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Diesel gets its day

Posted by: David Welch on October 5, 2006

For about four years, I have been writing columns saying that Americans need to quit taking Toyota’s spoon-fed mantra that hybrids are the answer to the fuel economy question and look at diesel. Diesel engines are 30% more efficient than gasoline motors. Slap a turbo charger under the hood and you might even have an efficient car that is fun to drive. And yes, Dan Becker, you and the Sierra Club can stop wringing your hands. New technology will clean up the dirty exhaust. Sure, hybrids like the Prius offer great technology and get points for being unique. But the Prius gets my adrenaline pumping like re-runs of “Dallas.” And Toyota’s “fun to drive” Lexus hybrids don’t get great fuel economy.

Despite my bleating—and the obvious benefits of diesel—few in the New World are listening. In truth, its challenges are manifold. The diesel-fueled cars sold today do need to get cleaner to meet forthcoming clean air regulations. The technology is there, but it needs approval from U.S. regulators before it can be sold in all 50 states. There’s also a marketing issue. When most Americans think of diesel, images of the sooty, sputtering, noisy and unreliable cars of the ’80s come to mind. Diesel also has a low-tech image because it’s been around forever. Rudolf Diesel got his first patent for a diesel engine in 1894. And it’s most common use today is in 18-wheelers that belch black soot everywhere. The new diesel cars are clean, fast and gas to drive. But other than a few VW and Mercedes owners in the U.S., only European drivers get to experience that.

That might be about to change. Honda will start selling a clean diesel engine in 2009. This is a major development. To date, only the Germans have touted the joy of diesel. Put Honda in the spotlight and a whole cadre of American buyers might take a look. The fact that Honda—which is known by almost anyone who has ever read a car review as a tech-savvy auto maker—could finally dispel the noisome image diesels still have. I hope it works. Diesel could go a long way toward easing America’s oil addiction. Besides, why let Europeans have all the fun?

Reader Comments

Gregory Faulkner

October 9, 2006 2:43 PM

Diesel gets its day: Response

David Welch

Mr. Welch.

Diesels are coming along, or appear to be, more and quicker than you might think, as it seems automakers are finally coming out and talking diesel, since the bold moves made by DC lately--Wait a minute--I thought Ford was supposed to be the one with "Bold Moves"--have prompted others to talk more about diesel.

1. VW announced they will be back with fifty-state compliant TDIs in 2008 and has one clean diesel already for sale in all fifty states (Touareg TDI 5.0 V10), though it will go to forty-five state status in January. With the Touareg TDI, however, this will forever place VW as the first supplier of a clean diesel vehicle in the United States.

2. Daimler Chrysler will begin sales of four models in just a few days (Oct. 16) as the ULSD fuel becomes available at that time. ML320 CDI, R320 CDI, E320 BlueTec, and Dodge/Cummins 3500 Ram Cab-Chassis will all go on sale in forty-five states, except for the 3500 Ram which will be fifty-state legal. DC is working with engineers and the EPA and the ARB to get ready and for approval of fifty-state versions for all three of these 3.0 V6 MB powered vehicles. Daimler Chrysler will introduce clean diesel to the Jeep line in the first quarter of 2007 with a 3.0 V6 CRD Grand Cherokee for forty-five states as well. DC will also bring out the 3.0 V6 for the Dodge Sprinter Van, which currently uses the 2.7 I5 MB engine. All total, DC will have at least six diesel offerings, including the 8500 GVWR class by the end of first quarter 2007.

GM has announced that they will produce or procure a 4.9 V6 Duramax for use in light-trucks and SUVs by 2010. The have stated and defended the worthiness of the post, urea-injection system that they plan to use with this engine to make it fifty-state compliant. The urea-SCR system was questioned when Honda announced they are patenting a technology for all fifty states that will not require a separate resevoir or fluid to go in it to reduce NOx down 90% as the EPA will require. GM acted as if the Honda technology were not news to them, and that the Mercedes-Benz system would work better for their applications.

Ford VP of Marketing and Sales announced to a convention of dealers that the F150 will be part of a fleet revamping that will include new gas and diesel powertrain choices around 2008. I could not relook up the link, so the above is a paraphrase.

Honda announced that they will have a 2.2 I4 iccdi compliant diesel engine for all fifty states ready for sale by 2009. They have not as of yet announced which vehicles will get the diesel, but many think it will be the Accord and maybe the Odyssey.

Cummins announced that they had entered a contract to produce a line of light-duty diesel engines for a major auto company. They did not name the alliance(e), but a 4.2 V6 and a 5.6 V8 can be seen in a Dodge Ram on the DoE website.

All of the U.S. suppliers of heavy-light duty trucks (Ford, Chevy/GMC, and Dodge) will not let their old diesel lose emision compliance before offering new diesels in these vehicles. Ford plans to bring a 6.4 V8 Powerstroke, built by the familiar International Truck and Engine Company to replace the plagued, 6.0 V8 PSD. The new engine is supposed to include a twin turbo and piezo injection. GM plans to refine and modify the 6.6 V8 Duramax to meet new emission rules, but little information is available at this time on the specifics of this engine. And Dodge will get a new, 6.7 I6 Cummins diesel to replace the outgoing 5.9 I6. Although the heavy-duty class will not face an as strict NOx reduction for 2007, it is quite an accomplishment for all of them to meet the new reqirements on PM which will be close to matching PM requirements for gas engines.

AND NOW BREAKING and the MOST PROMING NEWS of All: Reuters reported yesterday (October 8), that VW, Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz all have entered into an alliance, which has been confirmed by VW and DC, that will include Bosch Industries to share BlueTec for use in the United States for 2008. This alliance, hopefully, will ease the cost of this technology as they hope to package these De-Nox systems into modular systems as Bosch being the supplier. Does this mean we will have diesels for Audis, BMWs, MBs, and VWs all some time in 2008? I think its a definite maybe!

I think Volvo will be the next to speak on this matter as they are known as a company that wants to bring diesel power to America, but, in their words..."are too small to go first".

I agree that there are big chanllenges ahead for diesel powered autos, although such a situation could make many Americans very happy. They just don't know that diesels could make them happy!

One will be the reliability of these completely redesigned engines for America that have not been tested. If manufacturers let these things get out without proper testing, diesel may forever lose favor with Americans.

Second is cost. Even though we are getting more diesel models, we are losing two models under $20,000 (New Beetle TDI, Golf/Rabbit TDI), and two models under $30,000 (Jeep Liberty CRD, New Jetta TDI); which leaves--not counting HLDT offerings--only diesel alternatives over $40,000. This will hardly serve to increase average, national fleet fuel economy, especially when you consider that these exotic choices will be designed more for performance than for frugality. On a positive note, however, many automakers must see the cost hurdle for fifty-state compliant diesels easier than the hurdle for hybrid vehicles evidenced by recent announcements.

Thirdly, is consumer acceptance of diesel power that you elude to, but if marketers can get enough Americans in these vehicles to drive them, I think we'll have a complete turnaround in perception. I drive a 2006 New Jetta TDI, and even it surprises folks though it uses antique, 1997, first generation, unit injection technology. These '07 diesels will absolutely put my '06 to shame in refinement, performance, emission levels, and efficiency, and will still be able to use B20 as an alternative blended fuel.

The fourth challenge is the continued anti-diesel bias propogated by our EPA, the California Air Resource Board, and some ignorant environmental groups that just simply--don't get it--when it comes to modern diesel power. When many think of diesel, they think that its a vehicle that must run on a nasty, petroleum-based diesel fuel. They don't realize that diesel simply means compression ignition, and the alternative fuel choices are more abundant, more seamless, and all contain more energy per unit than spark-ignition alternative fuels. Many think, like you say, that diesel is old technology, but--in fact--it's not as old as spark-ignition technologies.

I like you hope to see true diesel alternatives in the future. Diesel offerings like those seen in Europe that get nearly 90 mpg, and can run on biodiesel could drastically change our dependency situation quicker than any technology out there.

The hybrid craze was not all lost, because some elements of hybrids--those not associated with the electric motor, i.e. regenerative braking, will have positive attributes for engine designs for years to come. Regenerative braking will allow for an efficient means for auto-engine shutoff/restart, and for powering accessary equipment which could serve to improve fuel economy in new, lean-burn vehicles.


January 10, 2007 12:44 AM

i just hope that oil price will reach as much as $100/ barrel so that a lot of people will start patronizing diesel vehicles...


November 4, 2007 6:54 AM

Small engine, small cars will always get good mileage ( Prius / Insight (I used to drive Insight ) but so will a scooter.
C/net test drove a Mercedes E320 Bluetec
and got 36.8 mpg on the highway.
Many people get over 50 mpg in their diesel VWs - with 10 year old engine technology.
Give me a 1.3L diesel VW Lupo like Europe ( 3L fuel goes 100 km ) and I'd never look at another hybrid.


January 10, 2008 1:50 PM

You wanted $100 a barrel... its here and we do need more diesel offerings from all manufacturers.

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