wishing not to cross the aisle was the Toyota GT86 coupe. Well, of course a revvy, growly, 200bhp flat-four would manage to make petrol seem like the more glamorous option, wouldn’t it? Especially when executing perfectly timed sideways exits from a certain quiet junction. Again, ahem. But actually, it was the GT’s efficiency that impressed me at least as much as its chassis balance. Because after a week of sideways-to-victory commuting in Japan’s finest sports export since Taki Inoue, I averaged… the same 35mpg that I got from the Focus 1.0. Go and, indeed, figure.