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Diesel cars: Are they still worth buying?

Diesel cars are expected to be targeted by the government in the Autumn Budget. Here is what could happen and whether it will be worth sticking with petrol’s less eco-friendly sibling going forward.

Not that many years ago diesel cars were the in thing. “We urge you to buy one,” the Government said excitedly. Now it seems the plan is to make owning one as stigmatised as being on the sex offender list.

The problem is that diesels are especially bad for the environment, but CO2 emissions are only part of the harmful gases spewed out of the exhaust. Diesels are also still cheaper to run than an equivalent petrol. So would we still bother?

What makes you think diesel cars are under threat?

Buried in the latest Budget document is a statement that confirms the UK Government is looking at an ‘appropriate tax treatment’ for diesel cars, which indicates a higher tax rate is likely. In terms of timing, it said it would ‘engage with stakeholders’ before adjusting the Autumn Budget.

Anything else that could kill diesels?

The Government just said it will ban sales of petrol, diesel and hybrid cars from 2040, giving UK consumers 23 years of the combustion engine before having to go electric. Or hydrogen, assuming that is still an option.

What changes could be made for diesel cars?

One of the main reasons for attacking diesels is air pollution. To implement a new clean air plan, it makes sense to remove the incentives for those contemplating a diesel car as they are typically more harmful to the environment and your body.

The new Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) system, which came into force on the 1st of April, 2017 and sees the most polluting cars pay a bigger lump sum up front, was the first step in the process.

Going forward, pricier cars will cost an extra £310 a year on top of a £2,000 first-year fee. Hardly cheap, then, but the current system actually proves less expensive if you plan on keeping your car for a long time compared with the old system.

So can I trade in my diesel right now?

Hold your horses. Nothing has been announced just yet but the Government has admitted considering a diesel scrappage scheme. That would allow motorists to make some money from their dirty diesel, although how much money and what cars would be eligible is unclear right now.

With that said, we have heard rumblings the idea will be scrapped altogether as previous schemes were said to be financially ineffective.

How bad is air pollution?

Bad enough to kill tens of thousands but not so bad people really seem to care that much. It is estimated air pollution is linked to more than 40,000 early deaths in the UK, 9,500 of which take place in London.

The chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO) believes the issue of unclean air is as big a threat, if not more so, to the global public than Aids or Ebola. Figures suggest 600,000 child deaths are linked to poor air quality every year – considerably more than the entire population of Sheffield.

Certain particulates in diesel emissions have been linked to cancer, various breathing disorders, hair loss, reduced concentration levels and many other nasty health issues, all of which can only put a significant strain on the already strained NHS.

Whether the figures are accurate and the science is on the money can be debated. The problem with air is that we all have to breathe it to live and breathing air that is akin to a cigarette does nobody any good.

It is worth bearing in mind only one in ten people around the world have access to air deemed clean by the World Health Organisation and that London breaches its annual air pollution limit in the first five days of the year on Brixton Road.

What about the Toxicity Charge?

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s ‘toxicity charge’ is an attempt to discourage diesels that will see motorists paying an extra £10 per day on the existing Congestion Charge to drive into certain areas of central London. It is thought the measure will help improve air quality.

The problem is that a study by the King’s College in 2015 found evidence to suggest the low emission zone has proven ineffective, making it seem more like a cash grab than anything. Critics also fear it could harm local businesses.

The report said: “The LEZ did not reduce ambient air pollution levels, or affect the prevalence of respiratory/allergic symptoms over the period studied.

“These data confirm the previous association between traffic-related air pollutant exposures and symptoms of current rhinitis.

“Importantly, the London LEZ has not significantly improved air quality within the city, or the respiratory health of the resident population in its first three years of operation. This highlights the need for more robust measures to reduce traffic emissions.”

What would help diesels, then?

A NASA technology that can check a vehicle’s emissions as it drives along is one suggestion. Known as Emissions Detection and Reporting (EDAR), the system could be used with an automatic number plate reader to find out which vehicles are the worst offenders in the real world and deal with them accordingly.

Whether or not the government would consider such a technology remains to be seen, but a more targeted approach could be more effective as the current EU emissions regulation system currently focusses on CO2 but cares less about NO2 and particulate matter (PM) 2.5.

In essence, car emissions are like whack-a-mole. Knock one harmful gas on the head and another pops up to take its place.

Using your car when necessary and walking more seems like the best short-term solution for those who have the option. But with public transport in decline, particularly in rural areas, some people will have no choice but to drive.

Any other anti-diesel measures being considered?

We have heard rumblings of diesels being forced to pay double to park in Westminster (a move designed to reduce NO2 emissions) in addition to potential no-go zones, higher fuel duty (it has been frozen for seven years) and the aforementioned higher diesel tax rate.

A plan to charge highly polluting cars was also considered, but Environment Secretary Michael Gove said that it would be unnecessary and described the idea as a “blunt instrument” during a BBC Radio 4 interview.

So electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids are the way to go?

It would be nice, but where the electric power comes from is important, as is the process of how the car is made. It is no use if the dirtiest coal power station keeps your Prius moving. Plus hybrids are in the firing line, too.

Another issue is that the cost of ultra-low emission vehicles (ULEVs for short) are typically a lot more expensive to buy outright than a pure petrol or diesel equivalent. That makes the payback time much longer or makes them inaccessible for poorer motorists.

There is also the problem of the physical limits of electric vehicles, which are much less versatile because of their need to be charged. Drivers who cover serious miles will always be better off with the range of a diesel.

On the flip-side, an electric car emits zero emissions locally so you could stand next to one all day, every day for the rest of your life and there would be more chance of you dying of boredom. Air pollution is a big problem that we will pay for in years to come if it remains as big a problem as it is.

Plus as technologies improve and Governments ensure greener power creation methods are used, your journeys will have less of a harmful environmental impact. Move to Norway, where a large portion of energy is from a green source, and you can sleep like a baby devoid of any eco-guilt.

Yes, the batteries rely on a less than friendly build process and the cars themselves have to be manufactured and that generates air pollution. But think about it: A car that is dirty to make but green to run in the long run is better than a car that is dirty to make and always dirty to run.

Would you buy a diesel car, then?

The problem is that some people will be forced to go diesel because even the most modern petrol engine is noticeably inferior in terms of fuel economy and only slightly less polluting in terms of CO2. They are also currently cheap to tax if you keep the price below £40,000.

Without generalising too heavily, modern diesels offer much higher fuel economy figures. An Audi A5 Sportback, for instance, manages 68.9 in the case of the 2.0 TDI Ultra. The 2.0 TFSI petrol? 45.6mpg. Real world figures will vary, but the advantage is still present. Unless petrol engines become as economical to run, diesels will continue to be the obvious choice.

If, however, a new tax makes diesels too expensive, some motorists may be forced to ditch their vehicles entirely – especially with other motoring costs such as car insurance on the rise.

But then maybe that is the plan? Get as many people off the road as possible and hit those who can still afford to drive even harder.

Walking away from diesel would be fine if the Government was willingly pushing drivers into hybrids, but last time we checked the plug-in incentive recently dropped from £5,000 to £4,500 and most eco vehicles are now only eligible for £2,500.

Good luck finding a hybrid that can do 70 miles on electric power only – that is what a hybrid needs to do to get the full incentive. Only electric cars can manage that figure but they have their own set of problems such as the charging infrastructure, resale value and range anxiety.

Admittedly, the UK Government would have to hit diesels really hard to make an equivalent petrol or hybrid more attractive financially and it is unclear just how hard the hit will be. But the problem is that the diesel honeymoon period is definitely over.

As it stands, it may be worth seeing how the diesel thing plans out. If you do have to take the plunge though, consider using the fear as a bargaining tool at the dealers. Because who knows how long even the cleanest diesel cars will remain an economical option.

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