Pickup drivers tend to be the types who go big or go home, and enthusiasm like that comes with a lot of loyalty. Many truck drivers are loyal to certain brands or specific models, but consumers who have never shopped for a pickup truck might not be privy to the diesel vs. gas debate. Sure, the merits of diesel fuel have been in the news quite a bit recently, thanks in part to Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal, but when it comes to trucks the conversation is quite different. For example, there’s no pretense of a diesel truck being better for the environment than its gas counterpart, but there are some very specific benefits that diesel can offer. For certain customers it’s worth seeking out (and perhaps paying more for) a diesel-powered truck. Here’s a look at the merits and drawbacks of diesel and gas fuel, particularly as they apply when shopping for pickup trucks.
When comparing a gasoline and a diesel truck with similar engine displacement, the gas one will generally offer more horsepower. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, just a guideline. However, truck experts say that this trend is changing. The horsepower gap between these two types of powertrains has narrowed in recent years, and diesel engines’ horsepower disadvantage is less significant as time goes on. TruckTrend.com says that gas trucks used to offer about 50 horsepower more than a comparable diesel, and now it’s about half that.
Of course, there’s more to choosing a truck than picking the one with the most horsepower, and buyers who shop based on those specs alone are missing the point. Higher horsepower numbers give a model a competitive edge, but it doesn’t tell the whole story about a truck’s capabilities or utility. In other words, gasoline-powered trucks have more horsepower, but it’s not as big of a deal as many consumers might think.
Torque is the other number that, alongside horsepower, helps define a truck’s capabilities. When it comes to torque, diesel engines have a definite advantage. Diesel engines offer significantly more torque than gasoline engines and, unlike horsepower where the gap is closing between the two, when it comes to torque the gap is actually growing bigger. It’s not uncommon to compare a diesel and a gas pickup to see that the diesel offers 300 or more pound-feet of torque.
This difference is important because it’s not a truck’s horsepower that determines how much stuff you can toss in the bed or how heavy a boat you can pull. It’s the torque generated by the engine that helps a truck really do its job. Buyers who plan to use their new truck for frequent or heavy duty hauling or towing should seriously consider diesel models.
Historically, diesel engine-powered trucks provided superior fuel economy to gas trucks (by up to 30 percent in examples from the last two decades), but gas engines are starting to catch up. Some experts say that modern gasoline engines have actually borrowed technology from diesel engines to improve fuel economy. Ford’s EcoBoost lineup in particular offers very competitive mileage thanks mostly to its turbochargers, which boost horsepower while keeping displacement on the low side. Other increasingly common techniques include direct injection, cylinder deactivation, and engine components made from more advanced materials than in the past.
Transmission technology also helps close the gap between diesel and gas fuel economy. Put simply, the more gears a transmission has, the more efficient it is. It’s unlikely we’ll see trucks powered by a continuously variable transmission (CVT that comes in the most fuel-efficient cars on the market, because it takes a heavy duty transmission to handle a truck’s workload ratings. However, it’s common to see trucks with strong yet efficient eight- or nine-speed automatic gearboxes. Ford is even moving to a 10-speed automatic transmission in the near future for the F-150. Diesel trucks still have an advantage in this area for now, but it’s no longer so significant that it should be a buyer’s primary concern.
Cost and Convenience
Diesel trucks cost more up front. That’s held true in the past and is unlikely to change anytime soon. Buyers cross-shopping comparable gas and diesel trucks, or deciding whether to upgrade a gas truck model with a diesel powertrain option (if available), should expect to pay at least a couple thousand dollars more for the diesel over the gas. That price disparity is even larger when comparing heavy duty models. However, diesel trucks will generally cost less over time since they use less fuel.
Buying diesel fuel is easy (most fuel stations have it) and it’s often less expensive than gas. However, a diesel truck does have one significant drawback that will mostly affect owners in northern climates. The colder it gets in the winter, the more difficult it can be to start a diesel engine. Many diesel trucks are available with engine block heaters straight from the factory, or one can be acquired at retail, which will help alleviate this situation. However, it’s definitely worth mentioning, especially because using an engine block heater requires parking near an electrical outlet.
There are more gas than diesel trucks on the market, but that shouldn’t dissuade diesel fans from seeking out their dream truck. Most manufacturers offer diesel powertrains with their mainstream models, so availability shouldn’t be a deal breaker. In fact, manufacturers of heavy duty trucks actively market the advantages of diesel engines. So that segment might be a good place to look for buyers who have very specific needs or preferences. Today’s trucks are highly customizable, and buyers should be able to configure a pickup — whether gas or diesel — that meets his or her needs.