Diesel in the US??

Food for thought, Jay….

As happens quite often here at Trollhattan, the planets have aligned themselves in the form of a particularly intuitive comment (tho they’re all intuitive anyway)and a relevant news story appearing at the same time.  Yesterday, in response to the 9-7x story, Buffalopundit commented on the fact that a natural and real progression for Saab would be to introduce to the US it’s diesel engine variants that are so popular in the UK and Europe.

The 9-3 SS comes with a few diesel variants in the UK and sells like hot cakes.  Recently, they had to re-offer a lower spec engine because they ran out of particulate filters necessary to ensure Euro 4 emissions compliance.

I’ve always wondered why diesel was so popular in some places and not in others.  Even here in Australia there’s very limited numbers despite the benefits on offer.  Some of the limitation would be due to customer perception of limited fuel availability – you don’t see a diesel pump at every fuel station you stop at.  A lot of the limited popularity would be to do with the black smoke they used to spew out and the fact that they sounded like tractors.

As Honda pointed out so effectively with their latest advertisment, diesels are no longer smelly, cloudy, noisy units.  They enjoy similar power ratings and consistently higher torque.  The little 1.9 Saab diesels offer an impressive 280Nm of torque for the standard engine and a 315Nm for the more grunty unit.  And they’re popular: Saab’s sales numbers in the UK have been growing in double digit territory for the last few years and in raw numbers, they now outrank US sales.

With a slowly growing market for diesel in the US, a desire to depend less on foreign gasoline, huge upside potential and proven models already in the global lineup, Jay Spenchian should really be pushing for GM to test the diesel-waters in the US for the 9-3 Sport Sedan, Sport Combi and Convertible.  We’re right at the beginning of a new dawn for diesel and Saab is well positioned to take advantage.

Last week there was an event in Washington DC called "Meet Clean Diesel".  It was organised by a group called the Diesel Technology Forum and it showcased the benefits of diesel powered vehicles from eight different manufacturers, including Saab.

Senator Clinton drops in to check out the diesels.

If you’re in the US, would you consider diesel and if not, why not?

A full report on the "Meet Clean Diesel" event follows:

The timing for last Thursday’s Meet Clean Diesel event on Capitol Hill couldn’t have been better, according to Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

"Today’s really the perfect storm for diesel," said Schaeffer, who organized the event to showcase the benefits of diesel-powered vehicles from eight different automakers. "We’ve got the President talking about and calling for tax incentives for diesels — putting them on a par with other advanced technologies like hybrids — we’ve got the House just passed an energy bill that includes tax credits for diesel and today we’re showing the most advanced clean diesel technology that’s available here in the US and what Europeans are experiencing," Schaeffer said.

With the reality of gas prices hanging over every American’s pocketbook, and the debate over dependence on foreign oil, Schaeffer said, "Now’s the time to be talking about diesel in a big way."

A recent study shows that diesel is already starting to become more popular. R.L. Polk released data in March that showed over 468,000 diesel vehicles were sold in 2004 — a 50% increase from five years previous. While most of those were pickups, sales of diesel-powered passenger vehicles also increased 50% in the same time frame, according to the study.

"Diesel has come so far from what it was 20 years ago. Today’s diesels are nothing like those in the past — they’re clean, quiet and fun to drive," Schaeffer said.

The customers who purchased Mercedes’ E320 CDI when it was reintroduced last year didn’t have to be convinced of diesel’s merits. The car, which was part of the demonstration Thursday, met its sales goal of 3,000 units in just five months, said Dennis Fitzgibbons, DaimlerChrysler’s Director of Public Policy. "Mercedes has always had a loyal diesel customer base," Fitzgibbons said, adding that in the 1980’s, about 80% of Mercedes sold in America were diesels. "The interesting thing about the E320 is that it outperforms its internal combustion counterpart," Fitzgibbons said. "And, obviously, you’ve got fuel economy benefits in addition to that."

At first glance, the diesel E320 looks as if it has less power than the gas version — the diesel has 201 horsepower, while the gas version has 221 hp. The difference, however, lies in the torque ratings — the diesel puts out 369 lb-ft, while the gas version delivers 232 lb-ft. Torque delivers power in real-world driving conditions, such as accelerating to pass or from a standing stop, Fitzgibbons said. "It’s not a question of high-end, it’s a question of grunt."

Yet even with the greater "grunt" the diesel E320 gets over 30% better gas mileage than its gas counterpart. The diesel is rated at 27 mpg city, 37 highway, while the gas E320 sits at 20 city, 28 highway. Schaeffer said that with diesels such as the Mercedes E320 CDI, "consumers are going to have real savings at the pump. They’re going to be able to go farther on a gallon of fuel." Indeed, the range of the Mercedes diesel is nearly 800 miles on a single tank, versus 576 miles for the gas model.

The Volkswagen Passat was also available to drive at the event, and it’s one of four diesel-powered passenger car vehicles the company is marketing in the US, according to David Geanacopoulos, VW’s Director of Industry-Government Relations. "We’re committed to the diesel passenger car market in the United States, not just for the short term, but for the long term," Geanacopoulos said.

"We see it competing with other advanced technologies — it provides great performance and customer appeal and tremendous environmental benefits." Those environmental benefits can be extended even further, Geanacopoulos said. "Advanced diesels offer the best platform for the use of renewable fuels like biodiesel — and they show the way to a CO2-neutral future."

Besides the Passat, VW also has diesel versions of the Jetta, Golf and New Beetle. Customers can also purchase the Jetta Wagon and Passat Wagon with a diesel powertrain. Other diesel-powered vehicles on hand at the event were: Smart ForTwo, Saab 9-3 [European edition], Jaguar S-Type, Chrysler Voyager, Ford Focus C-Max and the Jeep Liberty CRD.

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10 Comments

  1. I would certainly consider a diesel if it was a brand I was already interested in. In the States, Mercedes and Volkswagon are the only two brands I can think of that offer diesel engines — and i would not buy either brand.

  2. Thanks for the props.

    I’d certainly get a diesel here in the US, where gas is routinely exceeding $2.30/gallon. (I dumped my SUV when it reached $1.85.

    The irony in the story you posted is that Senator Clinton is pictured: Not one single solitary constituent of hers is able to purchase a diesel automobile because of New York emissions laws.

    New York is one of five US states that tracks California’s emissions standards. In other words, motorists in NY, CA, VT, ME and MA cannot buy that Merc E320 or the Passat TDI. There is a loophole – you can register a MY2005 diesel if it has over 7500 miles on it. Whatever. It makes no sense.

    Of course, that decision is up to the individual state legislatures, so I wonder if Hillary will call up the folks in Albany and ask them to reconsider the ban on diesel automobiles.

    News recently came down that Honda, Toyota, and BMW are all planning to bring diesels to the US come 2007. Of the big three, only Chrysler has made a committment to diesel: The 45-state legal Jeep Liberty. GM doesn’t even have a hybrid in the pipeline, so bringing the already-in-production 9-3 diesel to the US would seem like a no-brainer.

  3. GM has a Silverado it calls a Hybrid, it basically has 2 110V outlets in the bed and some extra batteries so that you can run the air at a stop light while the engine is off. It offers 1-2 MPG increase over the regular model.

    I know a guy with a Jetta Wagon TDI who runs Biodiesel through it almost exclusively. He would have be believe it’s tough to get a TDI VW because they’re in such high demand they’re always sold out. It costs something like $1500 up front to add the TDI, and TDI models retail for like $2000 more used — so it’s a good investment too.

  4. Thanks again for even more added insight, BP. I didn’t know about the emissions laws in those states, though I assumed CA residents would have some trouble. I agree with you, and if Jay Spenchian et al aren’t already planning for this, then either you or I deserve their jobs!!

    Ryan, I found a site earlier where a guy makes his own biodiesel from vegetable oil. He’s run his Mitsubishi on it for 100,000 kms now. He manufactures it for around 20 cents a litre (that’s Aussie money). Cheap. 95 octane costs around $1.14 a litre here.

    Allan, where are you located? Would you be affected by the emissions laws BP mentioned?

  5. Ryan: From what I understand, that Silverado isn’t considered a true hybrid because the electric engine provides no propulsion of the car; just the idle cut-off and outlets you talk about. That’s why I didn’t count it when I said GM doesn’t have a hybrid. Just to clarify.

  6. Hey Buffalo, I don’t count it as a hybrid either, but my sarcasm didn’t come across in my post. Guess I should have typed it:

    GM has a Silverado it CALLS a “Hybrid”…

  7. Swede,

    I am in Northern Virginia (DC Metro area) and no, I would not be affected. In fact, prior to the rise in popularity of Hybrids diesels were starting to catch on in this area.

    I think I have mentioned here that I have a 2000 Saab 9-5 that I am going to replace in the next couple of years. I want to replace it with another Saab, but only if GM/Saab can show that they are serious about staying on the cutting edge. To me that means two things:

    1. AWD
    2. Much better fuel efficiency (whether that is acheived via Hybrid or Diesel is irrelevent to me).

  8. Im glad to see that diesels may have a comeback in the U.S.

    While in Spain last year I had a chance to drive a Nissan Primera with a diesel. I didn’t even know it was diesel for the first day, and I am a car guy! It was smooth, powerful, and quiet. None of that clack-clack of the old ones.

    I think (Americans) have images in their heads of the 1980 Oldsmobile diesel clacking along, or a black smoke belching 77 VW Rabbit. This just isnt the case anymore. I would be very interested in a 9-3 diesel if it were to come here, because I know it would be economical, and fun to drive.

  9. One of the problems with euro-diesels selling in the US is that many of the diesels in Europe can’t meet the emissions requirements in the US. The US emission requirements are tougher for diesels than in Europe. Some models, the Mercedes and VW, do meet the requirements, but many do not.

  10. Judging from Fred’s story, it looks like the 9-3 could get through with minimal changes. Here’s hoping GM has it’s finger on the diesel pulse in time for the low-sulfur changes in 2006. It could be a real winner for them as it has been in the UK.

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