On a week in which Chrysler announced the receipt of its 2,000,000th diesel engine from Cummins (a 6.7 liter inline 6 with 800 lb-ft of torque!), the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) introduced an aggressively new – or newly aggressive – marketing program to raise the awareness of American buyers to the many advantages of diesel powertrains. With “Clean Diesel. Clearly Better.” as its slogan, the association hopes to press the benefits of today’s clean diesel technology and, not so incidentally, propel sales of same in the showrooms of Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen. Mazda, we’ll guess, is on its own…
There is, of course, a great deal riding on the success of both the slogan and initiative. While the German industry is über-aware of hybrid powertrains and their acceptance in the U.S., German drivers have enjoyed a diesel infrastructure built long before a great many German homes were electrified. The invention of one Rudolf Diesel, his engineering vision enjoys more relevance with each successive fuel efficiency mandate by the U.S. government. And if recent history is any indication, we do like our mandates.
The kicker, of course, is expunging the somewhat spotty history of passenger car diesels in the U.S., something made more difficult by the automotive media’s almost innate need to regurgitate ‘Olds Diesel’ at the drop of an alcoholic beverage. Despite almost four decades – and at least one bankruptcy – since the engineering debacle that begat the GM diesel, automotive reports still reference that unfortunate happenstance as largely responsible for the American public’s ongoing inability to grasp diesel to its collective bosom.
We’d argue the ambivalence is centered on a still-vibrant educational system that instructs the majority of Americans in basic math. And when gas is well below $4/gallon the math for diesel rarely works. Despite enjoying an efficiency some 30% better than gasoline powerplants of roughly the same displacement and performance, U.S. diesel remains some 30% more expensive per gallon – and typically $2K-plus more expensive to purchase. It takes a long time to pay back the differential.
Of course, between 1985 and 2013 there have been several manufacturers willing to keep the diesel faith. Mercedes has been the most steadfast, pushing its four and five cylinder oil burners throughout the eighties and, more recently, enjoying considerable success with its BlueTec derivatives. Volkswagen’s TDI has done a great deal to democratize the movement, with Golfs and Jettas for the mainstream enthusiasts, along with New Beetles for those we’ll call less mainstream.