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Diesels are global stars; U.S. shrugs, steps on the gas
Diesel engines are a bit like soccer.
Soccer is the most popular game in the world. But the prospect of Monday Night Football stepping aside for men in shorts is about as likely as U.S. auto companies ever replacing their gasoline engines with diesels.
The soccer thing is a matter of taste. But diesels offer clear benefits over gasoline. So at a time when automakers have to gear up for stringent fuel-economy rules -- and clean-diesel technology has cleaned up diesel emissions -- you might think that diesel's moment has come.
And, in fact, a few more diesels appear to be headed to the United States. But, for perspective, consider Honda Motor Co.
Honda's gasoline-engine Civic sedan is one of the best selling cars in the United States and also delivers respectable fuel economy, averaging 32 mpg for city and highway driving.
But last month in Tokyo, Honda gave reporters a sneak peek at a new fuel-efficient turbodiesel engine for the Civic. The new clean-burning 1.6-liter engine is physically smaller than Honda's other popular engines, lighter in weight and delivers the horsepower of bigger gasoline engines. Honda intends to start building the engine in late 2012 in hopes of improving the 2013 Civic's efficiency.
But not in the United States.
Like most of the other diesel engine programs these days, Honda's 1.6 is targeted at Europe, where smooth-running, highly efficient diesels now account for half of all new-vehicle sales -- and where, unlike in the United States, diesel fuel prices are lower than those of gasoline. In Italy and France, diesels represent closer to 70 percent of sales. Honda thinks European customers will be so wowed that the diesel will account for two-thirds of Civic sales.
But Honda CEO Takanobu Ito says he has no intention of introducing diesels to the United States.
Automakers have been holding diesels out of the United States for years, but such decisions are especially perplexing today. If there ever were a moment when the North American industry could benefit from a switch to different engine architectures to claim quick and easy fuel-economy improvements, it would be now.
Under proposed U.S. regulations for the 2017-25 model years, corporate average fuel economy would rise to 54.5 mpg in the 2025 model year, up from 30.1 mpg today. The industry needs to hit a 35.5 mpg CAFE by the 2016 model year.
Diesel engines deliver as much as a 40 percent boost in fuel economy. Volkswagen of America's recently introduced diesel-powered Passat family sedan, a vehicle the size of the Toyota Camry, claims 43 mpg combined city and highway, compared with 29 mpg combined for the Passat with a gasoline engine.
Still a bit player
But the outlook is dim for widespread use of diesel engines in the United States. Aside from heavy-duty pickups and small numbers of sales from primarily German-brand vehicles, diesel engines remain an exotic aside in U.S. auto sales.
"Yes, diesels have a substantial advantage over gasoline engines," says John German, senior fellow with the International Council on Clean Transportation, an environmental think tank that consults with government regulators around the world. "And it's puzzling why there are not more of them in use in the United States."
A few more diesel offerings are on the way for U.S. drivers. General Motors says it will introduce a diesel-powered Chevrolet Cruze in 2013. GM has not divulged specifics of that plan, but it is certain to create a model that should deliver in excess of 40 mpg combined city and highway.
Mazda Motor Corp. also wants to introduce a diesel passenger vehicle in the United States, although the company has not determined what model it will be. Mazda's ambitious "Skyactiv" fuel efficiency campaign aims to cut vehicle weight, improve gasoline engine efficiency and sell diesels around the world.
Mazda's new four-cylinder 2.2-liter diesel can fit into any of its current U.S. products, says Dave Coleman, product development engineer at Mazda North American Operations in Irvine, Calif.
Diesels create performance and packaging advantages, he adds, since they are stronger. Mazda's engine promises 310 pounds-feet of torque, meaning it could replace a V-6. Designing around a smaller engine results in a smaller engine compartment. Smaller engine compartments translate into a smaller, lighter vehicle or a roomier passenger cabin.
"Diesels are not going to be 50 percent of our model mix," Coleman cautions. "But we can't afford not to take advantage of them. There's a demand for fuel economy, and it's hard to argue with that."
So what's the problem?
But if the diesels have such obvious problem-solving potential, why wouldn't they end up constituting half of U.S. auto sales?
Coleman cites several challenges.
"Their benefit is just not immediately obvious to U.S. consumers," he admits. "It requires some arithmetic and a calculator. The pump price of diesel is higher than gasoline -- higher even than premium gas.
"And the diesel engine costs more to build, so it's more expensive to buy. So you have to calculate what your savings will be over years of driving."
Pump prices are the most obvious roadblock. In past decades diesel prices have sometimes been lower, sometimes higher, than gasoline prices. But in recent years diesel has consistently been more expensive. Diesel prices around the country averaged $3.85 a gallon in the last week of January, compared with $3.39 for a gallon of gasoline.
One reason is that the federal fuel tax on diesel fuel is now higher in the United States than the tax on gasoline. And to exacerbate the price, in the past few years, U.S. refineries have been eagerly exporting refined diesel fuel to Europe and emerging markets. In Europe, diesel pump prices are lower than gasoline prices.
Another obstacle for diesel powertrains is the price of the engines. Auto companies fold the cost of the engine into the larger package of features, so it is tricky for consumers to isolate the exact engine cost. A diesel-powered VW Passat, for example, has a base price of $26,765, including shipping, compared with $20,765, also including shipping, for a base-model gasoline Passat. But the models have other differences. A Volkswagen spokeswoman says the engine itself runs about $1,500 more than the equivalent gas engine.
The new diesel engines that increasingly populate Europe typically are turbocharged. Direct-injection components and related parts add to the price tag. Diesels also must carry a reserve tank of urea, a chemical compound injected into the exhaust process as an aftertreatment to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions.
But all that still adds up to less of a premium than what consumers pay to own a hybrid vehicle, counters Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit that represents diesel industry manufacturers. He estimates that hybrids command a premium of $6,300 on average, compared with $2,700 on average for a diesel vehicle.
That in itself is a cause for dismay among diesel fans, since hybrids nonetheless outsell diesel vehicles by more than 2 to 1.
Schaeffer admits there are unique American challenges to diesel engines -- the pump price difference being No. 1 among them. But he is optimistic that diesel penetration will grow beyond its current meager market share.
"Why aren't there more diesels already? That's a complex question," Schaeffer admits.
"Some manufacturers just need to see a little more consumer confidence in the technology before they invest in long-term change."