Diesel isn't just about the penny pinching and commercial use.
The word diesel used to mean automotive boredom, then we got turbo-diesels in cars and they became just about acceptable for a daily driver. Then Volkswagen decided to deceive both its customers and governments alike with Dieselgate and that was just about the death of new diesel cars, with hybrid technology now just about done carving out the headstone. Some manufacturers still offer them, but the diesel car never really took off in America, and after years of European governments telling drivers they are the ecological choice, those same governments are now taxing them out of existence. There are still, of course, applications for diesel engines still around. Diesel engines are inherently torquey, reliable, and fairly economical to run so tractors and commercial trucks still have life in them yet.
That torque and efficiency have had uses outside of commercial applications and thrifty motoring though, and people have experimented with the benefits of diesel engines to amazing extremes. These are our favorite examples of people and companies going nuts with a diesel engine.
Finnish drifter Teemu Peltola looked around and saw everyone was drifting in Japanese cars and then went down a different avenue. Aftermarket racing and drifting parts are a little scarce for 1980s German wagons, but Peltola likes to build things, and what he’s ended up with is something truly unique. He found a 3.0-liter 24-valve diesel from a 1998 Mercedes E-class and a Garrett GT40 turbo from a heavy truck and hooked it to a Tremec TKO 600 transmission in his 300D. The Mercedes axle, predictably, didn’t last long and the suspension wasn’t up to the job. After raiding some Japanese cars for stronger parts and putting the hours in, he came out sideways with a 500+ horsepower drift missile that sounds like a tractor at idle but roars like a race car through a cloud of tire and diesel smoke.
Back before Dieselgate shocked everyone then spent years boring the pants off of automotive journalists forced to report on it, Volkswagen were the king of light application diesel engines. Although this beast is called a Touareg, it’s never taken the kids to school and it really is just a Touareg in name only. A 2.5-liter 5-cylinder turbo diesel makes a modest 310 horsepower, but a viscous 422 lb-ft of torque while sitting in a tubular space frame that’s wrapped in a Kevlar and carbon-fiber body. It all floats on double wishbone suspension units and weighs just 3859 lbs. It also bagged three wins in the toughest race on earth, the Dakar Rally.
Seat, the Spanish automaker owned by Volkswagen, dropped a bomb on the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) when it fielded 280-horsepower 2.0-liter diesel race cars in 2007 that promptly led all other manufacturers to call for a ban on diesel cars or make their own. Seat exploited the fact fact that there was no limit for the turbo pressure and the diesel cars could get on the loud pedal and take advantage of the extra torque as the car accelerated out of corners. The Seat Leon took two championships in a row before WTCC rules changed. Cost control has now been implemented on diesel-powered cars, limiting them to 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engines making around 380 bhp.
The R15 was a beast of a V10 prototype race car that took part in the World Endurance Championship (WEC), including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It replaced the V12 TDI R10 to take advantage of the smaller engine being moved forward for better balance. It still made over 590 horsepower while making 770 lb-ft of torque and weighing just 1,984 lb. The R18 followed on where Audi R15 TDI left off and ran through several iterations until the dreaded Dieselgate forced Audi to quit the World Endurance Championship and switch to the all-electric powered Formula E.
Wade Moody eschewed the traditional compound turbos to build the world’s fastest Duramax-powered vehicle. Instead, his twin-turbos push 50 psi of boost alongside a nitrous system through a Duramax diesel engine to make a reputed 2,100 horsepower and crack the quarter-mile in an eyeball pressuring six seconds.
Wade Moody’s Rail Dragster is faster, but it looks like every other dragster out there. Brett Deutsch’s ’69 Chevy C10 is not only fast, but it also looks exactly as badass as a drag truck should. This bastardized slice of Americana is powered by a compound turbo LLY Duramax engine that makes an absurd 1,100 horsepower and made the quarter mile in 9.43 seconds at 148 mph. That wasn’t good enough for Deutsch though, and with more work and wizardry, it’s now an 8.5-second truck.
The UK boutique company Trident Sports Cars Ltd set out to make the most fuel efficient supercar on the planet. It managed to build a sleek and muscular looking 660-horsepower car using a 6.6L Duramax engine that topped 190 mph after getting to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and making 58 miles per gallon. We’ve known about the Iceni since 2014 but it looks like it has been sunk by, of course, Dieselgate. The company is now working on a V8 internal combustion and electric hybrid.
The Russian based Kamaz racing team has entered the Dakar Rally 27 times and won 15 times. They’ve used many diesel engines through the years inching their way up towards 1000 horsepower. The trucks are incredible feats of engineering all the way through. For example, the 980-horsepower "Kapotnik” has a 12.5-liter diesel engine and is happy to do 100 mph across any surface while handling like Colin McRae’s Impreza despite looking like it has all the maneuverability of a mobile home. Its 1000-liter fuel tank allows it to do that all day and into the night.
What if you wanted to walk into a showroom right now and order something with a spectacular diesel engine off the shelf right? You’ll want a Ram 3500 with the Max Tow package so you can use the almighty Cummins engine’s 1000 lb-ft of torque to tow up to 35,100 pounds or lug a 6570 payload around in the cargo bed. It’s not just the engine that makes the difference as all that power has to be harnessed if you need to tow a US Navy boat anchor around. The new Ram has upgraded bushings and progressive springs while the leaf springs are supplemented with airbags.