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Dynamic Diesels

Driven by economic and environmental concerns, diesel-engine cars are gaining traction in Europe. Will the mania for compression ignition make a comeback in America?
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

(continued from page 2)

In a world increasingly focused on global warming, ultra-clean, high-efficiency diesels are suddenly winning new friends, including Steve Albu, assistant division chief with California's powerful Air Resources Board, which has long blocked the use of diesels in the smoggy state. In a recent, unexpectedly upbeat interview, Albu declared that diesels "can address global warming issues" without other, unacceptable environmental trade-offs.

The question is whether consumers will embrace diesels as well. And that's another matter of ongoing debate. George Peterson, director of the consulting firm AutoPacific, is skeptical about demand, while J.D. Power analyst Kevin Riddell contends, "We're looking for the diesel market to more than double by 2012Éand perhaps double again."

Of course, the best technology is worthless if consumers can't find it on the market. And right now, there aren't many diesels available, especially in California. But that's about to change.

As regular readers know, Cigar Aficionado recently declared the Mercedes E320 Bluetec its Best Green Vehicle (in a tie with the ultra-luxurious Lexus LS600h hybrid sedan). But for the Bluetec badge, a casual observer would have a hard time telling the difference between the E320 and gasoline-powered versions of the big sedan. With a diesel's amazing torque, the E320 will match the performance of a bigger gas engine. Look for the German maker to upgrade the diesels in its ML and larger GL sport-utility vehicles, in the very near future. While it's unlikely the high-mileage technology will ever match the penetration it had in the mid-'80s, it is certain to become an established part of Mercedes' future lineup.

Indeed, diesel will be commonplace among the German imports. VW has had the most popular—and most affordable—diesels on the road in recent years, and while existing models are being phased out, look for an assortment of new ones using the marque's latest Clean Diesel TDI technology. It will arrive under the hood of the Jetta sedan and Jetta SportWagen, sometime during the first quarter of 2008. The massive, V-10-powered diesel Touareg SUV goes away at the end of the coming model year, but reliable sources confirm that the engine will shortly after be replaced by a V-6 Clean Diesel.

Then there's Audi, which arguably has done more for the image of the modern diesel than anyone, with its R10 race car. The most successful—albeit one of the few truly competitive—diesel race cars in history, Audi's 2,000-pound entry pumps out 650-horsepower from its twin-turbo, 5.5-liter V-12. The car is eerily silent, sneaking up on competitors like a cat stalking its prey; and since the R10 uses emissions controls, a rarity on the track, it's cleaner than most other race cars. But what matters most is that since its unveiling, in December 2005, the R10 has overwhelmed everything in its class, sweeping to two consecutive victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and dominating the American Le Mans endurance series. One diesel powerhouse that is built for pure velocity, the JCB Dieselmax, keeps setting new land speed records for diesel cars at the Bonneville Salt Flats with velocities that are now well over 300 mph.

How much of the R10's technology will ultimately migrate from the track to the street is uncertain, but Audi's commitment to both is clear. During the second half of 2008, look for a new, 3.0-liter clean diesel to start powering up the Q7 SUV, "our most thirsty vehicle," notes spokesman Patrick Hespen. He hints that if customer demand is there, the twin-turbo diesel could readily be transplanted to virtually any other model in the Audi lineup, from the A4 to the A8.

The line of other import makers looking at their diesel options is growing fast. Look for news from BMW, Toyota and Honda. Industry observers expect a diesel-powered version of the latter brand, its newly updated Accord, to debut perhaps as early as 2009.

And the Big Three? So far, they've limited their offerings to light trucks, such as the big Ford F-Series pickup, Chrysler Ram truck and Jeep Liberty SUV. Of the domestic makers, Chrysler has the most aggressive plans—at least those that have been made public. Among other things, look for a Bluetec version of the Grand Cherokee SUV, using technology developed by Chrysler's former German partner, Mercedes. Meanwhile, GM has begun work, at its Turin, Italy, power train center, on an advanced V-6 package that should arrive in the States by late 2009.

Diesel's Future
There are still those who believe the diesel to be no more than a niche player, at least anywhere but in Europe. Future versions of the hybrid, such as the so-called two-mode system, which is being developed in a GM/Chrysler/Mercedes/BMW partnership, could prove efficient enough to eliminate all competition. Or maybe not. Next year, the French siblings, Peugeot and Citroën, will launch production of the world's first diesel-electric hybrid, which could make Toyota's current mileage champ, the Prius, look like a veritable gas-guzzler.

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