California Autos Examiner

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Diesels? You'd Better Speak German

There was such promise for diesels. Great economy. Wonderful torque. Technology finally allowing 50 state sales. In the end it looks like only the German, and especially Volkswagen/Audi are going to be offering compression ignition to the masses here in the States. What's the dealio?

If you talk to Honda, they'll tell you that the cost of meeting 50 state emissions finally killed their efforts. However, I'm skeptical of that claim. While some precious metal costs have skyrocketed as of late, Honda had to know going in what the costs were going to be. No, I think the true killer is the massive acceptance of hybrid/electric technology. Consumers want easy to understand solutions. With hybrids that is exactly what you get: simple. Diesels are more difficult to promote. Firstly, you have to dispel all notions of the diesels of yore: no smoke and clattering engines this time around. Then you have to counter the price of diesel, which has bounced around but at times commanded a tremendous premium. Consumers ask, "Why should I pay more for a car that will cost me more to fill up and may be hard to find fuel for?"

There are ways to shift perception: getting buyers behind the wheel would do a lot. As the saying goes, "Americans buy horsepower and drive torque." Diesel engines have never ending mountains of torque. You could also adjust the fuel tax structure to give diesel an advantage, just as they do in Europe. However, I think a lot of folks are simply deciding not to bother with it all and simply run with either hybrid and electric vehicles.

With the Japanese pretty much deciding to stay out of the diesel game here in the States and the American brands with no money to fool around that leaves the Germans and India's Mahindra to offer diesels to interested consumers. According to BMW, their diesel models have not taken off and Mercedes current sells about eight percent diesel on models that have optional diesels. It's far too soon to speculate how Mahindra will fair with its diesel trucks. That leaves Volkswagen as the clear diesel winner: 30 percent of Jettas sold are diesels, an amazing 50 percent of Jetta wagons are diesels. Now there will be diesel Touaregs, which I have driven and am quite impressed with, Golfs and you'll also soon see diesel Q7s and A3s from Audi.

Going forward, I'd love to see Mercedes pull the trigger on a four cylinder diesel for our market, which looks more likely after the New York show and for BMW offer a diesel 3 series wagon (c'mon BMW, just look at the Jetta, wagon buyers want it!). I hope that VW will plop a diesel into the Passat and its new, American built sedan which will be arriving in the not so distant future. Should the Fiat/Chrysler alliance come to fruition, I'd also like to see some Italian diesel technology make its way here as well. In the past Chrysler did offer a diesel Grand Cherokee and briefly a diesel Liberty, but at the NY show, it only made mention of international diesel offerings, nothing for the home team.

There could be future advancements that help diesel's case. For example, BorgWarner's Beru unit has developed a pressure sensitive glow plug that can cut NOx emissions in half! Small engines could meet U.S. regulations with only need a particulate filter and larger motors would not need expensive urea-based injection systems. Pretty sweet! However, will such a technology arrive in time to help the diesel passenger car engine expand beyond the fringe here in the U.S.? I tend to doubt it will. I'd be happy to be proven wrong, though.

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