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Diesel Fuel - Across The Pond

A Chemical Wedding

Alistair Weaver
Feb 1, 2008 SHARE
Epcp_0802_01_z+alistair_weaver+front_view Photo 1/2   |   Diesel Fuel - Across The Pond

Thirty-nine years ago, my mother got married. The daughter of a barber wed a builder's son and, for a small town in northern England, it was a big occasion. But there was a problem. Unable to afford a horse-drawn carriage or a proper limousine, the bride was to be taken to the church in a taxi-with a diesel engine

It was the word 'diesel' that caused the uproar. For my grandmother (now deceased), this was all that was wrong with post-war Britain. How could you climb the social ladder if your only child was to be taken to her wedding in a belching, farting monstrosity?

In my grandmother's eyes, a diesel taxi was only marginally better than my father's suggestion, which was to arrive at church sitting in the bucket of one of his excavators. This would have scored points for novelty, while also providing some free advertising

I mention this anecdote because it epitomized the British attitude to diesel fuel until the end of the last century. Even in the late '90s, diesels were the preserve of disgruntled company car drivers and-worse still-the French. A diesel was fine for Johnny French who only worked a 30-hour week, the rest of us had to get on.

In 2000, diesels accounted for just 16.9 percent of the new car market in the UK. But by 2006, that figure had risen to 38.3. And it's increasing all the time. In some sectors, such as SUVs and MPVs, diesel is the dominant power source-over 80 percent of Range Rovers sold in the UK now stop at the 'other' pump. In Europe, where the fuel tax structure is biased against gasoline, diesel has a market share approaching 55 percent.

There are two reasons for this. The first is fiscal: a (US) gallon of fuel in London now costs about $8.10. At these prices, a 20 percent improvement in fuel economy equals lots of beer money. And because diesel cars emit less carbon dioxide, there's also less tax to pay.

The second reason is even more compelling: a quantum leap in turbodiesel technology. The introduction of common rail and direct injection systems has revolutionized diesel power. For the first time in history, we now have turbodiesel engines that are faster, quieter and more frugal than the gasoline alternative.

Take the BMW 530d. It costs just $800 more than the 530i and although it generates 36 hp less, it offers 133 lb-ft more torque and is massively faster in the mid-range. For the enthusiast, the diesel is the better car. And that's before taking fuel savings into account.

Living in the UK, I've become used to the steady drip-drip of American culture. In the penetration of McDonald's, Starbucks, gun crime and hardcore pornography, we're about a decade behind the US and have been since the end of the Second World War. But in the case of diesel, the situations are reversed. There are strong parallels between the US today and where the UK was in 2000.

In the US, a modern diesel makes perfect sense. The lazy mid-range is perfect for the highway and the increased range means less time spent at gas stations. In the next couple of years, some of the latest common rail turbodiesels will begin to flood the US market and they'll be available in all 50 states. Their adoption should be a no-brainer, but there's still a battle to be won for hearts and minds.

Some in the motor industry are more confident than others. Wolfgang Hatz, the head of powertrain for the entire Volkswagen Group, reckons the US "diesel market will start small, but grow fast. The experience in Europe suggests that people who drive a diesel never go back to gas. If you stand beside a modern diesel A4, it's hard to tell it's a diesel."

At the Tokyo auto show, Nissan's executive VP, Carlos Tavares, uttered similar sentiments. Nissan will introduce a Renault-made V6 diesel in the Maxima in 2010 and Tavares admits that a US customer's "reference point is far away" in terms of diesel performance expectations

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"We shouldn't talk about diesel, we should let them drive the car," he said. "The best way is to demonstrate. The joy of driving must be experienced. The refinement of a modern diesel is not what a US customer thinks it is." Tavares reckons predicting future US diesel volumes is "pure guesswork" but is confident of making a significant impact.

There will be those who say that getting US buyers to accept diesel is rather like asking them to swap baseball for cricket. They reckon it'll never catch on, but people used to say similar things in the UK. Just ask my mother.

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By Alistair Weaver
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