- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2008

It’s not surprising to see diesel priced at $5.50 per gallon in some sections of the country. With the current price of diesel fuel higher than gasoline, you’d laugh if I said your next car might be diesel-powered.

New diesel technology, however, can beat the price of gasoline by the better mileage it gets — by as much as up to 33 percent miles per gallon more.

Despite high diesel prices, Mercedes-Benz is optimistic that they’re setting the stage for a diesel revival with the launching of a trio of Sport Utility Vehicles equipped with diesel engines that are so emissions clean they can be sold in all 50 states.

California, and seven other states that use the same emissions standards, have banned diesel light-duty vehicles for several years. However, the introduction of low-sulfur diesel fuel (the cleanest burning diesels in history) has set the stage for the new diesel age.

The 2009 Mercedes BlueTEC diesel SUVs have remarkably clean emissions thanks to a new technology that uses AdBlue, a urea solution that’s sprayed directly into the diesel exhaust. This turns NOx — a major element that forms smog — into benign nitrogen and water vapor. An advanced catalytic converter and particulate filter will clean other emissions and trap soot particles so well that the exhaust, too, is very clean.

The 2009 ML, GL and R 320 with the BlueTEC engine, which go on sale this fall, are the first oil burners drivers in all 50 states can buy. Thomas Ruhl, director of the Mercedes BlueTEC project, is confident that Americans are ready for diesels again.

One thing that Mercedes has done is hold the premium for the diesel engine to about $1,000. Ruhl says Mercedes can hold the premium to such a low price because it builds high volumes of diesels for its other global markets.

Additionally, Mercedes has cautiously set the stage in recent years for a diesel revival, introducing the E320 BlueTEC in 2006 that now accounts for 7 percent of E-Class sales, even though it was not available in California and other big markets, including New York.

“We have the potential to build even further on this success,” Ruhl says.

Diesels are inherently more expensive because they cost more to make.

They require expensive high-pressure fuel injectors, as well as engine materials that are stiffer and heavier to tolerate the high pressures generated in diesel engines. Sensors used in diesel exhaust systems are also more expensive to make.

The 3.0-liter V-6 BlueTEC diesel generates 210 horsepower and 398 pounds-feet of torque. It is the cleanest diesel ever offered in the U.S.

Four engineering innovations were used to clean the diesel exhaust, including an oxidizing catalytic converter, a particulate filter that cuts soot by 98 percent and the AdBlue urea solution that is injected into the exhaust stream to turn 80 percent of NOx into emissions into harmless gases.

Cleaning the exhaust doesn’t bite into fuel economy because the diesel gives 20 to 33 percent greater miles per gallon than a comparable gas engine.

Ruhl claims this results in a six-cylinder engine that provides four-cylinder fuel economy, but with V-8 power and torque.

Official EPA fuel economy numbers were not available at this writing, but a Mercedes spokesman says preliminary data reveal a substantial mpg boost in the trio of U.S.-made SUVs. A gasoline-fueled R-Class is rated at 15 mpg city and 20 mpg highway vs. 18 city and 25 highway for the BlueTEC model.

The bigger GL gasoline model is 13/18 mpg vs. 18/24 mpg for the BlueTEC diesel. Gasoline-fueled ML is rated at 15/18 mpg vs. 18/24 mpg for the diesel. Overall, the BlueTEC powered versions of the ML and R-Class have 20 percent greater range and the GL has 33 percent greater range.

The average transaction price for the R-Class diesel will be in the mid-$50,000 range says Bernhard Glaser, general manager of Mercedes marketing. “The GL will have a slightly higher transaction price ranging up to the high $50,000s. Customers for the M-Class BlueTEC will probably have an average price in the high $40,000s,” Glaser says.

“People are not just going to flock to diesels,” says Stephen Cannon, vice president marketing. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

He’s hopeful that the clean diesel will capture the same cachet that has gone to hybrids in recent years. BlueTEC diesel vehicles qualify for the same federal income tax credit that hybrids get.

The key thing that Mercedes will need is to get potential buyers to take test rides in the BlueTEC diesel vehicle. The experience is totally transparent.

It doesn’t sound or smell like a diesel and there is no sign of black smoke coming out of the tailpipe.

For example, when I lifted the rear compartment that houses the AdBlue solution there was no discernible odor.

Cannon says it’s not unrealistic to believe clean diesel engines will capture about 20 percent of sales during the next decade. He sees the biggest opportunities in California and New York, two of the country’s largest auto markets that have not permitted diesels to be registered in recent years.

Cannon believes a BlueTEC cruising range of 600 miles will be a significant selling point.

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