Bob Lutz on GM diesels

Here’s what Bob Lutz has to say on diesel engines, the possibilities for the US market and the future:

OK. Digested that?

Here’s my humble blogger’s point of view, free of the need to protect a job or company interest.


You could feel the buttocks pushing as soon as he said “here’s the truth on diesels”.

Bob goes on to have a cry about emissions standards and costs that consumers won’t be willing to pay – blah blah blah. He even goes so far to say that diesel won’t likely be a 50-state solution in the US. Finally, and somewhat dismissively, GM will introduce a diesel V6 or light trucks and SUVs and maybe even passenger cars but diesel won’t be the efficient engine of the future.

I’ll give you all a short and sharp opinion from my admittedly uneducated standpoint and you can make up your own minds in comments.

GM is screwed on diesels in the US because they ignored so much of Europe for so long. Other companies have been investing in diesel for years whereas GM concentrated on the low-hanging fruit. They’ve likely only got a good passenger car diesel in Europe now becuase of a failed venture with Fiat that allowed them access to the 1.9 as a keepsake.

Bob touts the coming developments in gasoline engine technology as virtually closing the gap between gasoline and diesel completely without considering what advances are yet to come in diesel technology.

Emissions-compliant diesel probably isn’t easy to do. But the reasons GM are going to be out of this market aren’t the fault of the regulators. It’s because GM had their heads up their own self-obsessed cakeholes and didn’t read the wind. And now the Germans, so easily dismissed in the intro, will have yet another marketing and sales advantage. They’ve been doing them for years and the leap is not anywhere near as large.

GM’s tossed virtually all of their eggs into the E-Flex basket. It better be a lot more substantial than just a fancy-bodied car that barely goes.

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  1. I’m disappointed as well, although I think you overestimate the impact of diesel in the U.S. market, especially in the near term.

    AWD is a much, much bigger deal for Saab in the U.S. than diesel.

  2. I agree on AWD, Greg. But if GM had’ve been on point with diesels earlier and Saab could offer the TTiD next year in the US then I know it’d find a market. It really is a great engine and all it’ll take for jaded US customers to realise it is one drive.

    The TiD turned me around on diesels in one afternoon back in January this year. The TTiD had me hooked in 10 minutes.

  3. I kind of agree with Greg. It’s sad, but diesel will never take off in the U.S. to a comparable degree as in Europe. Let us not forget that turbo diesel engines have been around for a long time and they have never really made an impact on the American consumer. The current e-hype over diesels is largely because it’s seen as a cool Euro thing, but that is to fade soon.

    As a large corporation, GM does need to make a bet on something and they are probably right in their e-flex one insofar as the government seems to be looking in that direction. I am also a keen believer in renewable energy sources and – biodiesel aside – traditional fuels offer little room for innovation.

  4. I’m being Mr Contrarian today, so please forgive.

    Kroum, turbodiesels have indeed been around for a long time, but the reason they haven’t been offered in the US is because the fuel was so bad until quite recently. Fuel standards for diesels only changed to Low Sulfur late last year and none of the Euro companies brought their cars in prior to that as their engines were set up to run on a much better grade of fuel.

    Now that the new fuel standard is in the companies are looking at diesels with the proviso that they can meet the tight emissions standards. Those that do will reap a benefit. Those that don’t should have an alternative and like I said, E-flex had better be something real and not just a diversion to buy some time.

    I’m not skeptical on E-flex. I’m actually quite hopeful. But showing it off so much when the battery tech was nowhere near sorted looked reasonably diversionary to me.

  5. “BouvineExcrement!” -swade

    Brilliant! A new renewable fuel! And plenty of it to go around!

    Seriously, I’m not much of a Lutz’er, but I sorta feel, as an American, he is right — but so is swade. HAD GM/Ford/Chrysler (ie. American Motor Companies) invested earlier in diesels as the folks accross the pond, THEN it would be a different story. HOWEVER, given that the “Big 3″ didn’t, diesel won’t find a market here in the smaller displacement engine market.

    Never fear, we’ll be sure to find a nice turbo-diesel in our Silverado HD 3500’s and Ford Super Duty F-350’s! Disgusting, eh?

    Don’t hold me to it, but seems like the only late model cars w/”small” engines you can get in a diesel here are the VW Jetta’s. My brother-in-law in Texas bought a 2.0TDI 2 years ago, and loves it. Any others come to mind that are on the market in US??

  6. Swade, these are all valid points. I am just basing my prediction on my knowledge of the average American consumer (no offense intended everybody): the same one that keeps eating Big Mac after Big Mac no matter how many books, documentaries et al. are released telling him/her “it’s bad for you”.

    I just came back from Auto Blog and it’s kind of funny – if not sad – to see how psyched everyone is about a car they will never get to see or drive, that is probably with build quality worse than a Pontiac, and that is quite 1950’s looking… Only because it’s Italian! I’m talking about the new Fiat 500.

    These same people will then proceed to instruct us on how dated Saabs look, how unreliable they are (has any one of the them ever owned an Italian car in their life – and I’m not talking quarter-million-dollar supercars either!?), how GM has ruined a once great brand (but they didn’t really like Saabs back in the 80s either – if they did Saab would never be in need to be bought).

    At the end of the day it’s all down to marketing your product and making sure it is at least somewhat good. Diesel is kind of like the Fiat 500 – very cool and very Euro, but chances are they’d never get to sample either.

  7. Kroum, you’re possibly right. I definitely agree on the overrating of the Fiat 500. Yawn central, if you ask me.

    Nevitz, there’s not much in the way of diesels in 07 as most companies have been planning new engines etc. If VW are still selling them then it’s likely they’re 06s. They actually stocked up on them realising that they wouldn’t have a compliant engine until 08.

    I think basically all of the German makers will bring diesels, mostly licencing MB’s Blutec urea technology. Aside from the Swedes, Germany is about as European as the US market goes (which is kind of sad).

  8. I used to have a Izuzu diesel pickup and I felt about it like many of you feel about your Saabs. I loved that little truck (until one of my daughters wrecked it). With that said, I live and work in California and have to deal with the special laws that have been written to make diesels almost impossible here. The laws they have on the books right now are so strict they require diesel engines to have emissions so low (by 2010), they haven’t even been invented yet. Cars don’t stand a chance here. One of the things I do, is to buy generators, and already the emissions equipment costs more than the rest of generator.
    I am not a Saabista yet, but hope to go to Trollhattan and get a new 9-3 this fall.

  9. Nevitz: no. There are no new diesel cars being sold in America under $40K. Not even the VW anymore. If I remember correctly VW was going to make EXTRA ’06 diesels to sell as ’06s this year to get around the new emissions rules taking effect this year. So technically there isn’t even a VW diesel being sold in the U.S. as an ’07 model.

    Only one diesel passenger car is sold in America this year: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, and it’s considerably more expensive than $40K.

    I looked it up at Edmunds.

  10. ehall1: I also live in California. The German diesel cars which are to start coming over here next year license a technology from Mercedes-Benz called BLUETEC. It injects a urea solution into the exhaust decreasing the nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels to be low enough as to comply with emissions laws in all 50 states.

    The German marques licensing BLUETEC (AUDI, VW and inventor Mercedes-Benz) see a big enough market in the U.S. to be worth it, but GM apparently does not. SAAB can’t develop an engine on their own that would be compliant, but if GM wanted to put their global effort into it and share the technology amongst all their brands I’m sure they could find value in it. Not just for SAAB, but for Saturn, Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, etc. I mean, adding a NOx filtering and urea injection system can’t be all that technically difficult, can it? Maybe they’d have to work around some MB patents, but that’s been done before.

    I mean, how long were we told it isn’t technically feasible to retrofit the Epsilon platform with AWD?

    I hope you have a great time taking European Delivery on a SAAB. There’s a guy who goes by the name “Wulf” on SAAB Central forums who lives in SoCal and took European Delivery of his SAAB. He’s got a website about it that gives some tips so as not to fall into some pitfalls along the way that he did. You might want to check it out.

  11. jchan2: that’s what I read as well. The diesel Jettas VW is selling this year are ’06 models, they’ll skip the ’07, and start selling BLUETEC-equipped ones in ’08 which will meet the ’07 diesel emissions regulations.

    The case of the Jetta diesel is interesting to me. The car can’t be that expensive, and the diesel engine alone adds a lot of cost to the manufacture of the car. Add-in the BLUETEC license and technology. Can they really make a profit on these at the price-point they’ll set at?

  12. The problem with diesels in America is simply that most of us Americans are basically stupid. (Wait, I’ll explain …)

    When people see a big number on a sign (fuel price) and that diesel is roughly the same price as unleaded, that’s all they see, and they stop thinking (this is also why Ethanol will probably do well.) Most Americans have been conditioned by a constant barrage glitzy marketing messages to not consider any variable but sales price when buying everyday items. They won’t consider that diesels get much better mileage and the engines tend to last much longer, which actually makes diesel much cheaper than gas; or that ethanol reduces your mileage — which makes it even more expensive than gas. The same things keep happening here, that’s why VHS beat out Betamax; why Windows and Dell outsell Apple; why Wal-Marts are the biggest buildings in most small towns here; and why we eat Big Macs like they were actually tasty. We choose the option that — with virtually no examiniation or thought — just looks cheaper and easier.

    Truly, I think it’s time to start thinning the herd.

  13. [sarcasm]
    Let’s start with you, chaaalie, you anti-american hatemonger! I just bought you a round-trip ticket to canada! I woulda bought you a one-way ticket to china, but I just got this GREAT DEAL, it was way cheaper!

    And by the way, Big Macs ARE tasty, because the TV tells me!

    There is a bit of truth to what chaaalie says. *sigh*

  14. Swade: Thanks for the link to the video. I think that Lutz is correct about diesels in the US – they are not the savio(u)r or the panacea for our fuel problems. Just the latest object of automotive Euro-envy. I’ve read enough of your post to know that diesels are an article of religious faith with you, but sorry, I don’t think it will happen in the near term (1-10 years).

    1985 Gripen: VW is hemorrhaging money in the US, as an article today on the Business Week website indicates. Jettas are already non-competitive without the extra cost of the Blutec diesels added in.

    chaaalie: Thanks for telling me I’m stupid. As for thinning the herd, start with yourself, we will be right there behind you. Trust me.

  15. Sam,

    I’m not saying that anyone here is necessarily stupid (hey, we’re at least inquisitive enough to be reading discussion beyond the original post) … but there are a huge number of people that are either not real bright or they are simply too lazy to look beyond hollow marketing claims. (In the interest of full disclosure: I work in marketing and I live in Florida, where people can’t even manage to vote for the person they intend.)

    A good example of what I am saying (and very obvious) is a local lawyer advertises in the Tampa market saying “Did you know that you have a significantly higher chance of death if you are admitted to a hospital on a weekend?” … of course, he wants you to sue some doctor for this “obvious” negilgence … but even a simple examination of his claim proves how simple-minded it is: Only emergency cases are admitted to hospitals on weekends. If you are admitted, they obviously don’t think you’re healthy enough to wait for Monday. The problem is that most people take this claim to mean that the level of service is terrible on the weekend, and somehow going to the hospital on a Saturday is inherently more dangerous.

    I’m sorry if I offended you, but you have to admit, there is at least a shred of truth to what I said.

    From a practical standpoint, if diesel were truly that much of a problem, and didn’t represent some level of savings, why are are pretty much every truck, train, bus and ship/commercial vessel diesel? Is it only a torque issue?

  16. (laughs)
    Chaaalie, where in FL are you? Tampa? I’m in Jacksonville. Mebbe we can meet and have a dumb-fight? 😉 What kinda Saab you fly, er umm, drive?

  17. Nevitz – I drive a 1999 9-3 Convertible … Work in Tampa but live in Pinellas County in a tiny little beach town between Clearwater and St. Pete.

    I actually came back to pose some general questions, because I agree that diesel is not necessarily the panacea … but I don’t know what is … in fact I’m not sure what the root cause of the major push for alternative fuels really even is.

    – Are we running out of fossil fuels? or just refinery capacity? (Since the US limits our own building of refineries and exploration, it is actually kinda hard to tell.)
    – Is it purely political — OPEC etc? If yes, is diesel an improvement?
    – Has gasoline reached its peak performance/emission? Are the alternatives really that much better?
    – Is it “global warming” … if so, what are we going to do about the warming of Mercury and Jupiter?
    – Is ethanol worth the energy to produce? especially when we are using a food stock like corn — and raising it’s price?

    I’m just not the type that will take an issue at face value just because it is neatly packaged and handed to me. I’m skeptical of Lutz, as well as his critics. I want to know who stands to gain from each side of the argument. (Obviously Lutz can’t come out in string favor of diesels, as his company barely has any to sell.)

    I like the idea of having choices, especially in the case of some of the flex fuel vehicles — where you can simply fill up with whatever option is easier/cheaper/better at the time … ultimately though, having choices will be what helps control the cost of all fuels … simple supply and demand. Right?

    Finally, there was something in the news a few weeks ago about a movement here in Florida … it seems that gasoline has a signifcant rate of thermal expansion … which creates a bit of an issue in warmer climates … it seems that a gallon of gas pumped at 32 degrees F (0 C) has significantly more “energy” available (like 10-15%) than a gallon pumped at 80 degrees F (26.7 C) … so there’s a group that wants pumps to compensate (price or volume) based on the temperature.

    Kinda makes sense to buy it by the amount of “stored energy” (kw?) rather than the volume when you think about it. Something like that might make people look at ethanol differently when they see that it actually has a lower level of stored energy. (They’ll realize that they can’t put as much “energy” in their tank.)

    Just some things to chew on …

  18. Sorry, Chaaalie (I couldn’t resist):

    To answer your questions to the best of my ability with the knowledge I have on the subject:

    1. Yes, we’re projected to run out of fossil fuels. There is a finite supply. We also have woefully too little refinery resources as you point out.
    2. While “reducing our dependence on foreign oil” would be nice for political purposes, I don’t know that petrodiesel is a means to this end as you point-out. However, if everyone were to theoretically switch over to diesel overnight the increased fuel economy afforded by using diesel rather than gasoline would reduce the amount of oil required to be imported.
    3. There are still some technologies being worked-on which will increase the efficiency of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, but it is very close to being as efficient as it’s going to get.
    4. This is a really stupid argument against the assertion that we are contributing to global climate change. See this (no offense intended).
    5. Whether ethanol is “worth it” is a matter of debate. From where I stand it is, even when made from the most inefficient feedstock (corn). IMHO the most immediate danger to the environment is CO2 emissions. When you burn oil you’re taking carbon that was sequestered in the earth for millions of years and add that carbon to the atmosphere. When you burn ethanol you are indeed adding CO2 to the atmosphere, but the next batch of corn will “breathe”-in that CO2 to offset it. It’s still not perfect, but better than burning petroleum, IMHO. I would rather see an EV charged by cleaner energy (photovoltaic, solar-thermal, geothermal, tidal, wave, wind, small hydroelectric, AND (not “or”) nuclear) than internal combustion engines continue, but that’s just MHO.

  19. I still think swade pinned the tail on the elephant in the corner of the room (2 cliche’s at once?) when he said….


    Can’t we find a way to combust CRAP as a fuel? Methanol – Cow chips for your car!

  20. Nevitz: I’m convinced they can combust just about anything for fuel. It’s getting to the point where we can all just have a Mr. Fusion on our cars if those pesky oil companies would let us! 😉

  21. Driving THE US Saab diesel for 85K great miles now, still puts a smile on my face everytime I fire its loud, stinky, obselete 40mpg motor up. Diesels arent for everybody, never were, never will be. If you drive constantly or for business, they make alot of economic sense. Dieseltek is blowing petroltek out of the water and looks poised to turn it up a few more notches. I think my 03SS with a 2.2L is PDQ, esp from 50-90, but its been replaced by a 1.9L and soon 1.7s even 1.5s with TTs will be smackin it. Yes these will be 93-sized cars capable of 140mph and 60mpg! Lutz, get your head out of your cockpit and smell the JetA! If MB can make a 6cyl meet T2B5 emissions, a 4 or 5cyl is a cinch and you know it.

    And get that electric rear drive concept going. Or hire me! yeahright.

  22. Hi there,
    I’d like to disagree with swade about diesels.
    Here in Europe we love diesels because they seem to be cheaper. Less fuel consumption and dthe fuel costs less. So diesels ar for greedy people. One big thing at thr moment here in europe are “russpartikel” (sooty) that harm our enviroment. And diesel smell. I think the diesel hype in europe is over. The fuel gets more expensive and the economy of petrol cars increases becaus of little turbocharged motors-
    It would be great to see a twinturbocharged benzin saab.
    Diesel motors also don`t last longer cause they are made for long terms in trucks and not that stop and go.
    Greetings from Austria, the country with the highest amount of new registrated diesels in europe.

  23. robert: As you probably know Austria is also the home of the 9-3 convertible (at least where they’re manufactured by Magna…)!

    You mention “russpartikel” or “soot”. We in the U.S. call that “P.M.” for “particulate matter”. Another major emission from diesels (more so than gasoline engines) are nitrogen oxides (NOx), which mix with NMOG to create smog and acid rain. All internal combustion engines emit other pollutants like carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO).

    All of these emissions are harmful to humans (except CO2) or to the environment (CO2). While diesel engines will emit less CO2, they emit more NOx.

  24. The main issue is are diesels good or bad? For the environment, I have no idea what the truth is but I would guess that they are not the best solution. For driving they are great and the torque knocks petrols dead. They are no use at for the traffic light Grand Prix but I am too old for that kind of stupidity now. On the twisty roads of Ireland they allow you to cover ground rapidly.


    I have said before that Fiat (who build the enigne the US is so keen to see) see no future for diesels and we are starting to see their small capacity turbo petrols come on line.

    Look at BMWs new 118i Petrol engine, it emits140gC02/km comapred to 159 for a 9-3 Diesel. MPG, 47.9 BMW, 49.7 Saab. BHP? 141 BMW 150 Saab. Or you could use the 320i Petrol 151gCO2, 44.8mpg, 170 BHP and a second quicker to 60 than the Saab. Diesel does not look so good now does it?

    Now look at large petrol vs small turbo petrol VWs 1400cc TSi (Turbo and supercharger) desgined to replace the 2000cc petrol. 1.4 emits 169gCO2 the 2.0 petrol 197gCO2. As you can see, if BMW used a TSI type engine with their stop start tech as applied in the 118i then the CO2 could be reduced even further, probably to the EU target 120g/km

    Fiat will be doing exactly this with their new 500 (Swade really, I thought you were a man of class and taste, to misquote the Stones. Its the best thing they have done for years.) this is why they see the end of diesel (Korum – diesel has never ever been cool. Not even if it was being driven to the North Pole by James Dean)

    Dont forget Fiat are leaders in the diesel field. VW who, I think the diesel supporters want to emulate, are pushing TSI across the board too.

    I can see with GMs treatment of Saab over the years whay everyone is cynical, I really can, but Lutz is right if they are going down the BMW/Fiat route. I know the TTid is a great engine but so is the GM built 1.6 turbo – why no calls for it to be fitted in place of the 2.0 turbo in the 9-3?
    If the US goes diesel they run the risk of adpoting it just as Europe moves away from diesel. Diesel has a future but it will be in the 9-5 class and above and then it will still be a limited market.

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