Perception is a funny thing. It especially shows up when you’re sitting on the fence between two cultures, seeing the world through the eyes of both at once. As a European with close relation to US car culture, I know something about that, and I’ll show it to you with two wagons. Each of them is extravagant and fabled on one continent, and totally boring on the other. And each of them is based on a car I owned and used as a daily driver for several years. So I know them quite well, and I know they rule, in their own different ways.
I will start with the one I have never considered anything very special – until I started reading American car blogs, and recognized the perceived awesomeness of “The Manual, Diesel Wagon”. It is called 2001 Ford Mondeo MkIII, it is powered by 2.0 TDCI diesel engine, and it has a long-roofed body and a five-speed stick-shift transmission. And I will not deny that it is a marvelous car. But its uniqueness is sort of diminished by the fact that in Czech Republic, where I live, it is basically everywhere. If we don’t count Skodas and city buses, it’s one of the most common modes of transportation here. the most common modes of transportation here. Want to see a proof? This picture was taken in front of my house, and it isn’t staged – I just parked in the first free space I found. The fact that there are THREE MORE dark-colored Mondeo wagons (and I’m willing to bet quite some money they are all manual diesels) is just a pure coincidence.
And it’s not that my neighborhood is full of car enthusiasts, savoring the enjoyable experience of rowing their own gears in a diesel powered wagon. No, their owners are probably just average guys who bought them because it’s the prudent thing to do. Because here, the Average Pepa (that’s Czech for Joe) loves diesels, because they’re cheap to feed (although often not very cheap to keep running). He loves wagons, because he feels he needs to move around unbelievable amounts of crap (or, most of the times, air) and he is scared of automatic transmissions, because of their alleged expensive repairs.
The last reason is quite funny – when I bought my own used diesel, automatic, liftback Ford Mondeo four years ago, I asked the guys at the Ford dealership whether it is a good buy. They replied they would be afraid of the diesel engine (which I needed, because of huge planned mileage), and that they would never choose an automatic transmission, because of it’s high repair costs. When I asked about a price of a complete transmission overhaul, I was given a price of 35,000 CZK (roughly two thousand bucks). So I asked about the price for a clutch replacement. And I was given a quote of 15,000 CZK. Plus 20,000 CZK for the double-mass flywheel, which has to be replaced with the clutch. I stared blankly, with a huge question mark over my head, but I thought “maybe the Ford transmissions are fragile and they go out often”. So I asked how many they have rebuilt.
The guy said “None, we just had one with malfunctioning electronics, it shifted a bit funny, but never actually gave out.”
But the other reasons – great mileage and cavernous boots – are for real. During my time with this Mondeo, which is 12 years old and totally clapped out, I drove it in just a moderately efficient way, keeping “American” highway speeds of about 70mph. The average fuel consumption was 5.1 litres per 100km, which translates to 46 mpg. Which included some city driving. On the highway alone, I got 4.8 l/100km, or 49 mpg. And when I had my own Mondeo, with significantly less efficient automatic transmission, it got around 40 mpg in normal driving style with moderately heavy foot, and 30 mpg when I was in a hurry (which meant stuff like constant 100+ mph drives on highway).
And the trunk? Just take a look at the picture with 17” tires in it. Unless you are taking family of five on vacation, it’s nigh on impossible to fill it with stuff. Add comfortable seating for four adults, and you have a wonderful package.
But — there must be some but, doesn’t it? In this case, it’s running costs. As often happens in the real world, it costs money to save money. In this case, it’s all the clever stuff that makes modern common-rail diesels run so smoothly and make so much power. Turbochargers, fuel injectors, high-pressure fuel pumps and other smaller items that tend to give up, and cost an exorbitant amount of money are the reasons why most experts only recommend modern diesel cars for annual mileages of 20 thousand miles and up. With European fuel prices, of course – in US, this number would multiply.
But I am still talking money and fuel economy and practicality. What about the European sophistication, the driving experience, the fun of manual transmission? The diesel manual wagon should be the Holy Grail of enthusiasts, so these things surely matter, don’t they? Ahem, nope. I wasn’t talking about driving dynamics, driving fun and other things usually associated with European Diesel Manual Wagons™ by US enthusiasts, because these are exactly NOT the reasons why people buy diesel wagons in Europe.
That’s not to say that all these fabled attributes don’t exist. The fact is that the Mondeo really does drive pretty well. With the suspension tuned on twisty, rutted English roads, it is a prime example of how a European car — or any car — should drive. The way its suspension works can be best described by a comparison to old Jaguars. It has the same combination of comfortable ride and precise handling. Its suspension is able to iron out bumps and potholes, without being too floaty in corners or feeling unstable or road undulations. It’s the kind of ability that cannot be explained or achieved through numbers – it’s product of countless hours and miles spent trying and testing on B-roads. And there’s the delightful way in which the Mondeo allows itself to be steered by throttle, transitioning from understeer to neutrality or even ever-so-slight oversteer depending on the position of your left foot.
And then there are the controls. It’s easy to find a proper seating position, the steering wheel is even able to relay some information about the front wheels’ grip, the seat is supportive and comfortable at the same time. Even the pedals are well-placed for heel-and-toe shifts, and shifter feels precise (I should probably say something about a rifle bolt here. I have never fired a rifle, but I imagine it works like a good manual shifter…). But there is one thing that is ruining the experience.
Yes, you’ve probably guessed it. It’s the engine. While the common-rail engines represented a quantum leap in refinement, compared to their older counterparts, the important part is always that they sound refined for a diesel. And even a pretty refined diesel still usually sounds like something that belongs to a farm, not highway. In steady driving, this is not a problem – the engine is quiet enough for its sound to be drowned by road and wind noise. But in spirited driving, the diesel rattle makes revving the engine rather unpleasant.
And it doesn’t end with the sound. The power delivery is anything but linear, with tremendous torque low-down and quick fade in the top end. This means you need to shift more often when you drive “enthusiastically”, and it’s harder and less enjoyable to do so with proper precision. In fact, turbodiesel engines feel much more at home teamed up with automatic transmission. Not only does the slushbox take away the need to constantly keep the engine in narrow powerband, but the torque converter is able to smooth out the power peak, making for much smoother and more pleasant experience. With automatic, it feels almost like large gas engine, only with ugly sound.
Here, I should probably remind you that the car I tested was 12 years old, and used an engine which went out of production four years ago. But even though diesel engines have made great leaps forward in recent years, both in terms of power and refinement, everything I said about the Mondeo is still true for today’s cars. Of course, there are extremely refined diesels nowadays, and a few of them are even quite fun to drive fast – BMW engines spring to mind here, as well as a few others – but even the best of them are still noticeably less refined than anything that burns gasoline.
Which is not to say that this car is a bad choice for the enthusiast. It’s really pleasant to drive, and fun enough for you to take the long and winding road from work. And with the frugal diesel engine, it can save you lots of money if you have to drive 20,000 or 30,000 miles, or even more, in a country where a LITER of fuel costs almost two bucks. But for every one of those many miles, you will be reminded that you were to cheap to buy a proper engine.
And, if you are into driving and cars, and you can even remotely afford not buying a diesel, you should buy something else. Actually, a used car I recommend most often to other people is this generation of Mondeo, but with 1.8 or 2.0 petrol engine – which offers a best compromise of fuel economy (still over 30mpg in mixed driving), driving enjoyment and reliability. But the enthusiasts’ choice in the Mondeo range was the ST220 – powered by, wait for it, a 3.0 V6 engine. This may sound boring in US, but ten years ago in Europe, it represented a real powerhouse with its 220 horsepower.
Which makes it quite funny for European to watch people from the other side of the pond lust after the slow, rattly, disgustingly rational cars we have here, while scoffing at the plethora of overpowered V6s and V8s which they can afford to run, while we have to make do with the oil-burners! In Part Two we’ll talk about an American wagon in Europe…