With advances that have diesel passenger vehicles running cleaner, smarter and further than ever before, European carmakers implore Americans to take a second look and this time around, they just might
By Alicia McGarry
Breaking through the staunchly held petroleum vehicle market in the United States has proven a formidable task for every fuel alternative. From electric to ethanol and every attempt there within, eco-driven carmakers have tried—and tried, and tried again—to entice American car buyers to exchange their super-sized, gas-glugging SUVs for svelter, slighter styles with alternative-energy engines, to no real avail.
But with the introduction of clean-burning diesel technologies, the U.S. consumer vehicle stage is set to evolve—and quickly. Of course, many a theory has been applied to the perplexing consumer side diesel quandary in the U.S., but, like most things, the actual reasons are multifactorial.
A quick 'n dirty history
Back in the '70s, diesel passenger vehicles experienced a short stint of success, oft attributed to the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. This would mark the first point in modern times that consumers considered diesel as a viable potential to alternative fuel, but consumer interest in diesel waned when gasoline became plentiful once more.
Even still, perhaps diesel would have had a better run if it didn't so fully live up to its stinky, dirty, smelly stereotype—even if that was, in part, perpetuated by the petroleum powers-that-be, determined to maintain petroleum's stronghold over the U.S. market. Rather than rehash old-hat political economics and other reasons for diesel's lack of consumer-vehicle success heretofore, several European—and now, U.S. — carmakers have instead taken the high road, reinventing diesel passenger vehicle offerings to make them more enticing than other alternatives.
And, as we know, this newfound allure in diesel isn't something exactly new. What has changed is the carmakers' approach—and intent—on captivating the U.S. market.
In the U.S., Chevrolet-GMC, Ford and Ram have held their own in the U.S. truck market, but all have plans to roll out consumer-courting light-load trucks in a bid to rebrand the prevailing perception that diesel be reserved for the heavy-duty and commercial class.
As for that notorious diesel-engine roar and stench, neither are any longer characteristics of diesel's modern manifestation, either. In fact, today's diesel engines are actually quieter than their gas powered counterparts.
Ready to roll
On the other side of the pond, carmakers like Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen have served the diesel's passenger-vehicle market well, with a share that has grown from 25 to more than 50 percent in the past decade.
In fact, many of those same Euro-luxe carmakers have major plans to roll out upper-echelon luxury sedans and SUVs here, stateside. The Porsche Cayenne will be offered with a diesel engine sometime this year, followed by an Audi release next year. And that's just the beginning.
Lars Ullrich, director of marketing and business excellence for Bosch, told LISA Today in a recent interview that company data indicated that 32 percent of Americans were considering a diesel purchase for their next vehicle, up from just 12 percent in 2006.
By 2014, automakers will have introduced more than 50 clean-diesel models into the U.S. market. In 2016, that number will have more than doubled, especially with American caretakers now getting in on the action, hoping for a slice of the pie.
By 2015, Bosch Diesel Systems projects a 10 percent market penetration, according to Ullrich.
This summer, General Motors plans to release a diesel version of its Cadillac ATS, and by this time next year, GM will have already rolled out its Chevrolet Cruze, and while very few details have been revealed surrounding the release of either vehicle, GM promises an MPG that will stand to impress even the staunchest diesel naysayers.
Modern diesel engines, however, have come a long way since working so hard to shed their past skin. Today's diesel engines achieve 40 percent greater fuel efficiency than their petroleum counterparts, with nearly 25 percent less CO, emissions.
Diesel powers through; hybrids stalls
And in an economy that's forced consumers to be more gas-savvy than ever before, gas-electric hybrids have done little more than disappoint—and the numbers show, peaking at a meager 3.6 percent in 2009, and dwindling to just 1.6 percent in 2011, according to Edmunds. With an invoice price that's an average of $8,000 more than their fuel-only counterparts, consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify the extra funds spent on the front end, especially when some of the latest compact, fuel-only entries—such as the Hyundai Sonata phenom---nab better mileage than even some of the best performing hybrids.
Perhaps even more problematic for the hybrid has been the stereotypically sedate power (although that's also another prevailing belief that is, for the most part, unfounded) when it comes to get-up and-go something American car buyers have consistently rated as top-of-mind when setting out to make a passenger-vehicle purchase.
With a thirst for power that's been left mostly unquenched by hybrid offerings, Americans are now turning back to diesel passenger alternatives—at a rate that has in one year outpaced the cumulative growth of electric and hybrid vehicles, growing by nearly 28 percent in 2011 alone.
A tipping point?
All things considered, 2012 could very well be the year for diesel to rise to its long-sought position as petroleum's worthy contender in the U.S. consumer-vehicle playing field.So, will the diesel passenger market ultimately stand the tests of time, consumer perceptions and a market that's about as volatile as they come?
To relinquish the stronghold on the market petroleum's powers-that-be have had on the U.S. would incite a significant, paradigmatic shift much more than the types of cars commonly seen traversing U.S. roadways—it would be a veritable revolution for all facets of the diesel industry, and as such, opportunities are sure to abound for anyone with fingers in the diesel industry.
And if there's any point of convergence for all of the factors necessary to bring about a tipping point, that time is now.
"An avalanche of clean diesels coming into the market should boost diesel vehicle sales," and significantly," Ullrich said in the same story. "That makes us very optimistic."
About the author
Alicia McGarry is an editor for Networx
Communication. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.