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Flint: Diesels? No, Not Yet


Diesels aren’t going to be big here in America . Not yet.

 

Maybe some day they will. But I wouldn’t expect any serious volume increase in sales numbers for many years, and even then it would be in pickup trucks, if it comes.

Of course, there will be diesel car sales from the Germans — Mercedes and Volkswagen — but the numbers will be relatively small. Even the new German diesels won’t be sold next year in all 50 states because of emissions regulations from California which have been adopted in New York and other Eastern states.

The diesel people are true believers. No matter what you tell them, they won’t change an opinion.

 

“They are coming,” says my friend Fred, who does know his cars. “You just cannot argue with the laws of nature. They get 30 percent better fuel economy,” he points out.

 

He’s right. And as he notes, the hybrids we’ve seen so far get no advantage in highway driving. And nationwide, most of our driving is highway. But he’s a true believer and just won’t listen to the problems that have kept diesels from becoming a major part of our car market so far and are still with us.

First, let me list the pluses that would make you think we are going to see lots of diesels soon. First, the new diesels from Europe, like the new Mercedes, are very good and are beginning to arrive. The Germans are certain they will eventually pass our emissions regulations. We will see the new Mercedes diesel in a Jeep Grand Cherokee next year, and maybe some Chrysler cars eventually.

Second, the Japanese are getting involved. Honda says it has developed a new diesel emissions system that will meet our future requirements and we’ll see it in the U.S. in three or four years. Toyota has bought into Isuzu to get diesel expertise.

Third, Ford, Chrysler, and GM have all said they would/could have diesels in their regular pickup trucks — the F-150, Silverado, and Ram, in three or four years.

Last up is the trend in gasoline prices, and diesels have that 25-30 percent fuel economy advantage.

The problems

Now look at the problems. First, Detroit and Japan aren’t in love with diesels the way the Germans are. Production facilities aren’t ready or being planned in the U.S. “There’s no sign of them. You just can’t wave a magic wand and say, ‘Let there be diesels,’” says my friend Herb, a longtime auto reporter. There’s no surplus of diesel capacity in Europe and considering the exchange rate, large scale shipments of the engines seems unlikely, too. The Detroit companies aren’t diesel experts, either. In Europe Ford depends on Peugeot technology and General Motors depends on Fiat and Isuzu. They certainly aren’t eager to spend the billions of dollars necessary to build up diesel capacity in this country.

Second, the pickup truck diesels probably would be made by suppliers, like International or Cummins. But what would a pickup diesel for a 1500 model cost? If it’s $4000 to $5000, and that’s not unreasonable, how many would be sold?

Third, the emission control problem hasn’t been solved despite the cheerful talk. Even the newest diesels won’t be sold in California and New York and can’t make future national requirements. They may be able to eventually, yes, but that’s not for certain yet. Diesels are dirty engines: lots of nitrous oxide and diesel particle emissions, and our regulators want them as clean as gasoline engines.

Next, Honda’s new solution to the emissions throws everything into the air. If the Honda system works there’s a good chance that our regulators would not approve the German/American system. Then everyone but Honda would have to start over to match them. Here’s why: the German advanced systems depend on the driver refilling containers of urea; our regulators don’t like to depend on drivers replacing anything. They don’t trust us. The Honda system apparently doesn’t require such replacements. So if it really works our regulators likely would say “no” to any system requiring urea replacement by drivers.

Then, automakers are still improving gasoline-engine fuel economy so that they can approach diesel economy at a much lower cost. There’s the VW TSI approach in Europe with supercharger and turbocharger on the same engine; there’s the effort to develop camless engines. Diesels don’t sell that well among the lowest-price cars because a $3000 premium for a diesel engine on a $15,000 car is a whopper.

Next, fuel economy still is more important elsewhere than here. Gasoline prices are approaching $7 a gallon in Europe, but that three times the American price. Sure, taxes and the shrinking value of the dollar account for that difference but it’s hard to show a real economic advantage to our buyer. Figuring $2.70 a gallon, and 24-mpg diesel and 20-mpg gasoline, you need 150,000 miles to make up for a $3000 premium. Today the Europeans absorb some of the cost of the diesel premium to help sell them, but that won’t last forever.

And lastly, diesel fuel does get a tax break over there that it doesn’t get over here. Sometimes diesel fuel here even costs more than gasoline. All this lessens the payoff for the extra cost of a diesel engine.

This isn’t to knock the diesel. It’s popular in Europe, half the car sales. But there are still many hurdles before they become popular in the U.S. It will be a long wait.

 

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