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?