Audi believes it can sell 20 to 25 percent of its vehicles in the United States with diesel powertrains. Johan de Nysschen, president of Audi of America, said yesterday the diesel version of the Audi Q7 crossover SUV, the company’s first diesel in the US, could represent as much as 35 percent of Q7 sales.
The executive was speaking about diesels at the 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show’s press roundtable—while on the showroom floor, Audi and automakers are shining spotlights on their electric concept cars. Electric and plug-in hybrid cars, which offer the opportunity for zero or near-zero tailpipe emissions, represent a more radical shift in technology—while diesel engines are about 25 to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than their gas counterparts.
Advanced fuel-efficient technologies—whether diesel, electric or hybrid—represent additional cost. “I think the problem is that we don’t really have an honest discussion,” said Audi CEO Rupert Stadler. “There is a very, very high level of investment [in diesel], and nobody today knows if the return will come.”
Nonetheless, Audi and European carmakers are willing to make the necessary investments in diesel—and back it up with ad campaigns to promote diesel’s benefits. The car companies face an uphill battle in dispelling Americans’ view that diesel is noisy, dirty and expensive.
In June, Audi ads took over the home pages of Huffingtonpost.com, Slate.com, Politico.com and other progressive news sites with its diesel message. The campaign—“Diesel, It’s No Longer a Dirty Word”—features rusty oil drums rolling down streets, seemingly being repatriated onto tankers. According to Audi, if one-third of US drivers drove clean diesels, it would mean the US could “send back” 1.5 million barrels of imported oil per day.
“We looked at it as a political campaign,” said Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer for Audi USA. “We wanted to make diesel a much bigger idea that people could rally around.” Koeogh is planning a follow-up campaign in the fall to promote the introduction of the Audi A3 TDI diesel hatchback.
BMW is promoting its 335d and X5 xDrive 35d diesel vehicles with similar pro-diesel campaigns. Last month, the company sponsored home page takeovers of the New York Times and MSN.com websites, and the season premiere of AMC’s “Mad Men.”