Automakers Push Diesel in the U.S.

Companies emphasize both performance and fuel economy of diesel

Two decades after Americans abandoned diesels as smelly, loud and unreliable, German and Japanese automakers are placing bets that they can entice a new generation of drivers with clean diesel technology. Honda Motor recently announced plans to introduce clean diesel under its luxury Acura brand next year, while Toyota Motor said it would bring diesel versions of its Tundra truck and Sequoia sports utility vehicle to the U.S. "in the near future."

Daimler has reported strong diesel sales among buyers of its luxury Mercedes brand and is bringing three new diesel SUVs to the U.S. market this year, while both BMW and Volkswagen will bring diesel cars to U.S. showrooms this fall.

But while foreign automakers are trying to entice consumers to buy the performance and fuel economy of diesel, U.S. automakers are shaking their heads. "It's not something I see being a major factor in the U.S. car market," GM chief executive officer Rick Wagoner said at the Detroit auto show. "You will see us expanding our diesel offer, primarily for heavier vehicles because we see that's where the application is clearest," he said, adding that GM could rapidly introduce the diesels it currently sells in Europe to the U.S. if conditions change.

Although Ford Motor Co. is planning on bringing diesel to its lighter duty Ford F-150 pickup truck in 2010, it has no plans yet to introduce clean-diesel into smaller vehicles, a spokesman said Jan. 15. Instead, it plans to build half a million vehicles a year with its newly introduced Ecoboost system that can provide fuel economy savings of up to 20% at a more affordable cost.

Diesel offers about a 30% to 35% improvement in fuel economy compared to gasoline, but the technology needed to meet stringent new emissions rules imposed here last year adds between two and three thousand dollars to the cost. That's less than the three to five thousand dollar markup on most gas-electric hybrids, which often fail to deliver equivalent fuel economy savings in typical U.S. driving conditions. But unlike in Europe, where higher gas taxes pushed consumers towards diesel, American consumers have been reluctant to buy diesels in anything but heavy-duty trucks following a disastrous introduction in the early 1980's.

In response to an onslaught of small cars from Asian automakers during the last oil crisis, U.S. automakers rushed diesel engines to market which were so poorly designed they would break down after about 30,000 miles. Diesels currently only account for about 3.5% of vehicles sales in the U.S., compared to around 60% in Europe.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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