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Tech talk: Diesel gains ground in North America

Published December 14, 2012

Bit by bit, little by little, diesels are clawing their way into the North American car-and-truck buyers’ consciousness. For good reason.

Given a spate of recent announcements concerning new diesel applications coming to market, it’s a safe bet they’ll be even more visible, and popular, by this time next year.

It’s well known now that diesels are, and have been for some time, the preferred powerplant for both cars and trucks in Europe.

That fact has been dismissed by many as a function of fuel taxation practices on the continent that, for a long time, kept diesel prices substantially below those of gasoline. But that rationale is an oversimplification.

Although fuel prices may have been a primary factor in diesel’s success during earlier days, the fact is that many European buyers, once exposed to Rudolf Diesel’s compression-ignition engines, have come to prefer them.

Not least because diesels tend to use about 25 per cent less fuel than comparable gasoline engines in similar service.

Financial interests aside, people also like the way diesels drive — in particular the right-now response to the accelerator pedal that comes as a pleasant surprise to those unfamiliar with the fat low-end torque curve that typifies a diesel’s output.

That abundance of torque and its consequent ability to get heavy loads moving is what has made diesels the standard powerplant for our heavy duty trucks (i.e. tractor-trailer rigs) for decades.

It’s also what gives diesel passenger cars that initial boot-in-the-back feeling of acceleration that’s been missing from most cars since the demise of the big V8s.

But North Americans still haven’t accepted diesels as an alternative to the gasoline engine in light-duty vehicles — a fact that mystifies many European automakers.

The reasons behind our reluctance to embrace diesels are many, but can probably be summarized by the simple phrase, “bad experiences in the 1980s.”

Those bad experiences ranged from engines that were noisy, smelly and slow, to gross unreliability in the infamous case of some General Motors diesels, hastily and unwisely derived from existing gasoline engines.

But that was then and this is now. There’s a whole new generation of both engines and buyers out there — in fact, several new generations of engines have passed in the interim — but the stigma still lives on.

Or does it? Most, if not all, of the negative characteristics to which buyers initially objected have long since been resolved, and automakers that have embraced and promoted diesels — specifically German manufacturers — have tended to do well with them, particularly in Canada.

Not surprisingly, diesels have fared well in pickup trucks, where their association with the big-rigs gives them something of a halo effect.

Just this past week, Cummins announced it has built its 2-millionth engine for Chrysler’s use in Dodge/Ram trucks. Cummins has supplied Chrysler with diesel engines since 1988.

During the same week, Ford revealed it will offer a 3.2-litre, turbocharged, five-cylinder, clean diesel engine in its new-to-North America TransitConnect full-size van, which will go on sale here late next year.

Perhaps more important to the majority of buyers are recent announcements of new passenger-car diesel applications.

General Motors plans to launch a diesel version of its compact 2014 Chevrolet Cruze in the second quarter of 2013.

At last month’s Los Angeles auto show, Audi introduced the addition of four new 3.0-litre, turbocharged V6 diesel models to its 2013 lineup — an A6, A7, A8 and Q5. Audi already offers a diesel version of its Q7 SUV, which will get the same engine.

At the same show, Mazda revealed plans to introduce a diesel-powered Mazda6 in North America sometime during 2013 — the first Japanese automaker to offer a diesel passenger car on this continent. Mazda also has a diesel CX-5 crossover in its pipeline.

Mazda’s diesel has been designed from a clean screen, employing the company’s SkyActiv philosophy of optimizing every component to minimize fuel consumption. Among other features, it is said to have the lowest compression ratio of any production diesel in the world, which allows it to be lighter than traditional diesels.

I’ve driven the Mazda diesel in an early Mazda6 prototype and can confirm that it lives up to the driving standards established by its European competitors.

With all the new diesel products coming to market in the next few months, they’re certain to be exposed to a broader range of potential buyers. And it’s highly probable many of those will become buyers.

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