The diesel car option: changes may surprise

Ken Weinstein, co-owner of the Sandy Pond Golf

Ken Weinstein, co-owner of the Sandy Pond Golf Course in Riverhead with his 2013 Volkswagen Passat TDi Diesel, which he claims gets 50mpg on the highway. (Nov. 1, 2013) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

As Long Island drivers grapple with gasoline prices that have nearly doubled in the past decade, they are being pitched a surprising alternative: diesel cars.

Long criticized by environmentalists for their soot and nitrogen oxide emissions but prized by many drivers for their power and fuel economy, diesels have changed dramatically in the past decade and appear to be poised for a surge in popularity, say auto experts. The newest diesels are much less polluting than their predecessors and have cost advantages over hybrid cars.

"Today's diesels must meet the same emissions standards as gasoline vehicles," the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says on its website. "Emissions of particulates and nitrogen oxides are still relatively high," the EPA says, but it expects continued technical improvements to reduce them.


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While diesel fuel is more expensive than conventional gasoline, better mileage often makes up for the difference.

Diesels are proliferating as carmakers struggle to meet increasingly tough U.S. mileage requirements. Automakers' plans call for about a dozen new diesel models by the end of 2015, bringing the total in U.S. showrooms to more than 40.

 

Market expected to grow

On Long Island, diesels accounted for just 1 percent of new vehicle registrations this year through August -- or 1,496 vehicles, according to R.L. Polk and Co., a Michigan-based auto data provider. That total, however, excludes medium- and heavy-duty pickups, tractor-trailers, moving vans and the like. Since those trucks often are diesel-powered, the proportion of diesel vehicles being sold on Long Island overall is likely higher.

At Security Dodge Chrysler Jeep Ram and Gem in Amityville, co-owner John J. Vigorito Jr. says most of the medium and heavy pickups he sells are diesels. "The reason for that is their towing capacity and the fuel efficiency," he said. "Mostly contractors are buying them, and boat haulers."

Nationally, the forecasting firm LMC Automotive of Troy, Mich., expects diesel vehicles -- not including medium and heavy pickups, tractor-trailer rigs and other heavy haulers -- to more than double their market share in the next five years, to 7.1 percent of all vehicle sales. That would increase their share at about the same pace and percentage as the combined category of electric and gasoline-electric hybrid cars and trucks.

Diesel fuel has a higher energy content than conventional gas, and diesel engines operate at higher compression ratios, allowing for more efficient fuel combustion. Diesels typically get 20 percent to 40 percent better fuel economy than conventional gas models and often come close to hybrids' mileage.

For example, Consumer Reports magazine said in its August issue that a new Chevrolet Cruze diesel it tested got 49 miles per gallon in highway driving, the third best of any vehicle it has evaluated, after the Volkswagen Passat diesel at 51 mpg and a Toyota Prius hybrid at 55 mpg.

 

The environment issue

But, except in heavy trucks and buses, diesels largely have been shunned by most Americans for their smoke, smell, clatter, higher purchase costs and absence of diesel fuel at about half the nation's filling stations.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have pointed with disgust at the cancer-causing soot and nitrogen oxides belching from diesel tailpipes.

But groups like the American Lung Association now say the newest diesels compare well with the newest gas models in their environmental impact.

Most environmental and other drawbacks of diesels have been addressed, the EPA says, with the federal requirement since 2006 for ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, and with a variety of technical improvements to diesel engines that increase acceleration from a standing start, reduce engine noise and vibration and reduce particulates of sulfur and smog-forming nitrogen oxides.

The stigma of the old smoke-belching diesels does persist, though, and it will take time to eliminate. So general manager Wil Jansen of Mercedes-Benz of Rockville Centre doesn't expect local growth of diesels to be "explosive." But, he says, "as word gets out and as the stigma goes away, I think we're going to see some growth."

One of Long Island's newest diesel owners is Stacy Brown, 43, of Centerport, who purchased a Mercedes-Benz GLK a few months ago. The SUV is her first diesel, though her husband, a town highway department foreman, often drives one at work.

"We love it," she said. "I probably get 400 miles to a tank of fuel, it runs very quietly, it's not loud or smelly, and it has not been an issue to find stations with diesel."

The EPA estimates an average 28 mpg for her truck, 7 mpg more than in the comparable gas model, which requires premium grade.

 

Fuel economy, cost

On Friday, diesel fuel averaged $4.144 on Long Island, almost 59 cents a gallon higher than regular gas. However, diesel averaged only 19 cents a gallon more than the premium gas required in Mercedes-Benzes like Brown's and many other luxury models.

Diesels sell relatively well at Volkswagen dealerships, where most models are available with the oil-burning engines. At Riverhead Bay Motors, sales manager Rick Holmberg says they account for more than one in five sales. Many buyers, he says, are high-mileage drivers. "That's where it really shines," he said.

Among them is Ken Weinstein, 47, who commutes 70 miles each way from his home in Long Beach to a golf course he co-owns in Riverhead. He estimates that the Passat diesel he bought in June has cut his fuel bills in half from the $750 to $800 a month it cost for his Toyota Sequoia SUV.

"It rides smoothly, handles well and it's very quiet inside the cabin," Weinstein said. VW also offers diesel versions of the Touareg, Beetle, Golf and Jetta.

Much of the growth in diesels on U.S. roads has come from carmakers based in Europe where fuel tax structures long have favored diesels for their fuel efficiency and where the diesel market share is about 50 percent.

In the United States though, diesel is taxed higher, on the premise that the heavy trucks that most often use it cause more wear on roads and should pay more toward infrastructure repair.

 

Expertise from Europe

Mike Omotoso, senior global powertrain manager for LMC, says European manufacturers are relying heavily on diesels to meet U.S. corporate average fuel economy requirements, which will ratchet up from the 30.1 mpg of August to 35.5 mpg by 2016 and 54.5 mpg in 2025.

"The Europeans have the expertise in diesels, so they're taking engines already successful in Europe and bringing them here," Omotoso said.

Japanese, American and Korean carmakers are relying more heavily on hybrids and other gas-saving technologies.

The Cruze is an exception. So are two more American diesels due soon at Chrysler dealerships: a version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV going on sale in a few weeks and a version of the light-duty Ram 1500 pickup coming early next year.

At Mercedes-Benz of Smithtown, where Brown bought her SUV, general sales manager Rich Coviello says diesels account for about 2 percent of his sales of cars and SUVs now, but more models are coming, including a variant of flagship S-class and the smaller C-class, the latter Mercedes' bestselling U.S. model. Coviello says concerns about finding the fuel are major impediments to higher sales. "That's their big downfall," he said.

Another impediment is diesels usually cost more than comparably equipped gas models -- $2,405 higher in the case of the $25,710 Cruze diesel.

 

Cheaper than hybrids

But they're often cheaper than hybrids. The hybrid Volkswagen Jetta, for example, lists for $27,260 for 2014, while the diesel, with somewhat less equipment, costs $24,295, and the conventional 2.0-liter, four-cylinder gas model starts at $20,090. The hybrid averages 45 mpg, says the EPA, compared with 34 for the diesel and 25 for the comparable gas model.

Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a trade group promoting the technology, argues that diesels get exceptional fuel economy all the time, while he claims hybrids have to be carefully driven to attain their claimed economies.

He argues that future market-share estimates like Omotoso's are at least a percentage point too conservative.

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