James R. Healey, USA TODAY
Chrysler's dramatic and unexpected move to offer a diesel in its standard-duty Ram pickup is the latest sign that diesel engines are on the verge of explosive growth in the U.S. in both trucks and cars.
It's been a long time coming.
While diesels are common worldwide, the U.S. hasn't warmed to them, even though the engines get 25% to 40% better fuel economy than gasoline engines, enjoy higher resale values and can last longer.
There are rational arguments against diesel: expensive, foul-smelling fuel; higher vehicle prices; different driving characteristics; noise. But a simple generation gap could wipe out those concerns, some of which were formed when diesel engines for light cars and trucks were much less sophisticated.
"Unlike older consumers who still have a negative perception, younger buyers like the cleaner technology, higher fuel efficiency and smoother delivery of torque" that diesel engines provide, says Eric Lyman, a vice president at ALG, which studies the industry and forecasts used-car values.
ALG, calling its forecast conservative, expects diesels to account for 5% of annual new-vehicle sales within three years - some 750,000 vehicles if forecasts of total sales are right. That's the output of three large factories running hard. Diesels currently are 1.5% of sales, according to ALG data. Such fast growth could make diesels competitive with gas-electric hybrid sales.
What makes this latest shift toward diesel power seem solid is that it's coming from makers who've not been players.
Chrysler's Ram 1500 diesel pickup, to be announced Thursday as coming in the third quarter as a 2014 model, is an example. For decades, diesels have been available only in heavy-duty models. And this one is from a Detroit maker, when Detroit has been especially wary of diesels.
Fred Diaz, CEO of Chrysler's Ram brand, says it's taken awhile to get the right mix of an affordable diesel, high-enough mileage and the right half-ton truck. He foresees healthy sales because "our customers out there have been emphatically asking the industry to produce a diesel in a half-ton configuration."
In fact, not just asking, but "thirsting for, craving this" standard-duty diesel truck, Diaz says. He won't hint yet at pricing or mileage ratings.
Chrysler previously announced that it would sell a diesel version of the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, beginning about May. And there's talk of a diesel for the Jeep Wrangler.
Meanwhile, Chevrolet is planning a diesel version of its Cruze compact that will come in May to some dealers in 13 key, diesel-friendly cities, including Baltimore, Seattle, St. Louis and Atlanta. Within 90 days after that, the diesel Cruze will be available nationwide, says Chevy spokeswoman Annalisa Bluhm.
What makes those cities special? People there already are buying Volkswagen Jetta diesels, which is Cruze diesel's main rival, and they also like diesel pickups. "Our research shows that 50% of people who own diesel trucks have a diesel car as a garage mate," she says.
And Mazda will offer a diesel version of its Mazda6 midsize four-door sedan later this year. That is almost certain to make it the first maker other than Volkswagen to offer a diesel in a mainstream family car.
Mazda uses a proprietary suite of technologies called Skyactiv that, as applied to the diesel Mazda6, should address lingering reluctance, the automaker says. It says the car should be easy to start in cold weather because of its combustion design, should be quieter than most diesels, and should drive more like a gasoline engine so that it'll seem familiar to buyers.
Ram, Chevy and Mazda are the obvious examples. German luxury brands Mercedes-Benz and Audi are on the train, too.
And more are on the way. Automakers guard their future product plans closely, so it's hard to get a complete count, but numbers from analysts and industry watchers suggest more than a dozen additional mainstream diesel vehicles in the next two years.
VW, a longtime (and mostly lonely) purveyor of affordable diesel vehicles in the U.S., continues to emphasize diesels, which make up nearly one-fourth of its U.S. sales and would be more, it says, if it could get more diesel-power cars from Germany. For some VW models, the diesel share of sales is much higher: About 80% of Jetta SportWagens sold in the U.S. have diesels.
What makes diesels extraordinary, good and bad:
• The fuel contains more energy than gasoline or alcohol fuels, making it inherently able to deliver better mileage and allow an engine to produce more torque.
• Diesels ignite their fuel without spark plugs. The engine squeezes the fuel so tightly that the heat generated ignites the fuel. That's a very efficient process, but it can cause clattering or rattling sounds, especially when the engine is cold.
• They do their best work on the highway. In-town mileage might not be breathtaking compared with gasoline or hybrid vehicles, but highway cruising can stretch a gallon quite far.
Notably: Even when the official mileage ratings are less impressive, they seem more likely to be accurate and achievable in normal driving than they are for gas and hybrid vehicles - sometimes the ratings are lower even than real-world results.
Chevy, for instance, has said the Cruze diesel will get about 42 mpg on the highway. That's no better than the gasoline-power Cruze Eco, a fuel-economy special model. But Bluhm says that will turn out to be an understatement. "We're still testing, and it has us getting more than 42. We just wanted to say we (at least match) the Jetta diesel, which is 42."
• Diesel vehicles have higher resale values than gasoline or hybrid vehicles, ALG says. For example, a 3-year-old VW Golf gas model today has a trade-in value of $14,144, or 61% of its new price. The same car with a diesel is valued at $16,093, or 65% of its original price.
The difference in their new prices, $1,769, is more than balanced by the $1,949 difference in favor of the diesel at trade-in time.
• Diesel fuel is more expensive, but the better mileage almost always makes up for that.
Diesel is about 14% more expensive than regular gas right now, according to travel organization AAA. But a diesel will use roughly 25% to 40% less, depending on circumstances.
Less than a decade ago, diesel was the cheap, alternative fuel. The U.S. Energy Information Administration explains what happened: "Since September 2004, the price of diesel fuel has been generally higher than the price of regular gasoline all year round for several reasons. Worldwide demand for diesel fuel and other distillate fuel oils has been increasing steadily. ... In the United States, the transition to ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD) fuel has affected diesel fuel production and distribution costs. Also, the federal excise tax on diesel fuel is 6 cents higher per gallon (24.4 cents per gallon) than the tax on gasoline."
• The fuel is harder to find but hardly rare. About 52% of service stations sell diesel for passenger vehicles, according to data from the Diesel Technology Forum.
And the number of diesel sellers could rise fast.
Allen Schaeffer, executive director at the forum, says that many convenience store chains have begun offering diesel, expanding the fuel from being mainly a product sold by major brand-name petroleum companies.
In many cases, the stations have switched to gasoline-blending pumps, so they can mix regular and premium to get midgrade. "That created an opportunity to use the tank that was dedicated to midgrade" for diesel. "We see the convenience store sector really taking off, reading the tea leaves," he says.
"We're going to sell what the market demands," says Rob Underwood, spokesman at the Petroleum Marketers Association of America. "E15 hasn't taken hold, but diesel - if there are more diesel cars out there, we'll sell diesel."