America’s love affair with diesel-powered vehicles is a complex one.
On the one hand, heavy duty pickup trucks from Ford, Chevrolet/GMC and Dodge Ram offer these engines which are prized for their horsepower, torque, towing capacity and decent fuel economy. On the other hand, diesel cars are a scarce commodity, offered in select German models, but not across the entire model line as they are in Europe.
So, why the difference?
That’s easy: diesel trucks appeal to work crews and others who absolutely need the power these trucks can offer. Diesel cars remind most older drivers of the slow-moving and slow-selling cars of the 1980s. Too bad that these diesels are the only ones some people remember.
Today’s diesels are a far-cry from diesels of yore. Yesterday’s diesels were slow and smelly, today’s diesels are typically turbo-powered and clean. Indeed, Volkswagen was the first manufacturer to produce a diesel meeting stiff emissions requirements in all 50 states, including hard to please California. Mercedes and BMW have followed suit and both are promising to meet rising diesel demand.
The German automakers have found a way to sell diesels in the U.S. despite what previously had been weak demand. Beginning in 2009 when Volkswagen introduced its current generation diesel engines, American drivers soon discovered that diesels weren’t smelly and certainly had the power to keep up. Importantly, their usual 30 to 35 percent fuel mileage advantage has convinced many buyers to consider a diesel, which are typically priced a bit less than gas-electric hybrids.
Moreover, diesel engines do not have spark plugs, cannot be tuned up and generally last much longer than equivalent gas engines. Diesel fuel prices, however, do fluctuate and as of January 2011 are higher than gas. However, the one dollar price premium seen in 2008 has disappeared with prices about 25 cents more than gasoline.
Other manufacturers do not appear ready to make diesel engines available in the United States. That’s because American clean car standards are the highest in the world, which means Japanese, Korean and other manufacturers have to modify their engines at significant cost to make them compatable in the U.S. Honda was planning to introduce a diesel Accord as recently as 2008, but scrapped plans for its 52 mpg car to concentrate on hybrids and other alternative models.
Even if California follows through and tightens emissions restrictions again as some have feared, diesels are likely to be in demand and sold in increasing numbers. The Golden State may tighten its standards, but the diesel producers – German automakers and American pickup truck manufacturers – are likely to find ways to stay competitive in all 50 states, no matter how complex consumers or state regulations are.