December 27, 2007
Diesel Car Sales Expected To Grow On High Energy Costs

A series of Popular Mechanics articles reviews the fuel efficiency diesels in very high fuel cost Europe and looks at diesels headed for sale in American showrooms. Like other makers Ford sells a lot of fuel efficient diesel cars in Europe.

FRANKFURT — Ford of Europe unveiled three new alt-fuel cars here, the first of which we’ll see is the Focus ECOnetic model in 2007. It combines the latest common-rail diesel powertrain and other engineering features to reduce CO2 emissions to the absolute minimum. Powered by a 109-hp 1.6-liter Duratorq common-rail turbodiesel engine with a diesel particulate filter, the ECOnetic is gunning for around 54 mpg.

We can see in the European car market how the United States could handle another doubling or tripling of oil costs. Smaller diesel cars would allow Americans to drive just as far to jobs and for fun. Granted, the bigger cars have advantages. But we don't have to abandon cars in order to double or triple our fuel efficiency. That we can afford to drive such big cars at today's gasoline prices means that we can still afford to get around (albeit in smaller and more efficient cars) once the world production of oil starts declining.

Prius is getting unseated as a fuel efficiency leader. The 2009 Jetta diesel is expected to get a combined 50 mpg city/highway when it comes on sale in the spring of 2008.

The new era of clean diesel in America will officially be ushered in by the new VW Jetta TDi when it goes on sale in a few months. Powered by a 2.0-liter four-banger that produces 140 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque, it will be the first automobile to meet the world’s most stringent emission control standards, California’s Tier II, Bin 5.

Those California emissions standards are one reason why we see fewer diesels in America than Europe. The Europeans lag on auto emissions standards and so the European car makers find it easier to create diesels that will qualify to pass European emissions regulations. The lowering of sulfur in US diesel fuel (to meet a US Environmental Protection Agency regulation) has made it possible to design diesel exhaust systems that can meet tougher US emissions standards.

A Popular Mechanics writer was more impressed by the Europe-only VW Polo which gets 60 to 70 mpg.

It’s also not the car that most impressed me. Nope, that honor goes to the Euro-only Polo, a Rabbit-like hatchback—only smaller—with plenty of room for four adults, a modest hatch that could swallow a weekend’s worth of gear, and a 1.4-liter, turbocharged diesel under the hood. Oh yeah, and a five-speed manual transmission.

Here’s the kicker: The Polo gets 60 to 70-plus mpg. And it’s really fun to drive. It’s got a good bit of turbo lag, so you need to keep the revs up for serious power, but once the turbo kicks in, acceleration is frisky.

The coming world decline in oil production, once started, will go on for decades and each year we'll see less oil produced than was produced the year before. As oil production declines liquid fuels will become more and more expensive. Therefore the use of diesels for commuting will be a transitional phase. In the long run I expect diesel cars to be used almost solely for longer trips and for freight hauling. For people who do average commutes (less than 40 miles per day) I expect rechargeable hybrid electric and pure electric cars to become the mainstays.

The wild cards in all this are methods to create liquid hydrocarbons. We can't get very far with biomass grain crops due to lack of land. But maybe other biological approaches such as genetically engineered algae for making diesel will become cost competitive. Though the capital costs of such an approach seem too high. Or perhaps nuclear reactors to produce hydrogen to then bind it to carbon will become cost competitive. Another possibility is that solar photovoltaics will become so cheap (and Nanosolar might make it happen) that solar electric could some day produce electric power cheaply enough to run processes to synthesize diesel fuel.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 December 27 08:40 PM  Energy Transportation

Engineer-Poet said at December 27, 2007 9:27 PM:
We can see in the European car market how the United States could handle another doubling or tripling of oil costs.
That doesn't follow.  In Europe, the additional fuel cost goes to the government as taxes and re-appears as benefits and wages to public employees; the purchasing power stays at home.  If crude prices tripled, a very large part of that money would go to oil exporters, leaving the economy.

This is part of why it's so important to start electrifying ground transport; we could literally collapse our economy if we start too late.

Randall Parker said at December 27, 2007 10:27 PM:


First off, I'm assuming that when the price does another doubling or a tripling supplies will be well down at that point. So while we might pay twice as much per gallon we'll buy a lot less gallons.

Second, I still see a big problem: Those 70 mpg cars will not get built overnight. The transition period when gasoline prices start making large jumps will be very painful.

Third, your point about the taxes is correct. But I don't see the American people having the sense to accept higher taxes on themselves in order to pay less to foreigners.

Fourth, I agree about electrification. We need to electrify lots of things:

- shorter range cars.
- farm tractors
- heating with ground sink heat pumps
- shorter range trains (not sure about cross-country electrification costs).
- vehicles that move containers around in ports (and this is going to happen in Long Beach CA btw).

odograph said at December 28, 2007 7:40 AM:

It's easy for dream cars to beat real ones. It's easy for executives to state aspirational goals. But, the reason we even have the metaphor, "the rubber will meet the road" is that we really do have to wait for the rubber to meet the road.

I figure, as in so many other areas of energy and environment, that I win by being agnostic. I'll choose the best in [insert year], and I won't have to overcome any allegiances I've formed to tech or players.

It may be fun as a spectator sport, or punditry, to "call" future winners ... but we have flaws as humans, and those same predictions can bias us toward (or against) whatever might come down the pike.

Randall Parker said at December 28, 2007 5:06 PM:


Car companies don't decide a few months before a model year begins what they are going to sell. They make those decisions a few years in advance. They are saying what they are going to do in 2009, 2010, 2011. It is not hard to know this. They've got some decisions they can make in shorter time periods like add an existing engine to a model that does not currently offer it. Or they can put on a more efficient fuel injection system more quickly. But they mostly have very long lead times.

Since their lead times are long and the industry is leaky you can find out what they are going to do. Sometimes it makes sense to hold off buying for a year if you can see something coming out that is a better fit for what you need. Some better informed people do this. There are people waiting for the VW Jetta diesel to hit the market for example.

It makes sense at this point to choose a car based on future higher gaoline prices. An LA Times article shows why we should expect higher prices this spring and summer:

Kloza said that nationally for the last 25 years, the difference in the price of gas from the winter low to the spring high has been about 59%.

"I don't think we will see a typical surge, and we don't have to," Kloza said. With an increase of just 30%, he said, "you're talking about 75 cents a gallon more from where they are now."

A 59% surge would take California over $5 and Alaska over $6. I'm expecting demand destruction to start becoming a lot more visible though.

odograph said at December 28, 2007 6:07 PM:

If you want an efficient car, buy the best real world example.

But wait? Is it really your experience that car companies meet their pre-release promises?

I learned not to to do that when I was a young reader of car magazines in the 70's.

What the heck, mark your calendar. I'm telling you now that VW will not ship a US legal car with the passenger volume, cargo volume, and payload of the current Jetta and hit a real-world 50 mpg (as measured by a shared user database) without going hybrid in or by 2009.

If I'm wrong you can blog all about it, and how right you were, but I really think it's not going to happen. 50 mpg is pretty near a 25% increase in efficiency over the last US-legal Jetta. Regenerative braking might be enough to do that, but I can't see getting 25% from the engine (or aerodynamics) alone.

They might do smaller cars, but then Honda is talking about a smaller hybrid too

odograph said at December 28, 2007 6:17 PM:

Oh, on the "let's all wait" argument.

Remember that I bought my Prius in 2005. Many bought earlier, but that means that I saved about 1,300 gallons of gas, and $3250, since I bought it. (I have about 33K miles, got 22 mpg in my previous car, and assume $2.50 as the California average gasoline price.)

Heh, how much extra MPG do you need to make up for my 2 year head start?

Engineer-Poet said at December 28, 2007 8:54 PM:

I am getting a real-world 37.4 MPG in a 2004 Passat TDI, with an automatic.  I would believe that a careful driver could get 50 MPG out of a Jetta.

odograph said at December 29, 2007 6:28 AM:

Hi E-P,

The EPA's Shared Mileage Database is always a good place to start. My glance at the TDI Jettas shows numbers in the low 40s, which while very good don't inspire confidence in Randall's statement above:

"Prius is getting unseated as a fuel efficiency leader. The 2009 Jetta diesel is expected to get a combined 50 mpg city/highway when it comes on sale in the spring of 2008."

I don't know why he put in that line anyway ;-), unless he was trying to troll me out.

We know that the Jetta and the Prius are in different size classes. Your Passat is a more appropriate match, based on passenger and cargo volume ... though things are never totally equal. You have that excellent towing capacity that I can't touch.

Engineer-Poet said at December 29, 2007 8:54 AM:

Indeed, the Prius, Jetta and Passat fall into different classes.

Strangely, the specs I can find for the Jetta claim the same 650 kg towing capacity as my Passat.

Checking the SMDB, the one entry for diesel Jettas claims an average of 46.8 MPG.  That's within striking distance of 50; on the other hand, it probably includes drivers who use hyper-miling techniques which can't be used on the EPA cycles.

That diesel data is rather old; most recent is MY 1999.  The data for the Passat is even worse; the most recent entry is for MY 1997.

odograph said at December 29, 2007 9:09 AM:

They've got Jettas listed a lot of different ways, don't they? I used this page, which lists the 2006 Jetta diesel at 41.9 (manual) and 40.5 (automatic). They both have good numbers of respondents. The more the better, to filter out the liars and as you say the hypermilers.

David Govett said at December 29, 2007 11:51 AM:

Can't wait to inhale those tiny diesel particles, deep into my lungs. A little fibrosis never--cough--hurt anyone.

Julian Morrison said at December 31, 2007 9:03 AM:

Pouring electricity into fuel makes no sense. You end up wasting most of it on the various inefficiencies between the power station and the wheels. If you have electricity, put it into batteries and use those to run the cars.

joe said at January 5, 2008 3:43 PM:

Don't forget the diesel version of the Honda Civic. It should be available in the U.S. around 2009/2010. If I'm not mistaken, it gets around 45 mpg (combined U.S.). That's with the 2.2 liter i-CTDi engine. I wonder what kind of mpg a 1.8 liter turbo diesel would get? It's too bad that diesel versions of the Suzuki swift or the Toyota Yaris aren't available in the U.S. There would be a market for a small, 1.6 or 1.8 liter turbo diesel commuter with a true +50 mpg.

As far as air pollution goes, David should be more worried about all the commercial diesel trucks on the road instead of the new diesel passenger cars.

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