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Diesel Boom Starts in 2010 - Maybe

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author photo by Autotrader June 2007

The 2010 model year looks like the one in which diesels may - or may not - finally make a significant comeback in the U.S.

A number of indicators, from more positive public sentiment to automaker announcements, point to a boom in the availability of diesel models in the U.S. over the next several years. Diesel stalwarts VW and Mercedes plan to bring out a new line of diesel models, and a handful of automakers have recently announced that they have new U.S.-market diesel models in the works - including Audi, BMW, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Nissan, all companies that don't have a history of diesels in America. And although some of these models will be coming in the next year, it looks like that major resurgence will happen for the 2009 and 2010 model years.

But there's still an element of hesitation on behalf of European automakers, said Tom Fulks, a representative for the Diesel Technology Forum and the supplier Bosch, while recently touring with a demonstration fleet of top-technology Euro-spec Audi and BMW diesels. Facing a recent history of 45-state diesels - with several states, including New York, complying with tighter California standards that have outlawed diesel passenger cars and light trucks - automakers want to make sure that any future diesel vehicles introduced into the U.S. market are 50-state legal, said Fulks.

Upcoming federal emissions standards, to be phased in beginning in 2010, and coinciding with the next tightening of California standards, enforce a tighter NOx threshold for all diesels, and companies are standing by "to see how it syncs with California's energy policy," said Fulks, who added that there has been talk in California of an OBD-like system on cars to ensure that the extra emissions devices, like urea-treatment, NOx traps, and secondary catalysts, are working, and this may prove complicated.

But with CO2 emissions a recent, highly publicized concern, especially in California , diesels could be a worthwhile part of a multi-faceted solution as they greatly cut overall greenhouse emissions in their present form. Diesels typically get 20-30 percent better fuel economy - with CO2 emissions cut in proportion - than a comparable gasoline engine.

Fulks also admitted that there's still some indecision within the industry regarding how to market diesels. "The gamble is that the environmental market hasn't already been saturated by Prius owners," said Fulks, who added that many of the public misconceptions of diesel are due much more to a lack of knowledge and experience with modern diesels than with sour memories of diesels from the past.

In an April survey of 500 California voters, David Binder Research found that if fuel economy and emissions were the same, 60 percent would choose a gasoline-electric hybrid over a diesel. However, when the question was slightly changed to include that the diesel option would be up to $2000 less than the hybrid option, 54 percent said that they would opt for the diesel instead, if choosing between the two.

Just this past week, at its International Automotive Press Briefing, Bosch formally announced at that it's working on a combination of the two. The company has multiple contracts for a diesel-electric hybrid system that it plans to have on European roads by 2010.

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Diesel Boom Starts in 2010 - Maybe - Autotrader