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Diesels' stinky image getting sweet-smelling upgrade

Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images file

The diesel Volkswagen Jetta TDI is one of a variety of vehicles that are making American motorists look more favorably on diesel-powered cars.

Mention diesels to most American motorists and they’re likely to come up with words such as noisy, smelly, slow and uncomfortable as quickly as if they’d been given a Rorschach test. Yet, to a small but growing number of fans, diesels provoke a very different response.  To them, the technology is quick, smooth, quiet and, perhaps best of all, very fuel-efficient.

It’s been three decades since the heyday of the American diesel, which sold in massive numbers following the twin oil shocks of the 1970s. But while the technology largely vanished from U.S. shores, it was rapidly building up momentum in Europe — where fuel prices running twice as high as ours have led manufacturers to develop a series of driver-pleasing improvements.

The message is slowly making its way across the Atlantic, driven largely by European imports like the Mercedes-Benz GL 350 Blue-Tec and the diesel version of the latest Volkswagen Passat.  While “oil burners” hold nowhere near the place on the American sales charts they do in Europe — or did here in the ‘80s — they are making some significant gains.

And most industry analysts anticipate they’ll do even better in the years ahead, thanks to new products, rising fuel costs and tough new federal fuel economy standards.

“We’re forecasting a pretty significant increase in diesel sales,” said David Sullivan, a Detroit-based automotive analyst for AutoPacific, Inc.

As recently as 2008, auto manufacturers sold barely 250,000 diesel vehicles in the U.S. This year, the number is expected to top 400,000 — including both passenger cars and light trucks. 

In fact, for the first half of the year, sales of so-called “clean diesels” increased by 27.5 percent, outpacing the revival of the overall American market. A forecast by AutoPacific anticipates the numbers will reach 900,000 by 2017.

The consulting firm isn’t the only one bullish on the technology.  "While this is significantly less than the 50 percent diesel sales rate in Europe, it does indicate that Americans are taking a renewed interest as more diesels are being introduced into the U.S. market,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.  "With more than 15 new clean diesel models designated for the U.S. in the next two years, I fully expect diesel sales to increase even more extensively in the near future.”

European makers continue to expand their diesel offerings. Porsche recently launched the first version of its big Cayenne sport-utility vehicle. Volkswagen is reportedly considering a diesel version of its popular GTI model.

VW has seen demand for the technology rapidly outpace expectations, said Jonathan Browning, CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America — which includes Audi, another brand scoring gains with the technology.  Demand for the diesel version of the new VW Passat has already stretched the limits of capacity,  in part because the automaker is struggling to get enough diesel engine components shipped from Europe to its new VW plant in Tennessee.  In a recent interview, Browning said it is possible the diesel model could go from 15 percent of the total U.S. Passat mix to 30 percent.

Meanwhile, several new players are entering the game.  Chevrolet  —  which already offers a diesel in its full-size pickup mix  —  will soon launch a diesel version of the compact Cruze. And Mazda has confirmed plans to deliver a diesel version of its new, high-mileage SkyActiv system. The next-generation Mazda6 sedan is expected to be first, but analyst Sullivan expects there could be versions of the CX-5 and CX-9 crossovers in the works as well.

Other makers, such as Chrysler, are expected to follow. Ford, long resistant to diesels outside its big truck range, is hinting it may also reconsider its options.

What's driving this nascent diesel renaissance?  Microcomputers, for one thing, and advanced turbochargers as well as state-of-the-art emissions systems. These components have allowed makers to overcome traditional diesel problems such as smoke, smell and a rough ride. To complete the mix, toss in the low-sulfur fuel that U.S. regulators began mandating several years ago.

All this comes at a price. There’s a premium for diesel engines of anywhere between about $1,000 and $5,000 per vehicle. But proponents contend that as the U.S. versions, which require emissions systems not shared in Europe, are manufactured in higher volumes costs will come down.

One severe obstacle is the cost of fuel. Diesel typically runs from 25 cents to 50 cents more per gallon than regular gasoline, occasionally as much as a dollar more than regular in some markets.

But there’s a substantiald payoff. Compared to similarly sized hybrids, modern diesels generally boast substantially better performance than hybrids. BMW is launching a new model in Europe, the 550d, that will all but match the acceleration of the maker’s vaunted M5.

As to mileage, diesels give hybrids a run for their money, depending upon their application.  Gas-electric powertrain technology is generally more fuel-efficient in urban, stop-and-go settings where hybrids are able to recapture and reuse energy normally lost during braking and coasting.  But on the highway, diesels are likely to deliver better numbers, according to Sullivan and other observers.

Meanwhile, diesels still tend to deliver their legendary durability, something that has always been an advantage over other powertrain technology.

So, why aren’t they selling even better?

For one thing, U.S. regulators at both the state and national level have fixated on battery technology, diesel advocates lament.  In California, for example, hybrids have long been granted special access to commuter lanes while diesels delivering similar mileage were not. Now, that special privilege has been granted to plug-ins and battery cars, some of which can’t even reach the top end of speed limits.

Meanwhile, most Americans simply aren’t up to date on the huge improvements diesel technology  has achieved.

“Diesels need an image makeover,” suggested Rebecca Lindland, chief analyst with IHS Automotive.  “(People) just don’t know how much of a difference and how far they’ve come in recent years.”