New Cars Showcase Clean Diesel Options

Jettadiesel

The diesels are coming! The diesels are coming!

The first auto shows of the year offered hints of the diesel invasion to come. Among the green technologies announced at Detroit were almost 10 diesel engine options, most of them in models going on sale this year. Concept cars highlighted five more. What's exceptional, apart from the number, is that all the vehicles listed below are either cars or SUVs, not heavy-duty pickup trucks, which is where diesels have been offered all along and will continue to be, in growing numbers. Some are sports cars, which illustrates that diesels can be quick, too.

Audi Q7 Diesel

Production diesel cars and SUVs introduced to North America at 2008 auto shows include the Acura TSX (2009), Audi Q7 TDI (available early 2009), BMW 335d (fall 2008), BMW X5 xDrive35d (fall 2008), Kia Borrego (2010), Mercedes-Benz GLK prototype (2008) and Volkswagen Jetta TDI (August 2008).

Possible future models include the Cadillac CTS and Volkswagen Passat.

Diesel concept cars included the Audi R8 V12 TDI, Jeep Renegade, Land Rover LRX, Mitsubishi Concept-RA and Saturn Flextreme.

The obvious questions are:

  • Why is this happening?
  • Why are the dirtiest, stinkiest, noisiest engines we've ever seen now considered green?

The most important point is that diesels are no longer dirty, stinky or noisy, thanks to new clean-diesel technology expected to hit our streets by the end of this year. They're pretty much as clean as gas engines. What makes them greener is that diesels are about 30% more efficient than gas engines of comparable performance. If you’re burning 30% less fuel, that means 30% less carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — produced, which is what typical hybrids deliver. Voila! Suddenly diesels are green.

A bonus: Diesel engines can run on biodiesel, which can be produced in whole or in part from organic matter — even waste, such as used fryer oil. (Soybeans are the most common source, but the food-based biofuel approach looks worse every passing day.) Unlike ethanol, straight biodiesel is non-toxic, non-corrosive and potentially cleaner-burning. Unfortunately, only B5 (5% biodiesel mixed with 95% petroleum diesel) is allowed under new-car warranties, so buyers might not choose to exploit the renewable fuel's true potential until their warranties expire. The government could eventually require a higher level, but it's unlikely to go above B15 as a first step.

New Fuel and New Drivetrains

BMW 3 Series Diesel

The big change in petrodiesel was the U.S.'s switch last year to ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, which allows the use of catalytic converters, filters and other exhaust treatments that the sulfur in old diesel fuel would have fouled up. The biggest change in the cars themselves will be the application of urea injection in most diesels for 2009. Urea (which also happens to be a component of urine, in case you're wondering) is sprayed into the exhaust stream, giving the polluting molecules something to react with. The exhaust gas emerging from a final catalytic converter has nitrogen oxide levels (the worst offender) equal to that of a gas engine.

A few gallons of urea solution will be carried in an onboard tank and refilled when the car's oil is changed; the interval is typically from 5,000 to 15,000 miles, and some brands include the cost in warranty maintenance. Look for automakers to use the term "diesel exhaust treatment fluid" to avoid the word “urea” (for obvious reasons). Mercedes and some other brands use the name AdBlue. (I suppose AdYellow would only reinforce the gross association.) The need for an additional fluid has been a hurdle over which the EPA has hesitated to jump. If run without it, the engines would once again pollute, so the cars that rely on it will give a series of driver warnings to allow them plenty of time to get their car refilled. If it's ignored long enough — after increasingly urgent and specific warnings — the car won't start. With this provision, the EPA signed off on the concept.

Not all clean diesels will need urea. The Jetta TDI's engine is small enough that its emissions fall within limits. Honda has promised a diesel four-cylinder for an Acura model — most likely the TSX — that the company says won't need urea either. A V-6 is also in development.

The U.S. Plays Catch-Up
Most of these early diesels come from Germany, mainly because more than half of the cars sold in Europe are diesel. Europe has always concerned itself with consumption as much as pollution, and its regulations tend to allow a little more pollution from a more efficient car and less from a thirsty one. There's no such flexibility here because our fuel has been much cheaper and the primary pollutants from diesels are implicated in smog formation — a problem in Los Angeles, whose lead the entire country follows.

Full Potential is Slow to Come
Unfortunately, though most early clean diesels will be more efficient than gas versions of the same model, we're unlikely to see dramatically high mileage until additional smaller cars adopt diesel. Most of the models listed above are luxury vehicles, which tend to be heavier and less efficient to begin with. The Jetta TDI has the most potential to impress and compete with hybrids. Unfortunately, like hybrids, diesel engines will add to a car's sticker price. VW predicts it will be a $2,000 premium for the Jetta TDI. When the current Touareg V10 TDI's 10-cylinder gets a more reasonable clean-diesel V-6 replacement, its price will be closer to that of the optional gas V-8 version (currently $48,390) versus the gas six-cylinder ($39,300). The cost will include additional features, not just the engine change.

Diesels will probably remain more expensive than gas engines because they're more expensive to manufacture, but they're a bargain compared to hybrids, which automakers essentially give away or take a loss on. For this reason, they have more long-term potential and should come down in price. No one alternative fuel will make a dent in our petroleum usage, but a combination will. Diesel's efficiency and the promise of biodiesel make it a major player.

Comments 

nony

Where's the Audi A4 3.0 TDI in that list?

I tried looking for a used late model Jetta TDI in my area for under 23K and it was IMPOSSIBLE. There was one, but it didn't even have steering wheel audio controls. Yuck.

Nony: The A4 was in my list until Audi said there was no such promise. Reports to the contrary have been based on speculation. The A4 is coming soon, and there will certainly be a diesel version manufactured, but no announcement has been made about us yanks getting it. The other models cited as possible were deemed such by their manufacturers. --JW

Cyber Joe

The only thing more reasonable than my Touareg V10 TDI would be a Q7 V12 TDI or possibly a Q7 V8 TDI, which is rated higher in output than the V10. So far most of the talk about diesels heading to the U.S. is centered on V6s and other small engines. As enthusiasts, we don't want to compromise performance for economy. Until automakers begin offering both, small diesels will gain little acceptance and continue to uphold the misconception that they result in slower vehicles than ones powered by gasoline.

Theron

"There was one, but it didn't even have steering wheel audio controls. Yuck."

Well, at least you tried...

Red

Joe W., Great overview on diesels - but are you seriously suggesting that carmakers "give away" hybrids, or "take a loss" on them? Toyota is selling 15,000 Prius models each month, and I believe the only single car nameplate in the U.S. that outsells it is the Chevy Impala. I find it hard to believe that Toyota is failing to make a profit on all those cars. What is your source of information for those statements?

Red

Clarification to the comment above: Prius sales vary from month to month, and in its best month last year, it ranked near the top of all nameplates for sales- but only for that month. More than 500,000 Prius models have been sold in the U.S. to date, and Toyota has sold more than 1 million hybrids worldwide.

Rick

Red - Toyota has had so much success with hybrids because they keep them in a price range accessible for many people. To seel them profitably, they would be tens of thousands of dollars more to purchase and their sales volume would be a fraction of what it currently is.

However, in its current price range, they are being sold at a loss per unit. So, in spite of the volume success, they are not profitable in dollars. More-so in consumer awareness of Toyota and a product to get people to think of Toyota again later for other crs.

If Prius is ever sold in mass-volume, Toyota would be able to recognize a profit. GM sold so many Impalas because they share components with other GM cars (like every GM car) and therefore it is cheaper to manufacture since they are acquiring supplies at massive volume discounts, their cars are priced to to sell at a profitable, affordable prices (not-withstanding their pension/health insurance woes), by product line.

While hybrids cost more than non-hybrids, their longevity is yet to be determined. Once out of warranty, will it be a dead battery pack or an aging tiny engine that has long worked too hard at highway speeds or some sort of electronic issue that causes these cars to not be good long-term transportation remains to be seen?

I have a Diesel SUV. Diesels have a proven long history of running for hundreds of thousands of miles when properly maintained / cared for. Now that they are a bit more quiet and a lot cleaner, they are worth the additional investment as a means of good gas milage, long-term transporation. I will definitely buy another diesel in 15 or 20 years when it's time to replace this one. =)

Trainer

Joe Wiesenfelder, do you have facts to back up your comments, and Rick's, that Hybrid cars are "given away" or sold at a loss, or was that just your opinion? Toyota's Prius outsells every American car except the Chevy Impala. Are you suggesting that Toyota is losing money on the Prius? Rick, FYI, the battery pack in the Prius has an 8 year, 100,000 mile warranty. In Canada, where they were first introduced, there are Prius models with 300,000 miles still operating on the original Nickel Metal Hydride batteries. The key is that the Prius computer never lets the batteries go below 30 percent charge, and never above 90 percent, adding to their longevity. Hybrids are not competitors with diesels; the two technologies complement each other by their added efficiency when compared to standard cars.

Trainer,
Yes I believe Toyota at one point admitted that they lose money on every Prius sold which was a widely held belief among analysts. And I also think you have your Toyotas confused. You're probably thinking of the Camry which is the most popular car in the U.S. The Prius sold a surprisingly good number last year of 181,000 which Toyota admits it will be unlikely to do again. The Camry sold 448,000 and the Corolla 387,000.

Chevy's Impala sold 311,000 and the Cobalt 200,000 for comparison.

Trainer

Dave T, your response doesn't cut it. As a journalist, your responsibility is to check facts before you publish them. Call Toyota and ask them if they are giving their hybrids away and losing money on them, and then report their comments, instead of relying on outdated or unsubstantiated information. As it stands now you haven't convinced anyone that Toyota would sell a million hybrids worldwide at a loss. Rick believes they're losing tens of thousands of dollars per vehicle, but you can't account for anyone that out of touch with reality. I'm guessing a simple phone call will confirm that Toyota isn't losing a cent on the Prius and is probably making a nice profit - enough so that they're expanding the number of hybrid models in the Toyota lineup.

HyBrit

According to this article, GM is taking a loss on its $50,000 Tahoe Hybrid. Who writes this crap?

Trainer

Here's some information on the profitability of Hybrids from some news organizations that actually researched the issue. This information is a year old, but still contains more updated information than the story above, and doesn't suggest Toyota is losing money on the hundreds of thousands of hybrids they're selling each year:

"While hybrid technology has raised manufacturing costs, Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the Prius hybrid, expects cost-cutting on hybrid production to make the cars as profitable as traditional gasoline models by 2010. By that point it expects to be selling 1 million hybrids a year (Reuters).

And according to MSNBC, Masatami Takimoto, executive vice president in charge of powertrain development, said "cost-cutting efforts on the system's motor, battery and inverter were bearing fruit, and the cost structure would improve drastically by the time Toyota reaches its sales goal of one million hybrids annually in 2010 or soon after."

In addition Takimoto announced that hybrid cars would account for 100 percent of Toyota's vehicle sales by about 2020.

Red

Here's a clip from today's New York Times:

James E. Press, the executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., said the Prius is slightly profitable already -- not counting an undisclosed amount in research and development costs. And if Toyota can reach its sales goals, profit margins will improve significantly.

Frank Shaffer

There is a retired gentleman here who was with Exxon Research in Cleveland many years ago. He claims that they developed a small battery that you could hold in one hand, that would power a complete home for one year. The patent was sold to Corning Glass and that was it. I understand the contents were very expensive at that time. But, it was possible. Why not today????

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