- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

DETROIT — Only 3 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States last year had diesel engines, compared with half the vehicles sold in Europe.

Europeans prize diesel engines for their fuel efficiency and power, but U.S. buyers have been slow to embrace them because of environmental concerns and bad memories of the belching diesels of the 1980s.

But automakers are betting that will change now that diesel is getting cleaner, gas prices are rising and consumers are paying more attention to fuel economy. Diesels are 30 percent more efficient than gas engines, and unlike gas-electric hybrids, which get better fuel economy in city driving, diesels are equally efficient on the highway.

“This really, I think, is a whole new direction this market can take,” DaimlerChrysler AG Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dieter Zetsche told reporters last week at the North American International Auto Show.

Mr. Zetsche promoted DaimlerChrysler’s BlueTec diesel technology, which will make its U.S. debut in the fall in the 2007 Mercedes-Benz E320 sedan. DaimlerChrysler says BlueTec is so clean it can meet emissions regulations in all 50 states, including the five states where diesels aren’t sold because they can’t meet emissions standards: California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Vermont.

Mr. Zetsche said DaimlerChrysler plans to add BlueTec technology to other brands in its lineup, including Chrysler and Jeep.

Ford Motor Co. displayed the Ford Reflex concept at the auto show, a sports car with a hybrid-diesel engine it says can get 65 miles per gallon. Honda Motor Co., which already sells diesels in Europe, said it is monitoring U.S. demand, while Nissan Motor Co. President and CEO Carlos Ghosn said the company is working on diesels and will be ready if consumers demand them.

Federal and state regulations have stunted the growth of diesel, which emits smog-forming pollutants, and environmental groups remain wary. The Union of Concerned Scientists says even if cleaner diesels are aggressively adopted, the reduction in carbon emissions would be modest. The group suggests hybrids offer greater benefits.

Diesel also is relatively hard to find. Only 42 percent of U.S. fuel stations sell it, according to the Diesel Technology Forum, a Frederick, Md., advocacy group funded by automakers, diesel engine manufacturers and others.

Diesels will get a big boost in October, when U.S. diesel retailers are required to begin selling low-sulfur diesel. In the past, diesel could have a sulfur level of up to 500 parts per million; low-sulfur diesel has no more than 15 parts per million.

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, said low-sulfur diesel is a critical piece of the puzzle for manufacturers, which have vastly improved technology but still can’t meet strict standards like California’s.

“Ultimately, it will not be a question of whether technology can meet these standards,” he said. “The question for manufacturers is one, really, of cost.”

The 20 or so diesel models now available in most U.S. states cost between $300 and $1,000 more than comparable vehicles with gas engines, Mr. Schaeffer said, but that cost is lower than the average premium of $3,500 on hybrid cars.

Even with the premiums, analyst Anthony Pratt of the consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates predicts U.S. diesel sales will nearly double in the next few years, from 550,000 in 2005 to more than 1 million in 2010.

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