Thursday, August 02, 2007

Trains and Autos

We spent a few days in Paris to recover from too many hours of being cramped up in two different aircraft. After some good food and espresso (necessary to keep us awake until the local bedtime), we found ourselves pretty much adjusted to the local time by the next day.

The last stage of the Tour was scheduled for the afternoon of our departure from Paris for points south, which made getting to the George V metro a bit of a challenge. We took the metro to Gare De Lyon station where we boarded a TGV train. These trains are smooth, comfortable, and fast - achieving speeds of 180 miles per hour on open stretches of track. My only complaint was that the air conditioning seemed a bit weak with the temperature inside the railcars hovering around 25 degrees C.

One of the many things to like about Europe is the wide array of cool, exotic, and just plain intelligent cars; Smart Car, Mini, a wide variety of VW, Audi, Mercedes, Citroens, Opel, and Pugeot. And there are many cool varieties of motorbikes to be seen, too. You just don't see hardly any big cars or SUVs in Paris. And for a diesel head like me, Europe is heaven because around 70% of the autos are diesel-powered. And it's not just European automakers who produce diesel cars for this market; Ford and GM have joined the club, too.

I'm not sure what the emission standards are in Europe, but the U.S. EPA has diesel standards (a.k.a. tier 3) that will be met by VW, Audi, and Mercedes next year and should allow new diesel vehicles to be sold in all 50 states. The introduction of low-sulfur diesel last year certainly helped reduce emissions, especially from older, non-turbo injected engines. My solution is to burn 99% biodiesel in my 2001 Jetta TDI, which reduces emissions by 80 to 90%.

Emissions standards, along with other U.S.--specific safety standards and Americans' prejudice against diesel engines have conspired o create a limited market for diesel autos. One of the neatest vehicles I've seen here is the VW Eurovan with a TDI engine - a vehicle that isn't available in the U.S. Another car that caught my eye was this Mercedes sub-compact A200 equipped with a common-rail, turbo-charged diesel. I'd imagine this puppy sees fuel mileage in the 45 to 55 MPG range.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when we picked up our rental car at the train station and the attendant (whose English was much better than my French) asked "Is a diesel auto okay?" But of course! We got the keys to a compact Opal (manufactured by GM) with a TDI engine and a six-speed manual transmission. Now most Americans think diesels are slow, noisy, and stinky. Not so! This little baby is fast, clean, and relatively quiet. You do hear a bit of diesel engine sounds during brisk acceleration, but this is not a problem for diesel afficciandos. In fact, we roll down the window to better appreciate it! Not only is this Opal a fast, sporty little car, it gets very great fuel mileage - 40 plus miles per gallon on the freeway at 80 miles per hour (even better at slower speeds).

Now we're ensconsed in our room and this view is only a 3 minute walk away.


John said...

I used to rent those Opals when I went to Lyon. They kicked butt. This was back in the day when I thought Diesels were noisy and smelly. This car changed my mind.

PS- If you are in Lyon by chance, what an amazing city. I would take it vs Paris any day.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to Paris! I echo your comments on diesel. When my wife and I toured northwest Spain in 1998, we splurged and rented a Mercedes E320 diesel for a few days. It was simply amazing. No smell, little noise, and cruised at 120MPH no problem on the Spanish highways.

Are you aware of the growing dominance of diesel technology in international motor racing? Audi has dominated the last few years with their R10 car, running a TDI motor (and likely some exotic german rocket fuel instead of pump diesel.) Audi correctly surmised that during endurance races (12-24 hours) the greater efficiency would allow for fewer pit stops. This was true until the fuel tanks on diesel powered cars were required to be smaller :-)

Citroen has since joined the fray with their 908 TDI. I can't wait til diesel is more prevalent in American racing.

A buddy who's seen them race says the diesel cars are much quieter--this may or may not be an advantage, depending on one's point of view.

In any case, this is a pleasant diversion from your regular aviation fare.


Michael Pereckas said...

One of my German friends has a minivan with a diesel engine and manual transmission. Just normal there, he was surprised when I told him that was as exotic as can be to an American like me. *Minivan* with manual transmission and diesel engine. A Ford, by the way, but obviously not available in Ford's home country.