The reason that you don’t see more diesels on US roads has to do with economics. Money makes the world go ’round, and as you’d expect, it’s the main reason for our “diesel deficiency”. In the United States, the federal government taxes every gallon of fuel sold. And historically, there’s always been a higher demand for gasoline here. So, our tax system is biased toward gasoline, making it cheaper to buy than diesel.
It’s the exact opposite in Europe. Diesel is cheaper to buy than “petrol”. However, cheaper means $6-7 per gallon, vs. $7-8 for a gallon of gas, so you can see why there’s more diesels over there.
European automakers simply responded to market demands, and came up with a wide range of diesel vehicles, allowing them to produce diesel engines at a lower cost. (For those who want to see what they’re missing right now, or plan a rental for their next European vacation, there are plenty of detailed reviews of current European models.)
In this country, gas is still (relatively) cheap. So a popular choice for an efficient vehicle is the hybrid. You may have noticed just how many hybrid models are available today. They come in all shapes and sizes, from the sporty Honda CR-Z to the massive Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid.
Diesel vehicles, however, still don’t make good business sense, like the hybrid. You’re asking the customer to pay an additional $5-7k for a diesel vehicle, then you’re asking them to fuel it with the most expensive fuel.
From an environmental standpoint, modern diesel engines emit a very low amount of NOx and CO2, and recent advances have made them much more efficient. and they top hybrids in the fact that certain materials used to produce various components on a hybrid have to be mined. When considering a green car, can you imagine the relative environmental impact of that nickel mine needed for the hybrid? Let alone the fact that all those hybrid battery packs may one day wind up in a landfill.
But back to the economics of diesels.
German automakers seem dead-set on exporting their “clean diesels” to the United States. However, to sell a diesel engine in this country, it must be equipped with an exhaust after-treatment system, and a special fuel injection system in order to meet our strict air quality rules.
European emissions rules allow a diesel to emit up to 0.29 grams of nitrous oxide (NOx) per mile — which is about what the typical diesel school bus or trash truck emitted 5 years ago.
US regulations on the other hand, only allow a diesel to emit 0.07 grams of NOx per mile, making compliance a costly effort.
Smaller firms like Honda or Subaru would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to develop a compliant engine, for a historically small US market. So it’s tough for many of them to justify such a big investment.
The Germans however, seem willing to take this risk. And if history is any indication, they’re the ones that can garner mass public acceptance for a new technology.
Airbags, ABS — the Mercedes S-Class was the first car in this country to have them as standard equipment. As the old saying goes “if you want to see what tomorrows car will look like, just look at what Mercedes is doing today”.
The Germans were also involved in bringing us those annoying in-car command/infotainment systems. So, let’s hope they can work their magic again, and convince Americans to buy more diesels — with a big marketing campaign to sell the car to a potentially unreceptive public.
Want to make yourself feel sad and see what you’re missing? Check out this site with the 2011 European Subaru diesel models that we can’t buy here in the USA: http://www.boxerdiesel.com/
What’s your prediction? When will the first Japanese clean diesel make it over to the US market?
Teddy Field got his start in the auto industry at the age of 17. He is a recognized car dealer sales & management consultant, an automotive journalist, and a regular contributor to bestcardealsnewyork.com.