While diesel-powered autos remain far more popular in other parts of the world, they’re finally beginning catching on here in the U.S., fueled by several new models debuting for 2014 from automakers including Chevrolet, Jeep, Ram, Mazda, Audi and BMW.
At that, sales of diesel-powered cars jumped by a whopping 41 percent this past August, following double-digit increases in 32 of the 36 previous months. As car buyers in Europe (where fuel is far more costly than it is here) have long appreciated, so-called diesel engines pack a winning combination of hybrid car-like fuel economy with excellent long-term durability and lively acceleration that rivals much larger and less-efficient engines.
“This new sales information illustrates that Americans are not only accepting but embracing alternative fuel and new technology vehicles in record numbers,” says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum in Washington, D.C.. “While there has been steady growth over the past three years, this summer’s diesel sales have been exceptional.”
Today's clean diesels run as smoothly and quietly as gasoline engines – few motorists would be able to tell the difference just by turning the key. They no longer spew black clouds of smoke and noxious fumes, either; a state-of-the-art particulate filter traps and eliminates the “soot” and other by-products of diesel combustion. Modern diesels run cleanly using low-sulfur fuel, and are certified for sale across the U.S., including California and other states that adhere to its stricter emissions standards.
Best of all, diesel-powered cars get 20 to 40 better mileage than gasoline versions, and automakers are counting on them (in addition to hybrid and electric vehicles) to help meet rising federal fuel economy regulations that are slated to reach an average 54.5 mpg by 2025. While hybrid-powered models tend to deliver better mileage in city driving – when the electric motor tends to do more of the heavy lifting – diesels tend to favor those with highway commutes. For example, the recently introduced clean diesel version of the popular Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan is EPA rated at 27-mpg in the city and an impressive 46-mpg on the open road. It’s also the lowest-priced diesel-powered car in the U.S. at just under $25,000.
We recently had the opportunity to take the clean diesel version of the Audi Q5 compact crossover SUV for an extended test drive, and came away duly impressed. It packs a 3.0-liter TDI (turbocharged, direct-injected) V6 that generates 240 horsepower with a whopping 428 pound-feet of torque, the latter of which imbues it with brisk V8-like launches and confident highway passing abilities. Even better it boasts fuel economy that’s on a par with much slower four-cylinder crossovers at 24/31-mpg city/highway.
On the downside, diesel fuel isn’t as readily available as gasoline in many areas of the country, and diesel-powered cars tend to cost more than their conventionally powered equivalents, though the premium isn’t typically as pronounced as it is with hybrid or electric-powered cars. (With an MSRP at $46,500, the Audi Q5 TDI we drove is about $2,000 costlier than a comparable gasoline-powered Q5 that gets 18/26 mpg.) What’s more – at least as of this writing – diesel fuel tends to cost more than gasoline. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in Washington, D.C., diesel fuel averaged $3.94 a gallon in mid-September, while regular unleaded gas was pegged at $3.55.
While clean diesel auto sales still represent just one percent of the U.S. auto market (as compared to a 54 percent market share in Europe), sales are expected to continue their upward pace with at least 19 new models expected to hit dealers’ showrooms over the next two years. Schaffer estimates that clean diesel vehicle sales will eventually account for eight-to-10 percent of the total U.S. market by 2018. We’ve included a list of available clean diesel models for the 2013-2014 model years in the accompanying box.
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