Will New, Cleaner Diesel Cars Fuel Comeback in U.S.?
By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2004; Page A01
Joe Gibbs is back coaching the Redskins, '70s TV shows return as
big-budget movies and now the auto industry is pushing a technology
that's been around the block a few times:
The last time most Americans gave diesel a try, it was smoky and loud
and had no acceleration. Diesel was an 18-wheeler clattering up a
hill, a 1979 Cadillac with black exhaust stains on the back. U.S.
carmakers eventually quit offering diesel engines except in the
biggest pickup trucks.
Now several companies are bringing them back, hoping to do for diesel
power what the Atkins diet has done for red meat -- turn public
perception on its head. They are pitching diesel as not only good for
drivers, but good for the planet.
"This is really a conservation technology," said Allen Schaeffer,
director of the Diesel Technology Forum, an alliance of automakers,
engine companies and fuel suppliers.
Because of advances in electronics, diesel vehicles now do a far
better job of controlling how fuel burns in the engine, eliminating
much of the smoke and noise of 20 years ago. That allows some of
diesel's good qualities to shine: It gets 20 to 40 percent better fuel
economy than gasoline power. Diesel engines tend to be far more
durable than gasoline engines, routinely lasting for many hundreds of
thousands of miles. A diesel has tremendous low-end power, which is
good for hauling boats or jumping off the line at a stoplight.
What's more, the federal government has mandated that low-sulfur
diesel fuel be available in the United States by 2006, which experts
say will help diesel engines meet strict air pollution guidelines that
go into effect in 2007.
"Historically, agencies concerned about the environment have not been
big fans of diesel, but the new technology that's emerged in the last
few years has actually made us big supporters," said Jeffrey R.
Holmstead, Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator in
charge of programs to control air pollution. EPA projections show that
if diesels accounted for a third of all vehicle-miles traveled in the
country by 2020, the nation could save a million barrels of fuel a day
and consumers could save more than $20 billion per year.
In Europe, where tax breaks make diesel fuel much cheaper than
gasoline, more than 40 percent of all new vehicles are diesel-powered
-- more than double the amount of just five years ago. European
carmakers would like to expand that market into North America, but
they are worried that Japanese rivals Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda
Motor Co. are cutting them off with a different type of alternative
power technology -- gasoline-electric hybrids.
So the Europeans are making their move. In April, Mercedes-Benz plans
to offer its first U.S. diesel product since 1999, the E-320. This
fall, DaimlerChrysler AG plans to begin selling a diesel version of
its Jeep Liberty SUV. And Volkswagen AG, which has been offering
diesel-powered passenger cars here since 1996, this year plans to
introduce diesel versions of its Passat sedan and its Touareg SUV.
If those products do well, more will probably follow. "For us the
biggest thing is how well the Liberty is going to be received. I think
that will dictate what our moves are," said Jim Weidenbach, manager of
small diesel applications at the Chrysler Group.
DaimlerChrysler sells diesel versions of its PT Cruiser, Jeep Grand
Cherokee and minivans in Europe, and could bring any or all of those
to the United States if the Liberty catches on, Weidenbach said.
"The big problem is going to be consumer acceptance," said George
Peterson, president of AutoPacific, an auto industry consulting firm
in California. "The experience most Americans have had with diesel
passenger cars is negative."
That experience was shaped during the energy crisis of the late 1970s,
he said, when General Motors Corp. slapped diesel engines into some of
its cars and did not engineer them well. Today, surveys show that
about 2 percent of consumers are interested in diesel products,
"Americans aren't going to go with diesel," said Art Spinella, who
tracks auto consumer attitudes for CNW Market Research in Oregon.
"Every time we do a survey of alternatives to gas engines, diesels
come up at the bottom. It's got a bad reputation and GM is to blame. .
. . Americans are very cautious about anything that burned them once
GM still puts diesel engines in its Chevrolet Silverado heavy-duty
trucks and in nearly half of its vehicles sold in Europe. But the
company is cautious about jumping back into the technology in North
America, said Charlie Frees, GM's executive director of diesel
engineering. Gasoline prices here are so low that fuel savings take
years to offset the higher up-front cost of buying a diesel vehicle,
Frees said. And though diesel engines are far cleaner today than 20
years ago, they have a hard time meeting U.S. emissions standards,
which are stricter than those in Europe, he said.
Diesel engines put out less carbon dioxide than gasoline engines, but
emit more soot. The advent of cleaner diesel fuel in 2006 will help
fix that, but engineers are still figuring out how to make diesel
engines clean enough for the tough federal air standards that will hit
California and the four other states that follow its
toughest-in-the-nation clean-air guidelines -- New York, Maine,
Massachusetts and Vermont -- ban the sale of new diesel vehicles. And
a study last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that
"the high up-front cost of diesel engines and emission controls allows
improved gasoline vehicles to deliver energy security and global
warming benefits at a lower cost."
Ford Motor Co., which sells about 200,000 diesel work trucks a year,
is waiting to see how both technology and the market for diesel
develops before rolling out mainstream products, spokesman Joe Koenig
For those who are introducing products this year, the key is working
to educate drivers that the technology has changed, said Michael
Bernacchi, marketing professor at the University of Detroit, Mercy.
"But that education has to be driven by the public really
understanding the value of diesel -- and I don't mean the value to the
environment. I mean the value to performance," Bernacchi said.
Mercedes, Jeep and Volkswagen all have mounted unusual marketing
campaigns for their diesels that concentrate on getting people into
their products and building word of mouth instead of pasting images
all over SuperBowl TV spots. All have participated in alternative-fuel
events, such as the Bibendum Challenge rally in California, and have
brought their diesels to Washington to give lawmakers and members of
the media a chance to sit behind the wheel.
Mercedes, which promotes the E-320 as the only luxury diesel in the
United States, also is counting on a core group of enthusiasts who
prefer diesels because the cars have been known to last for 300,000
miles or more and because they can drive 700 miles without refueling,
company spokesman Jim Resnick said.
Jeep plans to put its diesel Liberty at the Lollapalooza rock festival
later this year, and to feature it at the company's annual Camp Jeep
retreats for owners and their families held in California and
Virginia. It also had the diesel Liberty at the Winter X Games, where
extreme snowboarders and their fans could take it for a ride.
Volkswagen, until now the Lone Ranger of the diesel passenger car
movement in the United States, is trying to build its customer base
slowly. The company encourages its dealers to put customers in turbo
diesels without telling them what they're driving, only revealing the
truth after they've been impressed by the performance, said Volkswagen
spokesman Tony Fouladpour. "I know it sounds like an oxymoron to say
'high-tech diesel engine,' but it's not. We have some of the most
sophisticated engines around," he said.
The trick is getting Americans to believe that in sufficient numbers
to make diesel profitable to the manufacturers. Volkswagen's
best-selling diesel model is the New Beetle, with a fuel-efficiency
rating -- about 50 miles per gallon -- and sales volume -- nearly
57,000 last year -- that are both comparable to Toyota's Prius hybrid.
"There are barriers to acceptance of diesel in the U.S., and they've
got to be overcome," said Dennis Fitzgibbons, director of public
policy for Chrysler. "The most clever marketing campaign in the world
can't overcome a bad real-world experience."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company