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Can the U.S. Learn to Love Diesel? U.S. Manufacturers Aim to Find Out

If U.S. carmakers have anything to do with it, diesel engines will soon lose the image of being primarily for delivery vehicles and semi-trucks. 

European drivers have happily gone the diesel route for decades because of their high performance value and fuel efficiency, but Americans have been slow to adopt the vehicles.  The perception among most consumers is that they’re noisy, smelly and slow, but changes in diesel technology mean that’s not true anymore.

Manufacturers like Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Audi, BMW and Volkswagen have all attempted to sell consumers on the attributes of diesel vehicles, yet they still only amount to roughly 3% of the market, a figure that’s about the same as hybrid sales. In Europe, diesel-powered vehicles amount to about half the auto market.

Automakers are geared to make a big push to convince U.S. buyers to embrace diesel technology.  New CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) laws http://www.nhtsa.gov/fuel-economy that require an increase in fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025, means that manufacturers are gearing up to find ways to meet those standards by all means necessary.  They’re poised with new diesel models and new marketing efforts to convince buyers to buy them.

GM is leading the pack of automakers with the Cruze 2.0 Turbo Diesel http://www.chevrolet.com/cruze-diesel-reveal.html that it just introduced at this year’s Chicago Auto Show.  The vehicle, which begins mass production in Ohio this spring, will hit showrooms this summer with a price tag of $25,695. That figure is higher than that of the gas version of the vehicle, which is priced at $17,940. However, the company rationalizes the rise in price by saying that the average cost in the U.S. is roughly $28,000 per vehicle.  The diesel’s gas savings at a combined city and highway rate of 42 miles per gallon makes the price increase well worth it.  They estimate the car will get 50 mpg on the highway. GM says the engine has an impressive 248 lb.ft. of torque and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in a speedy 8.6 seconds. They expect sales of the Cruze diesel to be roughly 10,000 vehicles per year, mostly on the East and West coasts.

GM’s press release about the vehicle boasts: “Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel fills an important role in Chevrolet’s diverse four-cylinder lineup, and is primed to win over diesel devotees and compact car buyers with its performance, torque and fuel economy. We leveraged engineering expertise from around the globe to develop a world-class, low-emissions engine to give U.S. and Canadian customers a car that’s both fun to drive and practical at the pump.”

The Cruze is the first diesel sedan that GM has made since it unleashed the Chevrolet Chevette diesel in 1986.  Oldsmobile’s diesel version of the Cutlass Supreme in 1979 is considered by auto aficionados to be one of the worst cars ever manufactured.  Its colossal failure is blamed for turning Americans against the vehicles and making diesel a dirty word, according to Edmunds http://www.edmunds.com/.

With gas prices continuing to escalate, 2013 might just be the year that auto buyers learn to love the diesel engine. According to Diesel Technology Forum http://www.dieselforum.org/, U.S. sales of diesel vehicles rose by 35% in the first quarter of 2012, over 2011.   Diesel-powered engines are estimated to be 30 to 35% more fuel-efficient than gasoline engines.  They also produce a higher rate of torque, which gives them more power. 

The trade-off in diesel power and fuel efficiency is the higher price of diesel fuel, which is averaging around $4 a gallon, versus about $3.56 for gasoline.  But then again, diesel engines tend to last longer than those powered by gas, and diesel vehicles have a higher resale value.

As more car makers jump on the diesel bandwagon, consumers in the U.S. will see more vehicles hit showroom floors in the near future. According to the Practical Environmentalist, http://www.practicalenvironmentalist.com/, the 2012 diesel lineup includes the Volkswagen Beetle TDI, the BMW 33d Sports Wagon, the Mercedes GL250 BlueTEC SUV and the Porsche Cayenne Diesel SUV. They estimate that more rigorous diesel emissions standards in Europe as of the year 2014 will result in more diesel vehicles crossing the Atlantic to U.S. markets.

Other new American diesel models include the Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility vehicle and the Mazda6 sedan.  Time will tell if consumers on this side of the Atlantic will embrace the benefits of diesel power over gasoline.