Revving Up Sales of Cleaner Diesel Cars

When you think of diesel engines, you might think of big, noisy, stinky trucks. But that’s changing. And a domestic automaker has plans to bring a cleaner, higher performing diesel engine to passenger cars. The company insists: it’s not your father’s diesel. The GLRC’s Julie Halpert has the story:


When you think diesel engines, you might think of big, noisy, stinky
trucks, but that’s changing and a domestic automaker has plans to bring a
cleaner, higher performing diesel engine to passenger cars. The
company insists: it’s not your father’s diesel. The GLRC’s Julie Halpert
has the story:

In Europe… people have been hearing this catchy little tune on a
television commercial…

(Sound of commercial)

If you hate something, improve it. That’s the message of this Honda UK
commercial that highlights the historically loud, smelly diesel engines.
It’s intended to promote Honda’s new, cleaner diesel, something it’s
launching in Europe.

Diesels have always been more popular in Europe than the U.S. That’s
because there diesel fuel is roughly 20 to 30 percent cheaper than
gasoline there, and diesels get great fuel economy… 30 percent better
than in gasoline engines.

Here in the U.S., diesels haven’t sold well. In the 1970s, when diesel
fuel was cheaper than gas, diesels gained in popularity briefly, but people
didn’t like the stench of the smoky fumes and the clunky sounds of diesel
engines. Those lingering attitudes have scared Honda off from bringing
its new diesels here.

But Daimler/Chrysler is trying to change all that. The company is
drawing on its European expertise to bring advanced technology diesels
to more U.S. passenger cars, and now, they think Americans will buy

Jim Widenbak is a manager of small diesel systems for Daimler/Chrysler.

“We think that there’s a niche for diesels in the North American market,
and We’re not sure exactly how big, but I would characterize us as kind
of bullish on diesels. We really think there’s a place for them and
that customers will ultimately be very happy with diesel products.”

Daimler/Chrysler currently offers a diesel engine on its newer models of
the Jeep Liberty and the Mercedes E-320. Sales of these vehicles were
more than double what the company expected – 10,000 for the diesel
Jeep Liberty and 5,000 for the E-320.

Widenback says that electronic controls have improved over the past 30
years, making diesels better performing, more fuel efficient and cleaner

The company is in negotiations with the Environmental Protection
Agency to use a new technology, currently in use in Europe, that cuts
pollution further – just in time for tough new federal emission controls
that take effect by 2008. The process uses a material called urea that’s
injected into the exhaust before the exhaust hits the pollution control
device. This ultimately removes troublesome emissions of nitrogen

There is one problem with the pollution control system, though.
Anthony Pratt directs power train forecasting for J.D. Power Automotive
Systems. He says the car periodically will run out of its supply of urea.

“So, in other words, you’re not getting the injection of urea in the
exhaust, the vehicles will continue to perform normally as if the urea
tanks were full but they will not meet the more strict emission

If the company finds a way to ensure the tanks stay full, Pratt thinks it
will work. Pratt projects diesel engine sales will grow from 3 percent of
the market in 2005 to seven and a half percent in 2012, overtaking sales
of hybrid vehicles, which are only projected to be 4% of the market.

“I think the vehicle manufacturers will be successful in ultimately
educating the consumer in that the new diesel technology is not the dirty,
clanky, loud and sluggish technology they may be familiar with from the
late 70s and early 80s.”

(Sound of car dealership)

That message – that diesels are worth buying – is falling on deaf ears for
the customers of Schultz Motors. Tyler Shultz, the general manager, doesn’t
think it will fly, based on what he’s seen.

“As diesel prices went up in the last six months to a year, we virtually
have lost interest. Again, it’s not that the consumer doesn’t want it, but
when they see fuel prices go above gasoline prices, it was almost like
somebody flipped a switch.”

Shultz says it’s too expensive to buy and maintain a diesel and customers
won’t recoup the cost savings from better fuel economy unless they own
their car for several years. He, and some other dealers in the area don’t
think diesels will ever become popular.

Daimler/Chrysler’s Widenbak disagrees. He expects those fuel prices to come
down, and as they do, he says people will start buying diesel vehicles.

“We’re confident that our vehicles, diesel vehicles in general and our vehicles
specifically, can appeal to people.”

Daimler/Chrysler is so confident, it expects to roll out diesel engines in
more of its passenger cars over the next few years.

For the GLRC, I’m Julie Halpert.

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