Paul Andersen: Sport utility vehicles are history |

Paul Andersen: Sport utility vehicles are history

“Car Talk” is not my favorite program, but I will emulate it here because finally I have something to cheer about on the automotive front. And no, it’s not the luxurious leather seats in the Lincoln Navigator or the 400-horsepower engine in the latest Mercedes.

What’s got me enthused is 50 miles a gallon. I have adopted that phrase as my mantra since buying the first and probably only new car I will ever buy in my life. Fifty miles a gallon is the best reason I can summon for buying the car that sits inconspicuously in my driveway. Fifty miles a gallon is why the SUV is history.

The car I’m describing is the Volkswagen Jetta TDI with the turbo diesel engine, a 1.9-liter powerhouse that kicks in at about 2,800 rpm and makes my previous car feel like a Bradley tank. When I drove the VW away from Elk Mountain Motors three weeks ago, it felt like one of the smartest purchases of my life, and I haven’t had one ounce of buyer’s remorse.

Promoting a car, any car, is not easy for me. Many of my columns have reviled the automobile industry and the “fossil fools” who drive shameless gas-guzzlers. So guess what? I drive a car, too.

Is it right for me now to become an automotive cheerleader just because I plunked down hard-earned cash on my new set of wheels? Certainly, it is. Repeat my mantra – 50 miles a gallon – and you may wonder why the turbo diesel isn’t part of your family fleet.

My conversion occurred on a trip to the Grand Canyon in March with my friend, energy efficiency proponent Randy Udall. He had just bought one of these TDIs and we broke it in crossing Monument Valley in the purple light of dusk. We had driven from Carbondale, and the needle on the fuel gauge was barely to the halfway point.

It wasn’t until I drove the car that I had my revelation. The car handled well, and with power to spare; a real Autobahn car. Sitting behind the wheel, it became immediately apparent that the SUV is a dinosaur that should be recycled along with countless other American consumer mistakes.

Returning home, this conclusion became clearer yet when I drove to the grocery store in the family van. Our ’93 Ford Aerostar felt like a battleship as it lumbered down the highway. I felt gas-guzzling guilt with every mile, and this behemoth gets a passable 23 mpg.

The real shock was the comparison in fill-ups at the pump. The VW Jetta swallowed $22, while the van greedily gulped $37. The Jetta sips on a tank for two weeks, while the van chugs its tank in a week or less. Bye-bye family van.

Now I’m starting to miss the guys at the Basalt Depot, our local gas station, because we see them so infrequently. Gassing up every couple of weeks is a novelty that will never grow old. And then there’s the advent of biodiesel.

At the State of the World conference a few weeks ago, I overheard Pete McBride raving to a buddy about his Jetta TDI. Pete said he had just driven from California to Aspen with a full load of cargo and still got 47 miles a gallon.

Pete mentioned that biodiesel, a fuel compatible with diesel engines that is made from organic matter, could make the TDI more than efficient. Biodiesel could revolutionize the auto industry by powering efficient cars with non-fossil fuels.

Imagine meeting your transportation needs with vegetable extract? The oil and gas industry would suddenly fade from evil empire status into a fringe concern of antiquated fossil fools. Topping off the tank with turnips could circumvent the next oil war and nullify the Bush administration’s oil and gas manifesto.

Commercial biodiesel shows where the trend is heading. When Americans embrace fuel efficiency and clean fuel choices, not as a punishment, but as an enlightened use of technology, that will be a revolution. Once that corner is turned, there is no going back to the dirty old school of Suburbans, Ford Excursions and Hummers.

And lest you think the price tag is prohibitive, it’s not. The Jetta TDI lists for just over $20,000, including a Porsche five-speed manual transmission, full-on air bags, front-wheel-drive, a Monsoon sound system with radio, cassette and CD player, and … Hell, I sound like a car salesman.

And why not? When you take into account the fuel savings and the higher moral ground, the price on the TDI is not only affordable, it is mandatory. Blow up your SUV! The Jetta turbo diesel is the car of the 21st century.

Paul Andersen still taps on the gas gauge to make sure it’s working. His column appears on Mondays.

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