By Richard Williamson
Scripps Howard News Service
Plug-in hybrids may generate more eco-buzz when the calendar flips, but diesels could prove more powerful in revving up the automotive economy.
Those of us who remember diesel-powered hatchbacks of the '70s as loud, dirty and troublesome may have to adjust our thinking to see them as "Green Cars." But the diesel-powered Audi A3 TDI won the title of Green Car of the Year at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, following in the tracks of Jetta TDI, another diesel from Audi's parent Volkswagen. And there are more where those came from.
In truth, diesels have become quiet, strong and clean, not to mention amazingly economical. I recently drove a diesel-powered Lancia Delta through the hills and highways of Italy's Tuscany region for a week and came away very impressed with the compact hatchback's comfort and performance. After more than 200 miles of sight-seeing, I only needed to replace a quarter of a tank of fuel before returning the Delta to the rental car agency.
Now, there's serious talk about Chrysler's new parent Fiat rebadging the Delta for the North American market. Chrysler is expected to show its version of the Delta at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jan. 11-24. While Chrysler would no doubt introduce the gasoline-powered version first, the diesel might be coming later.
Chrysler has already blazed trails with diesel versions of its Grand Cherokee SUV and Liberty crossover SUV.
Europe's affinity for diesel is also prompting Nissan's Infiniti luxury division to introduce a V6 diesel version of the M sedan. To compete with Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi and the other luxury brands in Europe, Infiniti must have a diesel, company execs have said. To turn the diesel version profitable, Infiniti needs to make it available in its largest market, North America.
And another Japanese brand, Suzuki, could gain a diesel engine through Volkswagen's nearly 20 percent stake in the company. Suzuki, which specializes in small cars like the impressive SX4, is likely to offer diesels first in India before attempting to sell the concept in the U.S.
While 50 percent of the cars in Europe are diesels, they are only likely to reach 10 percent of the U.S. market by 2015, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Past perceptions of diesels are only part of the explanation for the lagging demand. Politics and economics are overarching factors in the marketing of the cars.
When fuel prices spiked to record levels after Operation Iraqi Freedom, diesel fuel prices surpassed those of premium unleaded, despite the fact that diesel is easier to refine. Supplies of diesel were reduced as refiners shifted their capacity to gasoline in all its myriad formulations.
Diesel fuel pumps are also more difficult to find, though they are not as rare as natural gas stations or hybrid plug-in posts.
To comply with U.S. particulate standards, most diesels have to be fitted with more expensive after-treatment equipment than what Europe requires.
Europeans demand greater fuel economy than Americans for one simple reason: Their fuel costs more. A $3 gallon of diesel fuel in the U.S. would cost $7 in Italy. While taxes account for 70 percent of the pump price in European and only 17 percent in the U.S., Europe keeps taxes lower on diesel than on gasoline. Tax incentives would go a long way toward making diesels and bio-fuel diesels a growing trend in the U.S.
To make diesels more attractive, the European carmakers are seeking to educate American buyers on how the new engines perform.
The Audi A3 TDI's 42 miles per gallon on the highway is competitive with that of a hybrid.
The 2-liter diesel 4-cylinder engine in Volkswagen's 2010 Jetta TDI (Turbo Diesel Injection) powered a Jetta to a Guinness World Record for Lowest Fuel Consumption. Production models of the TDI trim are rated at 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway. While pricier than the gasoline-powered version, the TDI is attractively priced at $22,660.
VW also sold a TDI version of the Golf, which is a descendant of the original Rabbit that was known as a smoky noisemaker. With the diesel Golf, observers are unlikely to identify the car as a diesel, even with the engine running.
BMW, which has been building diesel engines since 1983, is promoting the new clean diesel technology with a dedicated Web site www.bmwdieselcars.com. With its 335d and X5 diesels already on the road in the U.S., BMW promises that more are on the way.