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Prepare to hear about diesel at the New York Auto Show

The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee comes with an

The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee comes with an EcoDiesel engine option that yields 30 highway miles per gallon. (March 27, 2013) (Credit: Nancy Borowick)

If you’re heading to the New York Auto Show this week, you might be surprised by how far the word “diesel” has traveled around the exhibits. Once reserved almost exclusively for the pickup truck show areas, diesel is now being touted enthusiastically at displays of automakers – including Volkswagen, Mazda and BMW – known more for their smaller, sleek vehicles. And it’s not just the foreign brands: Chrysler’s redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee and General Motors’ Chevrolet Cruze have made news recently for their diesel models.

As recently as last year, industry observers believed that diesel was still a long way from being widely adopted in the United States. So what’s fueling this shift?

We stopped by Mazda’s exhibit, where a diesel engine version of the all-new Mazda6 was prominently displayed, to find out more about the trend. The Mazda6 is the first vehicle by a Japanese manufacturer to feature a diesel engine in the United States.

“Diesel fuel always possessed more thermodynamic efficiency than gas,” Dean Case of Mazda Motorsports told Newsday.com. “But diesel was too dirty. Once they were able to remove much of the sulfur from it, the burden fell on the car companies.”

Cleaner diesel fuel was widely available by 2007, yet car companies were slow to alter their production of cars for sale in the United States because of the price-conscious American consumer. Diesel engines are more expensive to build for manufacturers and the fuel is pricier at the pump for consumers.

Now that the recession has apparently subsided, price isn’t necessarily the dominant determining factor in the U.S. auto industry. People have shown a willingness to pay more for a smaller carbon footprint and the federal government continues to tighten emissions standards. But many drivers remain wary of electric and hybrid cars’ reputations for low-performance.

Enter diesel fuel and it’s thermodynamic efficiency. At this year’s auto show, for example, BMW is introducing its 328d model – a diesel-engined 3-Series – to America for the first time. Company execs say the vehicle will go from 0 to 60 mph in about 7.2 seconds while possible exceeding 40 miles to the gallon. At the big unveiling of Land Rover’s Range Rover Sport, the automaker also said it would include two diesel options in production models.

Additionally, diesel’s use in the EcoDiesel V-6 engine of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee is expected to yield 30 highway miles to the gallon, compared to 25 miles for a similarly equipped V-6 engine on the forthcoming gas engine option for the 2014 car. Though the diesel model sacrifices some horsepower (240 compared to 290 in the gas), it ups the torque by 160 pound-feet to 420.

Moreover, the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze will offer a “Clean Turbo Diesel” engine that is expected to up the horsepower and torque of the car while maintaining its 42 highway miles to the gallon EPA rating. And Volkswagen leads the pack, offering Passat, Golf, Jetta, Beetle and Touareg models with “TDI Clean Diesel” engines. It’s luxury Audi brand even unveiled a 2015 Audi A3 that will feature one of these diesel engines.

(Mazda has yet to announce the expected specifications of its diesel engine.)

Of course, in addition to better power and fuel efficiency, the common thread among these diesel engines is in their names: automakers are careful to include some kind of “clean” notation in the engine’s names in order to scrub the fuel-type of its dirty reputation.

As Mazda Motorsports’ Case put it, “you can’t talk about efficiency without cleaner emissions.” 

Click here for images of new cars with diesel engines that were featured at the 2013 New York International Auto Show.

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