In 1993, when I first joined a motoring magazine, diesel was just getting into its stride as petrol engines stumbled.
Mainstream petrol engines were in the transition from leaded to unleaded and from carburetors to fuel injection. Catalytic convertors had just been made compulsory.
The upshot was that petrol engines had been castrated, losing their torque and punch in the race for cleaner exhausts.
At the same time a new generation of smooth, quiet, turbo diesels were arriving on the market. Peugeot-Citroen’s 1.9-litre unit was swift, frugal and pretty refined. I was a fan.
Early diesel sales, however, never got above 15 percent of the UK market. It was the arrival, in the late 1990s, of new direct-injection diesel engines that finally grabbed the attention of the mainstream.
They offered serious grunt (I remember the first 150bhp Golf GTD which would spin its wheels in third…) and great economy, even if they did make a bit of a racket. Business drivers loved the new-gen diesels because they made motorway progress effortless.
I was just as much a fan of the diesel as the next hack, but a decade on, I think I’ve had enough.
Autocar’s long-term test diesel Insignia is a case in point. On the motorway, the 2.0-litre diesel is punchy, pretty effortless and decently frugal.
In town, however, it can be noisy and obstructive. Dragging through the city, shifting first-second-first has become a real drag.
With high fuel taxes and CO2-driven company car taxes, diesel looks like it’s here to stay. However the rise of the downsized turbocharged petrol engine could change that.
A good example is Skoda’s 1.4-litre turbocharged petrol Octavia. This unit is good for 120bhp and hooked up to a 7-speed DSG ‘box, it returns a claimed 45mpg on the combined cycle, a better result than the manual version.
If this were reflected in the real world, it would be more economical than the Insignia as well offering much better refinement, massively better urban drivability combined with a claimed urban economy of 35mpg.
For last week I’ve been driving a 2.0-litre petrol automatic Insignia, borrowed from Phoenix Vauxhall in Wimbledon while our Insignia is re-programmed.
Although the engine is relatively old and the transmission is a conventional slushbox (don’t expect much above 20mpg in urban conditions) the refinement, smoothness and effortless progress is a real joy.
In truth, I am not much looking forward to swapping back into our diesel, mainly because I spend most of my time in urban conditions.