When most Americans hear the word “diesel,” images of 18-wheelers and giant, heavy-duty pickup trucks spewing black smoke as they roar past come to mind.
Fortunately, this may not be the case for much longer. According to the Diesel Technology Forum (DTF), clean diesel sales were up 35% in the first quarter for the U.S. market. The rise marks a 3% increase from 2011. Even more surprising, the growth of diesel vehicles matched that of hybrid and electric vehicle sales for March 2012, with both groups posting a 39.6% increase in sales. While it’s safe to say that the boost in sales for both categories stems from rising fuel costs, it’s likely that gas-alternative vehicles, particularly clean diesels, are here to stay no matter what the future of gas prices may be.
While the recent success of hybrid and electric vehicles may not be all that surprising, the fact that clean diesel vehicles outsold their hybrid and electric counterparts is. Hybrid and electric vehicles showed a slight decline in sales over the past three years, slipping from 2.7% to just 2.1% of the total market share in the United States. Clean diesel sales, on the other hand, peaked around the 3% mark. As further evidence of clean diesel’s growing popularity, there are 25 clean diesel models currently available in the U.S., and this number is expected to double by 2014.
Volkswagen already has a grip on the clean diesel market in the U.S.,thanks to its Jetta and Golf TDI models, and now the company also offers diesel variants of the Passat and Touareg. VW accounted for 58% of all diesel sales in the U.S. last year alone, in part because they are some of the only affordable diesel models currently offered in the country, but this will be changing very soon.
While upscale German companies like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have also offered diesel powered vehicles in the U.S. for several years, the demand for more affordable diesel vehicles in the U.S. is apparent. Chevrolet recently announced its bold plans to sell its diesel-powered version of the Cruze in the U.S. for the 2013 model year. To do so, the company invested $26 million dollars in its Torino, Italy-based engine factory to speed up its development. The company sold 33,000 Cruze diesel models overseas last year.
In addition, affordable diesels will not stop at cars alone. Jeep will begin offering a diesel variant of its popular Cherokee SUV in the U.S. next year as well. In Japan, Mazda’s brand new CX-5 SUV, equipped with the Skyactive-D clean diesel engine, is outpacing its gasoline counterpart 3-to-1 in sales. This may prompt the company to offer the model in the U.S. as well.
Perhaps the reason behind all of this is that clean diesel engines have become extremely efficient and environmentally friendly over the past few years. The recent “green” success of diesels can be attributed to several different factors. The first is due to substantial changes in diesel fuel itself that reduced the sulfur content of the fuel by 97%. Secondly, modern diesel engines are extremely efficient. While gasoline engines rely on spark plugs within each cylinder to combust the air-fuel mixture, diesel engines rely on compression alone. The piston stroke of a diesel engine compresses the air-fuel mixture to the point that it combusts spontaneously. Lastly, recent advances in emissions devices, like particulate traps and catalytic converters, have further reduced exhaust emissions to incredibly low levels.
You can see for yourself how diesel-powered vehicles stack up in comparison to their gas counterparts, thanks to the DTFs side-by-side comparison page.
Lastly, and most important to this author (a gear head who is obsessed with performance), diesel vehicles perform almost as well as their gasoline counterparts in terms of power and acceleration, while offering better fuel economy. In fact, famed automotive journalist Richard Hammond of Top Gear BBC fame called BMW’s new 320d the “best car ever” because of its overall efficiency, handling, power, and everyday usability. While this is no doubt a bold and subjective claim, it’s hard to ignore what Hammond is harping about. Modern diesel engines, most of which are turbocharged, produce a lot more low-end grunt than their gasoline counterparts. When combined with a capable chassis, you’ve got a fun-factor that hybrid and electric vehicles have yet to achieve. Well, at least affordably.