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Dieseling Down: Why Can’t I buy the Diesel Car I Want in the US?

A few months ago I had the pleasure of sitting next to the U.S. brand manager for Audi’s motorsports program on an overnight flight to Munich. He was off to lead a team of American journalists on a tour through the mountains near Ingolstadt in the new R8 GT. I, on the other hand, was headed to Lyon, France to gain an entirely new understanding of how the World Health Organization pontificates and promotes specific agendas, but that is a topic for a different blog. I think it goes without saying that I’d have rather gone with him. During the almost nine hours we spent together no sleeping, working, or watching movies, I did get the chance to pick his brains on a number of topics related to Audi and the automotive industry in general – among them one of my pet soapbox issues: the lack of new-tech diesel cars available to U.S. consumers.

If you look back to the U.S. market in the late 1970s and early 1980s, German carmakers – most notably Mercedes-Benz – used diesel technology to skirt emissions requirements due to exemptions for diesels and to address corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) average mileage requirements. The U.S. market was the first to receive production turbocharged diesel motors which addressed the performance concerns with that consumers had with diesels through forced-air turbo technology. By integrating a turbocharger, mileage for a diesel actually improved, and 0-60 times came very close to that of comparable gas-engined models – somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 seconds.

Following on Mercedes’ heels, other manufacturers like BMW, Nissan/Datsun, Audi, and Volvo introduced new turbocharged diesel models in their upscale mid-sized sedans and in some cases their mid-sized station wagons. These diesels stayed around through about 1987, when the U.S. laws changed and made diesel emissions requirements substantially more difficult to meet. A few cars popped-up from time to time over the next few years, mostly from Mercedes, but they lost the foothold and the cult-like following they’d had due to the cost of the models available and the very small numbers imported.

Meanwhile in Europe, carmakers invested heavily in diesel technology and the 1990s saw a huge jump in both the efficiency and the performance of diesel motors thanks primarily to the introduction of direct-injection technology. The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the majority of manufacturers selling cars in Europe adopting this technology and introducing diesel cars that could move across their model ranges, from microcars to maxi-cars, luxury and utilitarian alike. The U.S. market, however, continued to restrict the importation of diesels based largely on the issue of particulate emissions despite the leaps and bounds made in performance and mileage – a 6-cylinder 3.0 liter turbodiesel offering up to 40% better economy than the same car with a 3.2 liter gas V6.

By the mid-2000s, both Mercedes and Volkswagen were importing direct-injection diesels in limited numbers – Mercedes in the E-class sedan, and VW in the Jetta and Passat lines. By that time, the gap had closed for off-the-line performance specifications – the Mercedes E320CDI delivering 60 miles per hour in under 7 seconds – or faster than just about any pre-1980 supercar, and fast even by modern standards. They did not, however, offer diesels throughout their model ranges: Mercedes opting not to bring over diesel powered C-Class or S-Class models, and more importantly (to my interests) they did not offer a diesel wagon. Volkswagen, in the meantime, decided to focus their diesel offerings specifically on their small Golf and Jetta lines, cutting out the mid-sized Passat diesels altogether. Which brings us to today.

I can go out tomorrow, bank account depending, and buy a diesel E-Class Mercedes sedan. I can also buy a 3-series BMW, a VW Golf or Jetta (with a Passat coming soon). I can also buy one of a few SUVs with diesels, including the BMW X3 and X5, VW Toureg, Audi Q7, and Mercedes M- and GL-Classes. I don’t want an SUV, though, I want a station wagon. And I want one that gets more than 20 mpg. And I like diesels. The market of people like me may no be huge, but we’re out here. The fundamental problem comes back to the requirements that the Federal government places on carmakers to thoroughly test very single version of every single car they import – including alternate engine and transmission configurations – to the tune of millions of dollars per certification for importation.

The safety features of cars from global manufacturers have really standardized across their key markets to reduce manufacturing costs and to achieve the highest common denominator for safety among their cars. Regardless, the U.S. government keeps these archaic rules in place to limit importations. At the same time, the manufacturers are generally unwilling to invest in what is a huge question mark of a market. Therefore, the models considered by marketing departments as those most likely to gain widespread acceptance are the ones that they import. I get that, but I don’t like it. I wish that every car enthusiast out there could go to Europe and spend a week driving a modern diesel – maybe a 5-series, maybe a Fiat – and see what they are all about. Where they really shine is at the gas pump – even the mid-sized cars with some of the smaller motors get well over 40mpg in mixed driving. In fact, we had to push to get less than 35mpg in the BMW 525d wagon that we took around the ‘Ring a few years back. Diesel may cost the same as premium gas here, but you’ll use a LOT less of it.

And that takes me back to Mr. Audi. I quizzed him a little on diesels, and he told me how much he loves his Q7 diesel. He also told me that Audi will soon be importing the A4, A6, and A8 in diesels to go along with the A3 TDI we can already get. This is great news to me, and kudos to Audi for taking the plunge. No A6 wagon for us, though. VW is bringing back the Passat diesel, but as there is no Passat wagon currently available in the US (!), there will not be a diesel wagon. I have read that Honda is planning to bring diesels in starting in a couple of years, and I know the Koreans are talking about it, as is Ford. Others may be as well. This is great news on the surface, but we still don’t get the across-the-board model and powertrain options available to most of the rest of the world, and nobody I could find has any intention of bringing us a diesel wagon. That may be more of a statement about wagons as a genre than diesels, however, and it stinks.

End of rant.


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