Diesel power has long been a mainstay for commercial vehicles in this country, but unlike in Europe, smaller displacement diesels for cars and even light trucks are a rarity.
Now that’s starting to change and change rapidly – perhaps ushering in what Allen Schaeffer (at right), executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum and a longtime trucking industry observer, is calling a “new period of expansion” for diesel-fired light duty trucks and cars in North America.
"This has already been an amazing year for the growth of clean diesel vehicles in the U.S.; it just keeps getting more remarkable and this is just the middle of February,” he said.
[Below you can see how much diesel power has changed over the last decade in a special event held last year under the auspices of the California Air Resources Board.]
Schaeffer pointed a wide range of recent announcements that seem to indicate that diesel is gaining new legs on the lighter side of the vehicle spectrum:
Altogether, Schaeffer said automakers are set to introduce more than 20 new diesel-fired vehicles in North America this year – a pretty startling number, when you think about it – a reflection that total global sales of diesel-powered auto sales increased by 24% in 2012 over 2011, while diesel-powered vehicle sales in the overall U.S. auto market jumped 13.5% year-over-year.
He added that Bosch, a global diesel engine technology supplier, predicts that 22 new clean diesel vehicles will be introduced in the U.S. this year and more than 50 new diesels will reach the U.S. market by 2017.
"In Europe, more than 50% of new auto sales are diesel vehicles," Schaeffer pointed out. "Many auto analysts predict that U.S. diesel sales will increase from a modest three percent to as much as 10% by 2020."
I talked to James Bell, GM’s head of consumer affairs, about this trend and how it shaped the automaker’s decision to develop the 2014 diesel-fired Chevrolet Cruze car.
“The reality is that when the U.S. switched to ultra low sulfur diesel [ULSD] fuel five or six years ago, that provided the opportunity we needed for diesel-powered cars,” he told me. “We’ve had the [diesel car] technology for a long time in Europe but not the right fuel type to bring it to the U.S. Now we do.”
The key now is that diesel is being placed into what Bell calls “an affordable car” so it becomes an attractive option for the mainstream motorist, not just luxury buyers or work truck fleets.
“The interesting piece now is that diesel gets added to a whole range of propulsion options: electric cars, hybrids,vehicles, and of course gasoline,” he explained. “Now you have vehicles that match up better with the driving habits of the buyer.”
In diesel’s case, those driving a lot of highway miles will see better fuel economy and longer engine life. “It allows the vehicle buyer to stand back and say, what do I REALLY need in terms of vehicle performance?” Bell said. “That is what’s really critical about adding the diesel power to the mix.”