Runup to Torque

Here is an article I recently submitted to The Truth About Cars. It's about the second-coming of diesel cars in America, and how manufacturers could better their diesel lineups and grab a larger slice of the market from hybrids and gasoline-powered cars.
(That GTO isn't a diesel)

Runup to Torque – the New Diesels

23 May 2007

This is going to be a bad year for US diesel passenger-car sales. Few diesel models have been on sale for the past few years, and they are now scarcer still. Besides trucks, today’s 45-state shopper can choose among only a Grand Cherokee, Volkswagen’s Touareg, and a couple of Benzes. But manufacturers are readying models with new exhaust filtration systems that bring many more oil-burners into compliance with the strict new Tier 2 Bin 5 emissions standards all 2007-and-beyond passenger cars must meet. High-sulfur diesel can damage the exhaust technology, but the nation’s 76,000 diesel stations will soon complete the switch to ultra-low sulfur. By ’08, a host of manufacturers—Mercedes, Jeep, Subaru, Audi, VW, and BMW—will be ready to unleash a bevy of 50-state diesels.

This should be great news for driving enthusiasts. People in the know have long championed the performance and economy of diesels. Though they generally don’t cope well with the way people think they drive (blasting from 0-60 and redlining through the gears), they do a terrific job with how people actually drive (squirting from 30-70 mph, shortshifting at wide-throttle openings). Unfortunately, all the exciting diesels are staying in Europe.

That’s going to hamper US diesel sales; the low gas (and diesel) prices we enjoy here mean it will take longer for a buyer to recoup the higher initial cost of a diesel, so the motivation for choosing one will be less financial and more emotional. For diesels to make it in the land of Mustangs and Magnums, they will need to be cool.

Regrettably, manufacturers’ proposed diesel lineups are bland. They’re not bringing us much more than an Audi Q7 TDi, a Mercedes R320 Bluetec, and a BMW 530d. Buyers who wait until 2010 can also opt for diesel Maximas and Accords—and will remain bored. People who buy any of these probably haven’t floored a car in 30 years, and the cars themselves aren’t going to win any outright mileage competitions (read: headlines) against a Prius. Significantly, this demographic is also old enough to remember the last time diesels were big in the US—the slow, smelly, truck-like diesels of 20 years ago.

Surely the younger generation would be better suited to starting a diesel bandwagon. Fun-loving, image-conscious youngsters would get jazzed about a sporty option, such as BMW’s 155mph 335d, and would relish eco-hooning around in a runabout like Smart’s 60mpg fortwo diesel (both on sale in Europe). Fighting at those performance extremes is critical; the US market is unique in having had hybrid powertrains become mainstream before diesels, and so diesels will have to take the fight to both gas and hybrid. They can do it—a sporty diesel will trounce its petrol equivalent on torque and economy; a frugal one can school hybrids on weight and brake feel, and have proven longevity. Now back to the coolness factor.

Audi could have made progress on this. In 2006, their badass V12 diesel R10 won Le Mans outright on its maiden outing, a decidedly awesome maneuver. Then, they released the R8 supercar AND devised a 500bhp, V12 diesel cauldron that could serve up a Newton-kilometer of torque. And then wedged the motor into a lumbering concept SUV, the Q7 V12 TDI. Whoops—a diesel R8 concept would have made a good many knees weak over an oil-burner for the first time.

Audi are not going to bring athletic diesels to the showroom either. We’ll get a 3-liter Q7, but not the new A5 3.0 TDi that competes against BMW’s 335d in Europe. Those are two cars people would talk about. Autocar said of the 335d (which has 428lb-ft):

It’ll rev in a very undiesel-like way – a pleasant attribute, but not particularly relevant. The engine’s real weapon is the sledgehammer effect of all that torque through the mid-range and the hushed manner in which it is delivered. The turbo petrol 335i would ultimately be faster, but in a real-world test the diesel is easier to drive quickly, whether intentionally or by accident.

Sounds awesome. So why will the manufacturers bring us only reserved, upmarket cars? It’s partially because the higher production cost of a diesel engine, when combined with the expensive systems needed for a diesel to comply with the new emissions standards, will raise the price of a car by a fairly fixed amount, and it’s easier to slap a fixed premium onto a $35k+ car than one costing $15k. They may also be basing their sales predictions on data from Europe, which, as stated above, employs dissimilar purchase metrics.
JD Power predicts—and manufacturers hope—that diesel’s US market penetration will quadruple to 15% by 2015. Consumers are interested and the technology is nearly here. But to hit that goal, America needs the most interesting diesels from Europe, and soon.