Not so long ago the U.S. vehicle market was all but diesel-free, thanks in part to California’s strict air standards that prohibit high nitrogen oxide emitters. But with the debut of the Volkswagen Jetta TDI in 2008 and subsequent releases from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, diesel’s fortunes here are beginning to change. Far from the bulky, smog-billowing V6s of the 1970s and 1980s, the new generation of clean diesel vehicles are smaller, turbocharged, fuel efficient, and most importantly, their smog emissions are sharply lower—meaning that they are now legal in all 50 states.
At 42 mpg highway, the 2012 Jetta TDI is more powerful and offers a 9-mpg fuel economy improvement over the standard 4-cylinder Jetta S, making it a competing consideration for many hybrid shoppers. The success of the Jetta has helped to trigger a slow but steady increase in the number of oil-burning cars sold in the United States. So far this year, diesel sales are up more than 30 percent over 2010—when they were up 40 percent over 2009 levels. According to John Breneman, executive director of the U.S. Coalition for Advanced Diesel Cars, sales of clean diesels will only continue to grow as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard in the United States increases toward 54.5 mpg in 2025.
“Emission regulations are now about the same in Europe and the U.S., even California, so it makes it economically feasible for auto makers to develop one product for all those markets,” Breneman told Ward’s Auto last week.
This year, Chevy announced that it will market a diesel version of its popular Cruze compact for 2013 that is expected to achieve fuel economy in the 50-mpg range. In the next two years, Audi says it will offer TDI versions of its A6, A8 and Q5 models. The carmaker already sells its A3 and Q7 here.
So far, the new diesel market seems to be constrained less by consumer demand than the willingness of carmakers to offer the technology. “When given a choice between a diesel- or gas-powered Jetta, 33% of motorists opt for the higher-mileage diesel. But when the supply of diesels is gone, it takes at least six to eight more weeks for the boat to arrive with a fresh supply,” said Breneman. “Ford, Toyota or Honda haven’t got a diesel for the U.S. yet, but get ready for 2013-2014. That’s when we’re going to see a lot more diesels.”