US Consumers Show Growing Interest in Diesels

27% say they would be interested in clean diesel compared to 22% interested in hybrid-electric cars.

Published: 29-Jan-2003

lass=by-line>By David Kiley, USA TODAY

DETROIT — U.S. consumers are unexpectedly warming to the idea of smoother-running and cleaner-smelling diesel engines in cars and light trucks, says a new survey by J.D. Power and Associates.

But automakers say diesel choices might be limited because of new clean-air regulations.

Power says of 4,500 consumers surveyed, 27% said they would opt for a diesel if it ran as cleanly and performed as well as a gas engine, while 22% would prefer a gas-electric hybrid meeting the same qualifications. The rest would stick with a gas engine.

The preference for diesels, which get 30% to 60% better fuel economy than gas engines, jumped to 56% if gas prices went to $2.50 a gallon, while 38% would then favor a hybrid.

The results were surprising, given the positive reaction to hybrids the past two years. Honda sells two hybrids, and Toyota has one. Ford Motor will sell a hybrid Escape sport-utility vehicle next year, and General Motors says it will sell about a million hybrid cars and trucks between 2005 and 2007.

"It comes down to power, and hybrids still do not have the highway passing speed that gasoline or diesel engines have," says Walter McManus, head of global forecasting at Power.

For automakers, the trick will be cleaning up diesels enough to meet clean-air rules being phased in from 2004 to 2009.

The arrival of low-sulfur diesel fuel, which reduces today's sulfur from 500 parts per million to 15 ppm will help.

Automakers also need under-the-hood technology that cuts the output of smog-causing nitrogen oxides from 1.25 grams per mile to 0.07.

"There's a lot of work being done to achieve that, but no one is there yet," GM's Chris Preuss says.

Ford has shelved plans to sell V-6 diesel engines in pickups and possibly SUVs until the technology is sorted out.

In Europe, where gas costs three times what it does in the USA, diesels are in 40% of new vehicles sold.

In the USA, diesels are in full-size pickups and some large vans because they deliver power for hauling heavy loads. But only Volkswagen currently offers diesel cars in the USA — Golf, Jetta and New Beetle now and Passat diesel in the fall. It also plans a diesel version of its Phaeton SUV next year.

Mercedes-Benz is adding a diesel E Class next year, and Chrysler is planning to sell 5,000 diesel-powered Jeep Libertys as a test.

"Offering diesel, which we have ready access to, is a way of attracting new customers and keeping many of our existing ones," says VW of American chief Gerd Klauss.

Diesel has had a bad name since the late 1970s, when stinky, poor-performing diesels were churned out of Detroit to meet demand brought about by high fuel prices.

But the survey shows that automakers now have some work to do on the image of hybrids.

"Even with less publicity, people understand diesel means power, while hybrids have a wimpy image for a lot of people," McManus says.

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