- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

Hybrid-electric cars have entirely taken over the popular imagination of what is considered fuel-efficient. Popular shorthand is just that short. But did you know that European manufacturers sell a majority of their cars on that continent with diesel engines?

Diesel’s combination of economy and driving characteristics is a good match for a market where fuel is more expensive than it was during last summer’s peak here in the U.S. and where tax policies keep diesel fuel cheaper than gasoline.

In the U.S., the primary promoter of diesel is Volkswagen, which has developed an enthusiastic following for the technology. Volkswagen’s goal is to propagate diesel interest outside the small inner circle of the truly faithful and into the general public.

To do that, Volkswagen has a two-pronged approach. The first step is to take the diesel engine to the customers by offering it in the company’s popular Touareg crossover SUV, not just in the usual Golf and Jetta models.

The TDI, as VW calls its diesel engines, is popular with Jetta buyers and accounts for the majority of Jetta wagon sales. Those cars are rated by the EPA at 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway, and in our real-world around-town driving, the cars have typically returned fuel economy in the upper 30s. This is in line with results by AMCI Testing, an Oceanside, Calif., company that recorded 38 mpg in city driving and 44 mpg highway for the Jetta TDI.

The automaker points out that its TDI vehicles are eligible for a $1,300 federal tax credit, trimming a bit off the car’s actual cost, which for a well-equipped model can run around $24,000.

The combination of nice features in a sharp-handling, good-looking sport sedan that gets fantastic fuel economy and has a reasonable price tag should make the Jetta TDI a best-seller.

Yet news of the modern diesels has been slow to spread here in the U.S. In response, Volkswagen’s second step was to launch the TDI Cup racing series last year for race-prepared Jettas driven by aspiring professional drivers age 26 years or younger. The thinking is to get Americans to associate diesels with race cars, rather than with smelly trash trucks.

The automaker’s Audi luxury brand commissioned NFL Films to produce a documentary of the dramatic underdog victory of its R10 diesel race cars in the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans race - a movie available for free from the Apple iTunes Store. VW also produced a film on the first season of its U.S. TDI Cup series, the very entertaining “Racing Under Green,” which the company aims to also add to the iTunes Store.

These kinds of efforts are surely helpful in transforming the image of diesels in the minds of green-minded U.S. drivers. The Jetta TDI has powered Volkswagen to 20 percent growth in U.S. market share since it was delivered last July, said Stephan Jacoby, president and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America.

Mr. Jacoby said it helps convey the idea that “driving sports cars and having fun is not in contradiction with environmental responsibility.”

Americans still really prefer roomier vehicles and the higher “command” driving position of sport utility vehicles, particularly crossover SUVs. To these buyers, VW now offers the Touareg TDI, which provides the space, comfort and all-weather capability some consumers want in a vehicle that scored 25 mpg on the EPA highway driving test and 17 mpg city.

Volkswagen has offered a diesel Touareg previously, but that was a fire-breathing V-10 - better suited for commercial truck service than hauling the kids to practice. This new 3.0-liter V-6 TDI is rated at 221 horsepower and a stunning 407-foot-pounds of torque, making the Touareg sprightly.

With the gap in price between diesel and gas narrowing, an increasing number of stations selling the fuel, as well as the federal mandate of low-sulfur fuel largely eliminating diesel’s smell, there is no reason to avoid clean, high-mileage diesel vehicles.

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