AUTOMOTIVE JOURNALIST and rescuer of rust bucket Jeeps, David Tracey, is ambivalent about diesel engines. “I like the idea of the diesels,” he wrote, “even if I would never want to maintain one.”
Other folks are absolute fans of diesels. Diesels crank out tremendous amounts of torque, making them the top choice for towing. They might be your only sensible choice if you have a large trailer. They get better fuel mileage (although there’s the question of how much extra mileage it takes to offset the higher cost of the fuel and the engine). And diesels can last a very long time. But they’re not the easiest engines to live with.
Diesel engines require more rigorous maintenance than gasoline engines
Whereas gasoline engines use electrical sparks to ignite the fuel-air mixture, diesel engines use very high pressure. Pressure creates heat; enough pressure makes combustible fluids combust. This high pressure puts more stress on the engine components, which can lead to more wear and tear and a greater need for preventive maintenance.
For example, in order to get exactly the right amount of fuel-air mixture into those high-pressure cylinders, diesel engines have more complex fuel injection systems than their gasoline counterparts. These systems needs to be regularly cleaned and serviced to maintain optimal performance.
Diesel engines generate more heat than gas engines, so they require more robust cooling systems, which need to be regularly checked and maintained to prevent overheating and other issues.
The emissions systems that keep modern diesels from belching black, noxious exhaust, require more diligent maintenance and cleaning. And Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) needs to be added periodically to reduce NOx emissions.
Fuel and oil
Because of their higher pressures and temperatures, diesel engines are more finicky about fuel and oil quality.
And then there are turbochargers
These days, most diesel engines are turbocharged to increase power and fuel efficiency while helping to reduce emissions. But turbos add another layer of complexity and maintenance demands. And the turbos and ducting make access to other engine components more difficult.
The mechanics who perform all this diligent maintenance have specialized knowledge and equipment, so they charge more. Also, diesel parts and service items tend to be more expensive.
So, is it worth it?
As I stated at the beginning, some of you will really need a diesel-powered truck to haul your large travel trailer, fifth-wheel, toy hauler, converted cargo trailer, or to just handle the load of a slide-in camper. The extra demands of diesel ownership are part of the price you pay. Do you bite that bullet or rethink your living space options?
For some of you, diesels might have been part of your life for so long that the maintenance routine just feels normal, not burdensome.
Some of you might want a Sprinter van, which until recently was exclusively diesel powered. Plus there are other van makes that had a diesel option. I think you would need to decide if all the other reasons you have for wanting one of those vans outweigh the maintenance and repair of a diesel. Would it complicate your plans to live a less complicated life?
And for some of you, a diesel-powered vehicle is more than you need but it’s the only thing available at the time and place you need to get a rig. In that case, just be aware and prepared. Follow the service protocols as best you can so you don’t damage the engine — and hope the previous owner(s) did the same. Work on having a budget for maintenance. Or maybe consider the diesel vehicle only temporary until you can find an alternative.
As for me, back in 2013 I thought I had found the perfect vehicle — a former Air Force van like this one, only in better shape.
A box van with a door instead of a roll-up, with windows, lighting, finished interior walls. It was a great blank slate. But I passed on it because it was a diesel.
I’m familiar with gasoline engines, how to troubleshoot them, what’s likely to go wrong. I knew diesels were different but not how different or what I would be getting myself into. My ignorance was enough of a reason to reject it. I didn’t want to learn all about diesels the hard way. Besides, I don’t like the way they sound.
But that’s only my view of things. Here’s what Bob has to say: