Can Clean Diesel Compete in an Electric-Drive World?
Hybrid gas-electric cars dominate Kelley Blue Book’s latest list of the most fuel-efficient vehicles. It’s no surprise that six cars in the top 10 list, released this week, are hybrids and two are small cars—the Mini Cooper and Honda Fit. But the two clean diesel offerings—one from Volkswagen and one from BMW—almost escape notice.
With dozens of new hybrids expected in the next couple of years, and the buzz (and government support) going to cars that can plug into the grid, will clean diesel vehicles be left in the zero-emissions dust?
Not exactly, if you consider that the 2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI packs a powerful punch of low-end torque and delivers an estimated 42 miles to the gallon. The base MSRP is $22,000, making the Golf TDI one of the most compelling mpg-per-dollar options. The hard line economics of the 2010 BMW 335d are not quite as compelling, but plunk down twice the dollars on the 6-cylinder diesel Bimmer to get almost twice the horsepower, and a lot more luxury. The BMW 335d is officially rated at 36 mpg on the highway and 27 in the city.
While Nissan, General Motors and other car companies are heavily betting on an electricity-powered automotive future, Volkswagen is banking on clean diesel. According to the Boston Herald, VW is projecting that up to 30 percent of its new sedan’s sales will be clean diesel vehicles, and that mainstream consumers, not necessarily willing to go hybrid or electric, will turn to diesel. In March, almost 7,000 of VW’s 22,000 sales in the US were diesels, said VW spokesman Christian Buhlmann. “One month, it’s a quarter. One month, its a third.”
Diesel vehicles carry a cost premium and diesel fuel currently sells, on average, for $0.20 more per gallon than gasoline. These additional costs are offset by better fuel economy, and federal tax credits. The VW Golf TDI automatic qualifies for a $1,700 tax credit, while the BMW 335d fetches $900. (Tax credits for most of the popular hybrids have expired, while the feds are giving a whopping $7,500 on electric cars, when they become available late this year.)
Honda had plans to offer a diesel vehicle put canceled. The only Japanese automaker planning to bring a diesel-powered sedan to the US is Mazda, probably sometime in 2012.
Only time will tell if individual consumers begin to adopt clean diesel vehicles in greater numbers—especially as electric-drive vehicles grow in popularity. In the meantime, diesel technology advocates are working to make sure that the nation’s heavy-duty trucks don’t make a shift from diesel to another alternative fuel receiving a lot of attention: natural gas.
“There is a reason today that diesel powers the overwhelming majority of the nation’s commercial trucking, school, and transit bus fleets,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “Diesel’s unmatched combination of availability, safety, energy efficiency, and economical operation and performance have made it the technology of choice.” Compared to natural gas, Schaeffer believes that clean diesel delivers clear economic benefits “with an ever-smaller climate and environmental footprint” as low-carbon diesel fuel comes online as predicted.