Are Americans Ready for Clean, Efficient Diesel for Their Cars?

By Jason Lu

08.13.2008

There has been quite a commotion recently in the automotive world about what seems like the beginning of a diesel invasion. In fact, we covered this same topic just over a year ago. Many German automakers such as Volkswagen and Audi have begun to import their diesel power plants across the pond. VW’s Jetta is the first diesel in its class and the Audi Q7 diesel is expected later this year. Diesel power offers many advantages over conventional gasoline engines. A vehicle that is powered by a diesel engine will have more torque than its gasoline counterpart; although not always, diesel fuel is generally cheaper in most countries and states. The most important advantage though, is that diesel packs more energy than gasoline does in the same amount of fuel, resulting in an increased fuel economy, often more than 25 percent better. The technology has been there and for the past 20 years, Europeans have proven that it is effective, but are Americans ready to accept diesel technology?

There are two answers. The first one is yes: America is ready for diesel technology. People are beginning to be more environmentally conscious and they are also ready to switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles. The second answer though, is no, because the American public has no knowledge of the advancements of clean diesel technology. Americans have a negative – I’d argue outdated – perception of diesels. A typical American will refer to diesel cars as those with loud, popping, dirty engines that spew black smoke. But when Americans travel to Europe, they often don’t notice that more than half of the cars there run on diesel fuel. Today’s diesel technology has made diesel as clean as gasoline and 97% of the sulfur content in diesel has been filtered out. In fact, engines equipped with clean diesel technology can now pass emissions requirements in all 50 states. Black smoke and loud, popping engines are a thing of the past. Driving a diesel car is no more different than driving a gasoline-fueled car, except you will get more torque with a significant increase in fuel economy with the diesel.

So why pick diesels over hybrids? The answer is simple. The majority of Americans drive long distances at high speeds, but the purpose of the hybrid is to offer more efficiency for city driving. That’s why city mileage is oftentimes higher than highway mileage in hybrids. On the highway, however,, hybrids are no better than regular gasoline cars because highway speeds are often beyond the speed range of the hybrid system’s effectiveness, so your hybrid will run on pure gasoline like a conventional car. Diesels however, shine on both the highway and in the city. A TDI (diesel) Volkswagen Lupos, can achieve more than 70 miles a gallon (U.S.) in mixed driving, as opposed to the Prius, which gets only 45. A conventional Ford Mondeo, a mid-sized sedan, can get a combined fuel economy in the low thirties for mixed driving. Compare that to the forties achieved with the TDCi (diesel) Mondeo. When it comes to SUVs, a regular Audi Q7 achieves 14 miles to a gallon in mixed driving. Buy it with a diesel, and that figure jumps into the mid-twenties. In all of these vehicles, performance is not sacrificed for fuel economy. The Audi Q7 Diesel generates 406 lb-ft. of torque, more than Audi’s exotic R8 supercar that costs twice as much. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?

Now the question arises: Isn’t there a premium price to pay for such high mileage though? Get this: When you buy a diesel, you pay less than half the premium than you would for a hybrid. The reason is that when you buy a hybrid, you are buying a car with two powerplants and a large battery. In a hybrid, there is a battery that powers the electric motor, which powers the car. Then you have a gasoline engine that charges the battery and also powers the car. The result is a cost premium that exceeds $5,000 for the extra motor and battery, and unless you really put miles on your hybrid, it becomes difficult to earn back that $5,000 from your fuel savings. Diesel cars, however, can achieve equal or better mileage with one engine and a filter that cleans the exhaust, allowing the cost premium to be as low as $1,500.

Unfortunately, Americans still need to fill the perception gap of diesel fuel, and that is no easy task. “We’ve always been a proponent,” says Mercedes’ E-Class chief, Bart Herring. “But changing the perspective of the rest of the market will take time and effort.” The EPA is also not helping, as their current testing method for fuel economy put diesels at a disadvantage, often labeling them with much lower EPA estimates than the vehicles would encounter in real world driving. Diesel drivers report more than 18% more fuel economy than what the EPA posts and even Volkswagen was surprised that its Jetta TDI was only rated at 30 city and 41 highway. Many drivers have reported upward of 50 miles per gallon. In many parts of the U.S., diesel fuel is more expensive too, but the increased fuel economy that you get from diesel offsets the extra cost and will be cheaper in the long run. Thankfully, Volkswagen has launched a campaign that is aimed at educating the public about clean diesel technology, placing diesel test cars ready at hand for a demonstration. Meanwhile though, only time will tell if Americans are ready to make the switch to diesels and accept an already proven technology that is likely to ease their pain at the pump.

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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4 Comments

  1. Very good observations by Jason. What will get Americans won over is driving a diesel and experiencing how different it is from what they think diesels are like. We rented a Fiat Croma in Spain last year with the 1.9L turbo diesel, 6 spd. manual. It was great fun to drive, had a lot of torque, and the fuel economy was truly impressive, even though we were often driving 140kph on the highways.

    Diesel fuel can continue to improve greatly, as researchers find ways to increase the bio/plant oil content, add octane enhancers to offset, etc.

  2. Whatever mispercetions about current diesels exist, the fact remains that diesel models cost more than their gasoline conterparts in the same model, and diesel fuel costs 20% more than gasoline in the U.S. By the time you pay the extra money at purchase, and pay the ongoing extra fuel costs while you own the diesel, it makes the payback horizon stretch way out.

  3. Market Hawk is spot on. ULSD is far more expensive to produce than the diesel of old so these days the price margin between petrol and diesel has been wiped out except where governments make the effort to subsidise or reduce tax on diesel (like they do in parts of Europe). Factor in the often higher service costs of diesels (even with long service intervals) compared to their petrol sisters and you can have a very long payback time on a diesel vehicle.

    As for economy improvements…..anyone noticed what is posible out of some of the direct injection technology being applied to a petrol/gas fuelled engine these days – VW is there with a 1.4 turbo/supercharged gas engine in the Golf with outputs better than the 2.0 gas engine!

    And I will take on Jason about the driving style of diesels. I’ve exclusively owned diesel vehicles since 1998. Not one of these vehicles drive like their petrol sisters. Petrol cars have the podium when it comes to acceleration so they get off the line in no time. Diesels can’t do that….they rely on their torque which builds up relatively slowly. Automakers often use automatics to get round this behaviour but owners then tend to wring the nuts out of the motor trying to get them to drive like their petrol sisters.

    Put simply, petrol cars are ragers and revvers……diesels are simply relentless. And no matter their idiosyncracies and extra costs…….I’ll take relentless every time.

  4. Market Hawk is dead on.

    Generally speaking, diesel powered cars get 20% better mileage than their petrol powered counterparts. Several years ago, that was a good deal.

    Now however, thanks to the ULSD mandate, diesel costs 20-25% more than gas. (75-80 cents/gallon more in Arizona)

    I would never even consider buying a diesel powered car now, as you can never recoupe the added expense of the diesel powerplant.

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