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The most exciting diesel car projects ever

The most exciting diesel car projects ever


Just a few years ago, proof of diesel’s potential was being demonstrated throughout the automotive industry at motor shows, race circuits and even land speed record attempts.

In 2019, diesel’s reputation is low thanks to a raft of well-documented emissions controversies, and it seems unlikely to regain its former status as not only an eco- and wallet-friendly alternative to petrol, but also a serious proposition in terms of performance.

However, just a few years ago, proof of diesel’s potential was being demonstrated throughout the automotive industry at motor shows, race circuits and even land speed record attempts.

Here are some of the most spectacular cars with diesel engines.

Volkswagen Race Touareg

The brand that is perhaps the most infamously tied to diesel today was pushing the fuel’s merits at the end of the 2000s.

Volkswagen Race Touareg driving on dirt track

One of many VW Group projects to showcase TDI technology in motorsport, the Race Touareg first took on the Dakar Rally in 2004, finishing sixth. The factory team would continue its bid for victory, eventually winning the first three of the rallies to be held in South America – 2009, 2010 and 2011.

The feat of three consecutive diesel-powered Dakar victories would be repeated by Peugeot from 2016 to 2018, with its 2008- and 3008-based ‘DKR’ rally machines.

Peugeot 404

While the 2000s were arguably the halcyon era for special diesel projects, they weren’t unheard of in previous decades either.

In the ’60s, diesels were a far cry from the torquey, efficient motors of today. Rather, they were weedy, loud and slow.

Peugeot 404

Peugeot looked to break the mould for diesels in 1965 with a unique one-seater 404, which lapped the Montlhéry oval test track at an average of 100mph for some 11,000km, or 6,835 miles – a record for diesel cars at the time.

Audi R10, R15 and R18

After five Le Mans 24 Hours victories from 2000 to 2005, the 2006 season saw Audi take on a new challenge with the R10 TDI.

Powered by a 5.5-litre V12 diesel engine generating more than 650bhp, this car would prove to be highly successful, winning the race three years in a row from 2006 to 2008 and becoming the first non-petrol-powered car to take victory at the event.

The Audi R10, Audi R15 and Audi R18 lined up ready to race

The car would be superseded by the 2010 Le Mans-winning R15 and the R18, which would make the top step of the podium every year from 2011 through to 2014.

All in all, Audi would race diesels at Le Mans from 2006 to 2016, securing eight wins from 11 attempts.

Peugeot 908

Having long considered mounting a challenge to Audi at Le Mans, Peugeot arrived with a diesel of its own at the 2007 event to try to beat the Germans.

On its first attempt, Peugeot’s 908 HDi FAP finished second to Audi – a result that would be repeated in 2008. One of the drivers in the car who achieved that placing in 2008 was Nic Minassian, who now helps look after 908s at his racing team, BBM Sport, which specialises in maintaining Le Mans racers.

Peugeot 908 racing on a track

He spoke to the Press Association about the car’s abilities, saying: “The biggest difference was the torque. It was incredible how much power we had out of the corners. We made a huge amount of time with that. The chassis was as good as the engine – easy to drive and a great level of traction to be able to use the massive amounts of torque. Even in sixth gear you could feel the kick of the power changing up!”

2009 saw Peugeot finally take victory at Le Mans, and it would ultimately be the only time that the French firm defeated Audi at the great race before the 908 programme ended in 2011.

Audi R8 V12 TDI

Audi’s R8 was – and still is – the flagship performance car from the four-ringed manufacturer. And so, in the late-2000s, it made sense that the style of engine being used at Le Mans could make its way to the road.

The R8 V12 TDI debuted as a concept car – with intent for production – in 2008. The twin-turbocharged 6.0-litre V12 mounted in the middle of the car would be capable of producing 493bhp and reaching a top speed of 186mph.

Red Audi R8 V12 TDI

Sadly, though, for those wanting a supercar with greater fuel efficiency, the project was canned in May 2009, thanks to the budgetary issues with redeveloping the R8 to fit the sizeable engine.

Trident Iceni

Even though Audi’s attempt was of a higher profile, a small British firm beat it to conceptualising a diesel supercar.

The Trident Iceni has been spoken of as a car ready for production for many years, with prototypes and concepts being showcased as far back as the mid-2000s.

Trident Iceni

Said to be powered by a 6.6-litre turbodiesel producing 424bhp in lower specs, 651bhp with upgrades and efficiency to the tune of more than 100mpg, it appears that no cars have seen the light of day in customer hands, in spite of several relaunches.

JCB Dieselmax

JCBs were never built for speed, with the notable exception of the Dieselmax project.

yellow JCB Dieselmax

Making use of two 750bhp ‘JCB444’ engines – 5.0-litre, four-cylinder engines usually found in diggers - and four-wheel drive, the Dieselmax achieved 350mph and still holds the diesel land speed record to this day.


The XL1 is unique in this list for actually making it to production as a fully fledged road car.

The streamlined vehicle is powered by an 800cc two-cylinder engine helped along by an electric motor.

Volkswagen XL1 driving on a road

It was designed with the intention of driving 100km (62 miles) on a single litre of diesel, using a lightweight design and its minimal drag shape to help achieve that goal.

Just 250 production cars were built in the 2010s and sold with a price tag of £98,515.