Best diesel cars
Diesel cars offer a great mix of performance and economy; we select 10 of the best
Despite recent media coverage, thousands of motorists still choose diesel – and it’s not hard to see why. Diesel cars still provide better fuel economy than their petrol counterparts, even if fuel prices, road tax and company-car tax bills aren’t quite as favourable for diesel cars these days.
Clearly, if you’re a driver who covers more than 12,000-15,000 miles a year, then a diesel car could well be the best option. Many diesels can comfortably return more than 50mpg under the stricter WLTP testing, and emit less CO2 than petrol equivalents. High-mileage drivers will see savings at the pumps with a diesel car compared with a petrol.
However, the choice between petrol and diesel isn’t that clear-cut, and whether diesel is the right choice for you also depends on other factors. Concerns over local air pollution mean diesels may not be the best choice if you spend all your time in urban, stop-start traffic. But if you live in small towns or villages, or spend much of your time covering large distances outside of the city, they still have a vital role to play for drivers.
The way diesel engines produce power means they’re often better suited to larger cars, not least because at a motorway cruise, they quickly fall into a relaxing, smooth gait. That’s not to say they’re unexciting to drive, though. Acceleration from 0-62mph isn’t always their strongest suit, but once you’re accelerating through the gears, particularly through corners or when overtaking, performance can be exceptional. Diesel is still the default engine choice for many large SUVs and heavy cars because it’s better suited to pulling heavy loads.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to buy a large, heavy car to benefit from diesel power; there are plenty of small diesel cars too. Most superminis like the Ford Fiesta and the SEAT Ibiza offer a diesel option, designed to cater to those buyers who’ll cover big distance.
If you’re after a car with lower emissions, be sure to check out our guides to the best hybrid cars and best electric cars currently on sale. Sometimes they will suit your needs better than a diesel. Make sure you read our guide to AdBlue, too, as all new diesel cars need it.
The latest BMW 3 Series follows directly on from the previous model; it’s brilliant to drive, has a high quality interior and, as long as you avoid M Sport models, is impressively comfortable, too. This company-car favourite gets a choice of three diesel engines, with the 187bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder 320d the most popular. There’s plenty of power spread evenly across the rev range, while internal tweaks to the engine, as well as some aerodynamic ones to the bodywork, mean it’s surprisingly cheap to run thanks to economy of over 55mpg. Both the 318d and 320d will achieve 58.9mpg and fall into lower Benefit-in-Kind brackets than the petrols. Even the powerful 330d will return almost 50mpg, despite being able to hit 0-62mph in just 5.5 seconds. If you want more practicality, the 3 Series Touring estate is only fractionally less economical with useful additional load space.
UK buyers usually go for a diesel based on its fuel economy, so the latest Volkswagen Golf will appeal. A clever new 2.0-litre engine replaces the old 1.6, and is capable of returning more than 67mpg, so fuel station visits will be pretty infrequent. This engine is aimed at business buyers and we’d recommend the punchier 148bhp diesel for private customers as it still achieves over 60mpg. It might look familiar from the outside but inside the new Golf is all change, as VW has decided to use big screens and touch panels instead of buttons. There’s plenty of space for at least four adults and a decent boot.
With the latest Focus, Ford started with a clean-sheet approach and an all-new platform to make it one of the best family hatchbacks to drive, as well as one of the best to look at. Our pick of the range would be the sporty ST-Line trim, which boasts strong ‘warm-hatch’ credentials with the 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesel engine, and is capable of 57.6mpg and a zippy 0-62mph time of 8.5 seconds. When mated to the slick six-speed manual gearbox, this Focus model is one of the best to drive in its class and also has a reasonable CO2 rating of 125g/km, giving it a similar Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) cost to company car drivers as its rivals.
A mainstay of the executive saloon class for many years, the BMW 5 Series remains the go-to choice for those who want a big, comfortable family car. It is hugely impressive and fun to drive, showcasing BMW’s class-leading technology and build quality. The entry-level 520d is one of the cheapest models and is all most customers will need, with a turbocharged 187bhp 2.0-litre engine. It’ll cover 0-62mph in a swift 7.2 seconds, while returning a fuel economy figure of 58.9mpg. Add to this the excellent eight-speed automatic gearbox, and the 5 Series should be the ultimate ‘do it all’ saloon car.
It might only be 2.0 litres in size, but the diesel engine in the B5-badged XC60 packs quite a punch, at 232bhp. It’s fitted with intriguing PowerPulse technology, which uses a burst of compressed air to get the engine and turbocharger going faster when you hit the throttle, improving responsiveness and acceleration when on the move or setting off from a standstill. A pump keeps the compressed air canister topped up, so you never run out. Acceleration from 0-62mph takes 7.1 seconds and the best version for keen drivers is the R-Design trim, which has adjustable suspension with different settings to either sharpen up the handling or soften it for a more relaxed ride. Its official 45.5mpg figure is quite good for a large SUV, too.
The latest Ford Fiesta was Carbuyer’s Car of the Year for 2019 - meaning the 84bhp 1.5-litre TDCi model is our diesel pick in the supermini class. Available with a six-speed manual gearbox, it’s a real economy champion; Ford claims up to 65.7mpg on the stringent new WLTP test, and CO2 emissions of just 112g/km mean that company-car drivers won’t be paying high BiK rates. You wouldn’t buy a diesel Fiesta for its performance, but its 12.4-second 0-62mph time is about average for the class and offers enough power for the city commute and out of town driving. You can also spec the same engine throughout the high-spec end of the Fiesta range, including the rugged Active model and the sporty ST-Line - the downside is a slight drop in average MPG and slightly higher CO2 emissions for both versions due to larger wheels.
The current generation Renault Megane has raised its game significantly over the previous model; it's practical, stylish, comfortable and very well equipped, and as a family daily driver it will take some beating. Our pick of the range is the refined and frugal 1.5 dCi Iconic model. Its 113bhp 1.5-litre diesel engine is both smooth and refined, while providing more than enough power for decent motorway acceleration. Choose the six-speed manual and the 0-62mph time is 11.1 seconds, over a second quicker than the optional seven-speed auto. The manual will suit if fuel economy is the highest priority, too, offering 61.4mpg compared to the 58.9mpg of the automatic.
It may be Mercedes’ most affordable model but the A-Class offers an interior that’s very similar to the company’s S-Class flagship. As a result, the A-Class is a fantastic place for long journeys, and you won’t be using much fuel while doing so either. The A180d is the most efficient, returning 62.8mpg and 117g/km of CO2, but its 0-62mph time isn’t quick enough to live up to the car’s badge. A200d models deliver 57.7mpg and an eight-second 0-62mph time, and even the powerful A220d offers 55mpg while dropping the acceleration time by another second. Only the A180d is available with a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes; the other diesels are auto-only.
The Vauxhall Astra is a great family hatchback, even in the face of stern competition from the Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Honda Civic. Its 1.5-litre diesel is available in either 104bhp or 120bhp guises, and the latter provides useful extra power yet still returns up to 62.8mpg - just a whisker off the 65.7mpg of the lesser model. CO2 emissions of 113 to 118g/km should also make the diesel Astra popular among company-car drivers thanks to its impressive BiK rating. On the road, the Astra feels responsive and grown-up, with enough performance to make overtaking feel safe and secure, while it has no trouble powering up hills or accelerating back up to speed on the motorway. The latest Astra is much lighter than before, making it perform and handle with less fuss.
When talking about the very best SUVs, it's impossible not to mention the Land Rover Discovery. Our choice of the available models is the 238bhp four-cylinder SD4 variant. Despite its considerable bulk, the SD4 can sprint from 0-62mph in 8.7 seconds while remaining relaxing to drive and achieving up to 33.6mpg. This may not sound like great fuel consumption, but you when you consider the size and weight of the car, it’s a small trade-off for the wealth of all-conquering ability on offer. Not only can it manage the worst terrain you can throw at it, but it’ll also tow up to 3.5 tonnes.
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