Why Don’t Americans Buy More ‘Clean Diesel’ Cars?

The market for U.S. diesel cars has been inching upwards, but still remains a small fraction of gasoline-powered cars, and Automotive News today presented a video overview as to why it sees this as so.

According to Senior Writer Jesse Snyder, the value is just not there. In a broad overview without naming specific models, he observed in Europe more than half of cars sold are diesel – of the “clean diesel” variety. In the U.S. just 3 percent of the market is diesel and about a quarter of these are clean diesel.

In his view, it is not a question of whether they are really “clean” – with all the emission controls now being used they actually are, he says – and consumer objections about issues like the smell of diesel spilled on one’s hands he dismisses as emotional reasons.

No, the sticking point is money, he says. If one looks at the average higher price paid for a diesel car and the average higher pump price for diesel fuel and compares these numbers in both Germany and the U.S., it looks like diesel is a no brainer in Germany, and a tough sell in the U.S.

Snyder’s example figured $2,000 extra to be paid for a diesel – and this is easily in line if one looked at the MSRP of the top-selling U.S. diesel, the Jetta TDI versus a similar as possible gas-powered Jetta.

Source: Automotive News.

Source: Automotive News.

Then, looking at this week’s national average fuel prices, Snyder figured a diesel that gets around 30 percent better fuel mileage would save $840 per year at 10,000 miles annually driven in Germany, compared to $150 per year saved in the U.S.

So, goes the reasoning, if Americans only stand to save $150 per year, it will take them around 13.33 years to just break even on their $2,000 extra spent, or 133,000 miles compared to a breakeven point in Germany at 24,000 miles.

Source: Automotive News.

Source: Automotive News.

“This is diesel’s U.S. problem,” said Snyder, “Pump prices are less than half of Germany’s and diesel costs more here, not less.”

And we will agree there is undeniable truth within Snyder’s generalizations. Diesel does cost more in the U.S., not less as it does in Germany.

What was not accounted for is whether a driver traveled more than 10,000 miles per year, or whether the vehicle would be kept for long-term ownership. Diesel engines are known to be durable, often said to be more durable than gas varieties, and are famous for racking up odometer readings well in excess of the estimated 133,000 break-even point.

What’s more, for higher mileage drivers, say, traveling 16,000 miles per year, simply following Snyder’s model, it could be around an 8-year break-even point, and even sooner if miles were higher – or if diesel could be found cheaper, or if the price premium paid was less than $2,000 for a given diesel model and a cross-shopped gas model.

This is still not in the no-brainer category as it is in Germany, but it is not as foolish-looking a value proposition as the ending of Snyder’s commentary suggests, when he says of Americans buying clean diesel cars with a sardonic smile, “But hey, after May of 2026, it’s all gravy.”

Other factors in diesel’s favor are these vehicles are, as Snyder says, cleaner than they’ve been in the past, with multiple and sophisticated controls to scrub particulate matter and smell.

So, just as some environmentally minded people now pay a premium for electrified cars, some may feel justified in doing so for a clean diesel purchase.

There are however those who vehemently disagree diesel engines can be made clean at all, and who actively write against the carcinogenic effects of diesel no matter what emissions controls are in place. More on this topic can be found at clean-diesel.org.

Beyond that debate, turbo diesel engines are known to provide excellent tractability with high torque off the line, and combined with the potential for excellent durability, do present their own unique benefits.

It is true though, there are fewer diesel filling stations in America, and diesel does come at a price penalty, so this does keep many people at bay after a quick look at the scenario that Snyder correctly says does not look as good as it does in Germany.

In sum, we cannot agree with any implication that diesel cars make hardly any sense at all, and for some people they could be the best option. Like other alternative-tech vehicles fighting against an entrenched mentality and paradigm, diesels are a more qualified decision individuals will need to look at more closely to determine whether they really make sense for them.

Automotive News