Motoring: Diesels that won't make you fume: Compared with petrol engines, they were slow and smelly. Then they cleaned up their act and won over the second-hand market, says James Ruppert

ONCE UPON a time only taxi-drivers and masochistic misers could see the bright side of driving diesels. Their only redeeming feature was better economy. Otherwise they were slow, smelly and noisy. However, developments over the past 10 years have made the engine respectable and desirable. A diesel is now the environment-friendly engine of the Nineties and one of the soundest second-hand buys.

Since the early Eighties, most of the criticisms levelled at diesels have been answered, and now you would be hard-pressed to tell that you were not behind the wheel of a petrol-driven car.

One giveaway might be the lack of performance. A diesel unit is heavier than a petrol unit, and the weight disadvantage is compounded by the heavy-duty suspension, battery and brakes.

But you don't buy a diesel for its turn of speed, although the turbocharged versions are fairly swift; fuel economy is the attraction. On average diesels are 20 per cent more efficient, especially in stop-start city traffic, than their petrol counterparts. There is also a slight price advantage over petrol, but unlike in Europe, no real tax incentive to switch fuels.

Diesels are often touted as more reliable, and certainly there are fewer engine parts to go wrong (no points or plugs, for example). But proper maintenance is the key to the mileages of more than 100,000 which are commonplace: the recommended service intervals are shorter than for petrol engines.

There is, however, a price to pay for all these advantages - and it is the price. Diesel cars generally cost 15-30 per cent more then their petrol equivalents, depending on the model. Nevertheless, you will not lose out in the long run because depreciation is much slower, if you buy carefully.

Make sure there is a full service history, because the stresses imposed by the diesel engine demand regular oil and filter changes, usually at 5,000-mile intervals. Never buy anything you suspect has been used as a taxi, because by the time they reach the classifieds most are only worth pounds 25 scrap. Just as important is who made the vehicle, because not all diesels are equal.

The French have a long tradition of diesel manufacture, and at the entry level, Peugeot's 205 is the best of the small brood. I trotted along to west London's Western Avenue on a quiet Sunday afternoon, to visit Venture Value. This is an interesting operation run by Wincanton Leasing, which, instead of putting cars through auction, has opted for the more profitable route of putting them on sale at its office.

Among a wide cross-section of models on offer was a 205 GLD with a 1.8 engine. This Peugeot had covered 92,000 miles in just two years, but this is not uncommon for a diesel. Apart from some minor faults in the bodywork and general interior grubbiness, the car looked in fine shape. Peugeots do not have a reputation for durable interiors, but after the promised valet, this vehicle would look as good as new.

The view under the bonnet was equally good. Oily, unkempt diesels spell trouble, but this engine started easily and ran well. The only question mark concerned a less-than-complete service book. However I was led back to the sales office and provided with a lengthy computer printout on the vehicle's history. During its time as a contract hire-car, every visit to the garage was logged. Its eventful life had included an accident in August 1990, but the repair was small enough to allay any serious fears. The price of pounds 3,960 was about pounds 500- pounds 1,000 less than a main agent would charge.

The French not only make the best small diesel but also the best-selling: the Citroen BX. This shares its excellent engine with the 205, but has a completely different character. It could be a Gallic interpretation of the Ford Sierra, but the company's unique hydropneumatic suspension puts it into a different league in terms of ride and handling.

This complex system is nothing to be frightened of, provided it has been looked after. At the Eric White Group in South Ascot, I was shown two contrasting examples. The first was a silver 1987 car that had covered 63,000 miles with two owners. The service history included a recent bill for a head gasket, while the exterior bore a few battle scars and the interior was grubby.

A red 1986 car had 75,000 miles and a less complete service record. Being a slightly older example, it had Citroen's usual disintegrating disease, which meant that the driver's seat had collapsed. The front suspension spheres needed 'pumping-up', producing an uncharacteristically bumpy ride. All these niggles and a full valet and service would be attended to before sale. The silver BX was selling for pounds 4,795 and the red for pounds 3,995.

If you want to head up-market, the Germans have a number of civilised models. The Volkswagen Passat is accused of being characterless and boring, but at least it will never let you down. At Drift Bridge Garage in Esher, I was directed towards a turbo diesel. If this had not been a one-private- owner car, I might have been suspicious about the low 22,000 mileage. Otherwise this virtually unmarked saloon was as new and on sale for pounds 8,695. If you ever find one as nice as this, buy it, because owners keep them forever.

The same goes for most Mercedes, especially estates. Only when I got to the Mercedes-Benz outlet on the Great West Road did I find a 1991 300TD. This highly equipped car, with a useful extra rear-facing row of seats for youngsters, had covered 17,000 miles and was on offer at pounds 24,850. The vehicle was faultless.

Just as perfect was a Mitsubishi Shogun I saw at Bulldog Service Station in Wokingham. The Japanese now make excellent diesels, an engine perfectly suited to the off-road demands of this 4 x 4. 1 could have picked an Isuzu, or Nissan Patrol, but this cosseted Shogun matched the Mercedes for quality and refinement. The price for the low-mileage, one-owner vehicle - proof that diesels can also be fun - was pounds 14,995.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
booksChristmas comes early for wizard fans
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites those Star Wars rumours
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
filmsOculus Rift offers breathtakingly realistic simulation of zero gravity
News
news
News
peopleCampaign 'to help protect young people across the world'
Life and Style
tech

News
people'When I see people who look totally different, it brings me back to that time in my life'
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
i100
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant We are curr...

    English Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: English Teachers with QTS nee...

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

    English Teacher

    £110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker