Drivers in the U.S. are discovering what Europeans have known for years: Diesel engines are powerful and still get eye-popping fuel economy, especially at highway speeds.
Automakers are rolling out new diesels in the U.S. market, including a diesel version of General Motors' Chevrolet Cruze, which debuted Feb. 7 at the Chicago Auto Show.
Diesels account for just 3 percent of U.S. auto sales. But automakers see that percentage increasing as they offer more diesel models, part of the effort to meet increasingly stringent federal fuel-economy standards.
GM joins Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW in pitching diesel passenger cars for the U.S. market. This year, Jeep will offer a diesel version of its popular Grand Cherokee SUV, and Mazda will offer a diesel version of the new-generation Mazda6 sedan.
The automakers are using versions of diesel engines they already have developed for Europe and other markets.
Diesels now account for about 20 percent of VW's sales volume in the U.S. The company welcomes new diesel competitors, believing a rising tide will lift all boats.
Overcoming an image
Americans historically have shunned diesel-powered vehicles. That's because of cheap gasoline in the past, compared with other countries, and because the first diesel passenger cars were noisy, smoky and slow. The addition of turbochargers and other technologies has solved those problems, making many modern diesels as quiet and powerful as gasoline engines.
"This is not a fixed slice of pie that gets divided by the same customers," says Jonathan Browning, chief executive of Volkswagen Group of America. "This will grow the diesel segment, and that's good news for us."
Automakers hope to lure more buyers such as Danny Albarran, a Simi Valley, Calif., resident who drives a diesel Dodge Ram pickup truck. The Los Angeles City Fire Department engineer learned to appreciate diesels after seeing their reliability and efficiency while driving firetrucks.
"You will see diesel trucks and cars out there regularly get 200,000 to 300,000-plus miles," says Albarran, who also owns a Toyota Prius. Even in everyday vehicles, diesel engines provide more power, better fuel economy, a higher resale value and extra longevity, he says.
The resale value of a compact car with a diesel engine is about 63 percent of its sticker price after three years, according to ALG, a consulting firm that estimates used-car values for the leasing business. That compares with 53 percent for a compact car with a gasoline engine.
But there are drawbacks. Consumers pay a premium for that diesel engine -- from about $2,000 for a VW hatchback or sedan to more than $5,000 for a luxury car or big truck.
Although the fuel economy for a diesel can be as much as a third better than for a gasoline car, oil companies charge more for diesel.
Depending on what's happening in the oil industry, the gap has been as much as 50 cents a gallon over regular-grade gasoline in the last year or so.
A growing number of consumers appear willing to accept that extra fuel expense, perhaps inured by the high price of all automotive fuel, says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of Diesel Technology Forum.
Sales of diesel vehicles have risen by double digits in 20 of the last 24 months, he says.