Automakers power up models fueled by diesel

4:42 PM, Feb 24, 2012   |    comments
Prakash Singh, AFP/Getty Images
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After hyping hybrids and electrics as fuel-savers, automakers are about to kick off a wave of new fuel-saving diesel models.

The latest will be the Volkswagen Beetle TDI, a diesel version of the iconic car, being introduced this week at the Chicago Auto Show.

VW, which already has diesels options for its Golf, Jetta, Passat and Touareg models, will be joined by new entrants in the U.S. market for diesel, such as General Motors, Mazda and Chrysler Group. Other makers, such as Honda, still are withholding their best advanced diesels from the U.S., unsure whether buyers here will embrace them.

Diesels achieve about 30% better fuel economy than similar gasoline models. The latest generation -- unfailingly called by automakers "clean diesels" -- aren't smoky or noisy as were those of the past. But sales are held down by diesel fuel prices, which typically top those of gasoline because of higher diesel taxes and greater global demand, and by worries about finding diesel filling stations.

Still, interest is rising. Auto parts maker Bosch said its own survey found 32% of U.S. consumers last year said they're willing to consider a diesel, up from 12% in 2006.

Automakers are answering the call.

"An avalanche of clean diesels coming into the market," should boost diesel vehicle sales, said Lars Ullrich, marketing director for Bosch Diesel Systems North America. "That makes us very optimistic."

When diesel versions of models are offered, consumers snap them up. About 85% of Volkswagen's

Jetta SportWagen are sold in the diesel version despite it adding $1,250 to the car's $26,030 price tag.

Other VW diesels show similar popularity. More than half of Golfs are ordered with diesels, half of Touareg SUVs; and about a quarter of all Jetta sedans. The Beetle will be on sale in August, VW says.

Overall, sales of diesel-powered cars and trucks for consumers rose 27% to 111,000 in 2011, compared with 2010, says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. While he thinks passenger diesel sales will be relatively flat this year -- "the calm before the storm" -- he forecasts a significant rise in 2013 when the new models arrive. Expect new diesels from:

-Porsche. The Cayenne SUV diesel will get a showing in April.

-Audi. A diesel version of the A8 flagship sedan is coming, and Audi also has confirmed diesels in the next Q5 crossover and A6 sedan.

-Chevrolet. The Cruze compact is to offer a diesel option next year.

-Jeep. Grand Cherokee adds a diesel version next year, prompting parent Chrysler Group to add 1,100 jobs at the Jefferson North factory in Detroit to build them.
- Cadillac. The ATS, the brand's new, small rival to BMW 3-series, gets a diesel during the car's first generation, GM President of the Americas Mark Reuss says. ATS, at least the gas version, is coming this summer as a 2013 model. Reuss didn't say just when a diesel would join.

-Mazda. A diesel is coming next year as part of its Skyactiv suite of fuel-saving technology. Mazda is being cagey about what vehicle will offer it.

-Ram. A small or midsize pickup reviving the Dakota name is to get a diesel, Ullrich says, but doesn't know just when.

By Chris Woodyard and James R. Healey



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