Interest in eco-friendly diesel cars revs up

Stephanie Vozza

Europeans have been driving diesel-fueled cars for decades. In fact, half of the cars on the road in Europe are equipped with diesel engines.

By comparison, less than 1 percent of cars in the U.S. have diesel engines. Why does the U.S. pale in comparison to Europe in this regard?

Industry experts say Americans still equate diesel cars with the noisy, smelly models manufactured in the 1970s and '80s, but that perception no longer holds true. According to the Diesel Technology Forum, a nonprofit group that raises awareness about diesel engines, today's diesel engines are efficient and produce virtually zero emissions. Diesel fuel also now burns cleaner, with lower amounts of pollution-causing sulfur.

While the overall percentage remains small, sales of diesel cars in the U.S. rose nearly 26 percent in 2012, according to data compiled by HybridCars.Com and automotive marketing research firm Baum and Associates.

"Diesel has been widely accepted all over the world for quite some time; the U.S. is catching up," says Alan Baum, an auto industry analyst.

One reason for the renewed interest is fuel prices. The rising cost of gasoline has buyers looking at diesel cars, which are more fuel-efficient and provide a longer driving range on one tank of gas. For example, according to, the 2013 Volkswagen Jetta with a gasoline engine travels 352 miles on each tank of gas; its turbo-diesel version goes 444 miles.

The annual fuel cost for the Jetta's gas engine would be $2,150, based on 45 percent highway driving and 55 percent city driving, and on 15,000 annual miles. Meanwhile, fueling the diesel-powered version would cost $1,800 a year.

"I expect clean-diesel auto sales to increase further as several new diesel cars are introduced in the U.S. market," says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. "More than 20 new domestic and import diesel models will be introduced (in 2013) to the U.S. market - more than doubling the current product count."

Two diesel-powered vehicles captured the attention of visitors at the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit - Volkswagen's CrossBlue and Jeep's EcoDiesel, both of which are set for release in 2014.

2014 Volkswagen CrossBlue

Volkswagen's CrossBlue is a plug-in, six-seat hybrid SUV. With two electric motors and a diesel engine, it gets a combined 35 miles per gallon (mpg). According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average SUV gets 18 mpg. The car was developed just for the North American market; it features the sporty look of an SUV and the roominess of a minivan.

Mark Phelan, auto critic at the Detroit Free Press, named the CrossBlue one of 10 must-see cars at the Detroit show. "This six-seat crossover concept aims squarely at America's favorite family vehicles. Watch out, Ford Explorer. The Germans are coming," he says.

The latest technology also is available in the CrossBlue, including a 10.2-inch touchscreen that controls climate and infotainment functions and provides status reports on the hybrid system. A 3D navigation display brings maps to life. And iPad minis built into the rear of the front-seat headrests entertain backseat passengers.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel

Jeep unveiled its Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel at the Detroit show. The vehicle offers an estimated best-in-class 30 mpg, taking more than 730 miles on a tank of gas. On a long drive, chances are you'll need a personal pit stop before you need to stop and refuel.

Mike Manley, Jeep's president and CEO, says the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee redefines the high-end SUV.

"Jeep has proudly separated Grand Cherokee even further from its competitors by enhancing its unique elegance, efficiency, capability and technological features," Manley says.

The vehicle includes 60 new safety and security features, including front-park assist, hill ascent and decent controls, and forward-collision warning. The Eco Mode helps save fuel by lowering the air suspension system when the vehicle exceeds 56 miles per hour. And the vehicle boasts the technology of Chrysler's Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen, which offers climate and infotainment controls.

"Without a doubt, 2013 is the most exciting and important year in the history of clean diesel autos in the U.S.," says Schaeffer, the Diesel Technology Forum director.