Useful Car Tips

Truck Engines: Diesel vs. Gas

April 09, 2019
Pickup trucks are the workhorses of the automobile world. They provide a mix of towing, hauling, and offroading capability that other vehicles simply can’t match. If you’re in the market for one, you’ve probably noticed that most models offer multiple engine choices. These engine differences range from displacement, cylinder configuration, and choice of forced induction. Unlike other types of vehicles, many pickups also offer diesel engines alongside more conventional gasoline engines, and choosing one or the other will fundamentally affect your future experience. But what exactly is a diesel engine? Both diesel and gas engines are internal combustion engines, which means they they convert fuel into energy through a series of small explosions—or combustions—which take place in the combustion chamber of each cylinder. The difference lies in the manner in which these explosions happen. In a conventional gasoline engine, pistons compress fuel (mixed with air) which is then ignited by sparks from the spark plugs. In a diesel engine, the air is compressed first, with the fuel being injected after. While similar on paper, there are significant differences between the two that will affect the day-to-day experience you have, so it’s important to do your research and pick the best engine option for you. The first, and most glaring difference, may be the initial cost.


Diesel engines are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts, and diesel-powered trucks hold their value better on the used market. When buying new, diesel powerplants command a premium ranging anywhere from US$4,000 to more than US$10,000 compared to a gasoline option (check out offerings from brands like Chevy, RAM, and others to see for yourself). If you’re in the heavy-duty truck market, expect an even greater premium. On the used market, too, expect to pay at least a couple thousand more for a diesel-engined truck compared to an equivalent gasoline one. Despite their higher initial cost, a diesel engine will likely be the more economical choice over the long term because of one simple reason: fuel costs.


Diesel engines are only marginally better than gasoline engines in terms of outright fuel efficiency, but enjoy a cost advantage over long-term ownership. Diesel trucks take approximately 150,000 miles (or about 240,000 kilometers) before the fuel cost benefit makes up for the more expensive initial price of the vehicle. If you’re planning to lease or otherwise own your truck for only a relatively short period of time, and don’t necessarily require the benefits of diesel, a regular gasoline engine may be exactly what you’re looking for. Another point to consider is availability of diesel. Those living in populated areas may find gas more common, with diesel availability only being an issue in certain areas.


Gasoline engines claw back some ground in cost of ownership due to their less expensive maintenance. Parts for diesel engines cost more than their gasoline counterparts, so expect to pay more at the dealership (and even if you’re doing some maintenance yourself) for parts like alternators, batteries, starters, and water pumps. These, plus more serious repairs for turbos, injectors, and transmissions, can quickly add up to several thousand dollars. Also, while you won’t have to change spark plugs in a diesel engine (since they don’t have them), you will have to change your oil more frequently. Basically, diesels will be a more economical option for you if plan to tow a lot and put many miles on your truck, or otherwise keep it long-term.


Finally, the elephant in the room: towing capacity, hauling capacity, and, in the great words (word?) of Jeremy Clarkson, “Powerrrrrrr!” While diesel engines generally offer less horsepower than gasoline engines, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, especially since this gap has narrowed over the years. Gasoline engines offer the horsepower advantage, but diesel engines answer back with a definite advantage in torque; an important point for those who tow heavy and often. Conversely, gasoline engines often offer a higher payload capacity for hauling than diesel engines. Thusly, there’s no clear winner here, and you should tailor your purchase around your individual requirements.


There’s no right answer when choosing between a diesel and gasoline truck engine. Both offer distinct advantages and disadvantages in terms of the factors touched on here. If you’re not quite sure yet, take a close look at your intended usage to come to a decision. Looking to own your truck over a long period of time and need to tow heavy loads often? Diesel will probably be best for you. Need adequate towing and excellent hauling, or just looking to put minimal city miles on your truck? Gasoline engines may offer advantages more applicable to you. Either way, you’ll surely be driving one of the most capable working vehicles on the road.
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