The unleaded vs. diesel car divide: 4 ways they differ

It took awhile, but Americans are driving more diesel cars.

Diesel or unleaded? Though it may not be a question that has the same familiarity as Shakespeare's "To be or not to be," it's nonetheless a query that more people are asking themselves these days, because diesel is becoming more of an option for consumers, not just truckers.

On the world stage, the United States has often served as the trend setter, whether in pop culture or technological innovation. But the not-so-sudden shift toward diesel domestically has been the 180 degree difference globally, as Europe jumped on the diesel bandwagon several years ago. So much so, that an estimated 50 percent of all vehicles sold in Europe today use diesel, according to The New York Times. In the U.S, meanwhile, a mere 1 percent run on the unleaded alternative.

But it seems that the times are changing in today's automotive marketplace, as not only are consumers more interested in diesel, but more nameplates are offering them, including General Motors, Jeep, Mazda, BMW, as well as luxury model makers like Porsche and Volkswagen.

The reason is pretty clear: Diesel vehicles tend to be cheaper to operate, both in terms of the cost of fuel and the frequency with which drivers have to gas up. According to several estimates, a diesel engine gets approximately 30 percent to 35 percent better fuel economy than an engine that runs on unleaded.

Should you make the switch to diesel? Here are four of the key differences to keep in mind that could help your decision:

1. Price at the pump

The cost of fuel is never static, and that's particularly true when it comes to what you pay at the gas station for unleaded versus diesel. As of Sept. 28, the average price of unleaded regular was $2.32, based on data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, for diesel, the price was $2.47. Even though diesel is less refined than unleaded, it usually costs more due to seasonality, demand and taxes, according to the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing.

2. Availability

No matter what gas station you go to, you're guaranteed to find unleaded regular there. While an ever increasing number of gas stations are making diesel more available, it's not nearly as obtainable as passenger vehicles' main fuel source is.

3. Engine operability

Motor carriers have long used diesel for their commercial vehicles, but it hasn't been all about the bottom line. It's also because diesel-powered engines produce more torque. In other words, cars running on diesel can go from 0 to 60 mph a whole lot faster than unleaded.

4. Sticker price

At some point, diesel and unleaded vehicles may be comparable when it comes to what you'll pay at the dealer, but presently, expect to pay more for a diesel car than one that uses unleaded. If you go to Kelley Blue Book to do some comparison shopping, you'll find that diesels are several thousand dollars more than unleaded equivalents in the vast majority of cases.

However, with automakers making room for 2016 models, you may be able to find a real steal of a deal on diesel if you buy during a year-end sales event. AutoTrader has a list of what it considers to be the best diesel-powered 2015 model-year vehicles.