Volkswagen made the announcement shortly before Christmas: It officially sold more than 100,000 diesel-engined passenger cars in America in 2013. That should prove there’s a market for them. So why aren’t there more diesels cropping up here?
Fuel efficiency is a sought-after thing in the era of gas prices that can’t seem to dip below $3 a gallon even when the price of a barrel of oil dips into the mid-$90 level or lower. So I’m not shocked Volkswagen and its upmarket brand, Audi, managed to sell a combined 100,000-plus diesel-powered passenger vehicles this year. Ruralites like me can see the appeal in ways city folk perhaps can’t: On the highway, diesel will meet or sometimes beat a hybrid’s fuel efficiency, and their prodigious low-RPM torque usually makes them a lot more satisfying to drive than the CVT-laden, slow-to-pull-away-from-a-stoplight hybrids with which we’re all too familiar.
I’ll be blunt: The fuel economy I experienced in several hybrids I’ve tested in 2013 has made me go, “Meh.” I mean, I had a Toyota Highlander Hybrid that managed to eke out a 27-MPG average over the course of a week of gentle driving on two-lane highways as I commuted to work. That’s just three MPG better than the non-hybrid Highlander’s EPA highway rating A similarly seven-passenger Volkswagen Touareg, meanwhile, is rated for 29 MPG highway by the EPA, and some owners report breaking a real-world 30 MPG in their Touaregs TDIs, which are powered by a V6 diesel engine. Meanwhile, I averaged about 43 MPG in similarly easy driving with a Toyota Prius V. A VW Passat TDI would meet that figure, according to its EPA highway fuel economy estimate — and in this case, owners’ reports are often beating that EPA figure by an even wider margin than the Touareg.
I say all that to say this: Diesels and hybrids offer similar buy-in costs versus a conventional gasoline-powered car. Being that diesel engines will cost the consumer more money, and given the fuel’s not-so-stellar reputation in America that comes from the bad old days of smoke-belching, slow, trouble-prone oil-burners of the late ’70s and early- to mid-’80s, I can understand why automakers have been tepid in their willingness to give diesel-powered passenger cars another try. It means developing new engines and/or jumping through hoops to get diesel engines used elsewhere in the world, where diesel is more common in passenger automobiles, and that ain’t cheap. Which means the cost of buying a diesel vehicle will be quite a bit higher than buying a comparable gasoline-engined model — the aforementioned VW Passat carries a roughly $2,200 premium if you want a diesel engine.
That being said, I think the manufacturers are hedging their bets that the consumer will not spend that extra money for the extra efficiency the diesel engine will provide — and I think they’re wrong for not at least giving the consumer a chance.
The skeptic will point to VW/Audi’s 100,000 sales as a tiny slice of the 14.5 million cars sold in America in 2012. Normally, conservative business types are the first to bring up this criticism of diesel’s future in the ‘States. Those same types also often point out diesel’s higher taxation and resultant higher price per gallon in most parts of the country, citing it as another reason diesel faces an uphill, nigh-on impossible climb to acceptance here.
I don’t buy that anymore than I buy Volkswagens or Audis — and I don’t buy the latter simply because of two things: (1) Volkswagen dealers are few and far between in rural Tennessee, and (2) I’m still not fully convinced of VW vehicles’ long-term reliability. I say that only after a string of friends have had so-so long-term experiences mostly thanks to electrical issues and reliability review sites like TrueDelta have shown not-so-great ratings on VW products as they age.
So far, only two non-European brands have offered diesel passenger cars in America — and one is an SUV: The Chevrolet Cruze Diesel — itself based on a car whose short history of reliability reviews proves none too flattering, and the Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel, an SUV whose most recent model year has produced a lot of owner complaints. But it’s my belief that if more manufacturers offered — and perfected — diesel engines for American passenger car use, those reliability concerns would fall by the wayside. When you’re the only kids on the block slinging diesel engines, and you have a dedicated diesel fanbase willing to overlook minor imperfections to get the powertrain choice it wants, what’s the incentive to improve?
Let me answer that for you: There’s not one. It’s the same reason the Nissan Frontier and Toyota Tacoma are dated, relatively inefficient midsize pickup trucks — nobody else has been competing in that market, giving those two no incentive to improve the existing trucks or develop new ones. A look at the products available overseas in either market — diesel passenger cars and midsize trucks — should show how much better the vehicles can be in an atmosphere of fierce competition.
Encouraging such competition domestically would do a few things:
First of all, it would get diesel in the minds of more consumers as a viable way to travel more efficiently — especially rural folks like me.
Secondly, it would by its very nature improve the cars themselves, making them more desirable. Inevitably — yes, I dared say that word — sales of diesel-powered cars would rise if a constantly improving mix of cars offered diesel engines. One need only look at the ever-growing proliferation of diesel-powered heavy-duty pickup trucks — and the decision by some to put diesels in lighter-duty pickups, as well — to see that.
Finally, it would eventually lead to a political attack on that secondary criticism of the conservative business types I listed above: Diesel fuel taxes. When more consumers choose diesel, as they inevitably will, they will voice their displeasure at having to pay a proportionally larger share of tax per gallon than their gasoline-burning counterparts. I think it would eventually end in some kind of two-tiered taxation system, where diesel-powered commercial trucks would be charged more tax per gallon than lightweight diesel-powered passenger cars. With all the RFID and other vehicle tracker technology on the market today, setting up such a tiered taxation system isn’t so much a matter of how, but when.
A fourth possible outcome of manufacturers increasing the proliferation of diesel engines in their lineups — and of the inevitable increased proliferation of diesel-powered cars plying our roads — would be eventual standardization of European, Asian, and North American diesel emissions standards, which would only add to the snowball effect by making it more cost-effective for automakers to import diesel engines they already use in other markets with much success.
Granted, the above is a lot of pie-in-the-sky stuff. But VW’s 100,000 diesel cars in 2013 have given fuel efficiency and alternative fuel supporters a reason to hope for a brighter future — one perhaps more accepting of diesel’s ability to improve our nation’s fleet fuel economy and exhaust emissions.
The true test of diesel’s growing acceptance will come as Nissan and Ram bolt diesel mills into their half-ton pickup trucks in the next couple of years. Pickup trucks remain dominant sellers for domestic automakers, so it will be especially interesting to see how well-accepted the Ram EcoDiesel will be once it comes to market — and whether the Nissan Titan’s Cummins diesel engine option will do anything to shake up the half-ton pickup truck segment. If either — or both — of those models go over well with truck buyers, I predict big things for diesel’s future in America.