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The Garage: Focus on autos

Getting revved on diesels

The percentage of motorists who would consider buying such a vehicle doubles in a year, a survey finds.

July 21, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Diesels are catching the interest of more economy-conscious car buyers in the U.S.

In a recent survey by J.D. Power & Associates, the percentage of new-car shoppers who said they would consider buying a diesel-powered vehicle rose to 23% from 12% a year ago, while the portion who said they would consider a gasoline-electric hybrid slipped from 57% to 50%. Surveys by Kelley Blue Book have shown a similar trend.

Experts credit the allure of new, cleaner diesel engines -- which are expected to meet even California's strict air quality standards -- as well as the prospect of getting better fuel mileage without sacrificing performance.

Also playing a role: disappointment with the real-world fuel economy of hybrids, which often fell well short of government mileage estimates.

Under the government's old rating system, for example, the estimated fuel economy for Toyota's hot-selling Prius was 55 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. The new mileage estimate, based on tests designed to more closely match actual driving conditions, is 46 mpg.

"The mpg expectations for hybrids were totally out of whack," said Mike Marshall of Westlake Village-based J.D. Power. "While hybrid sales are steadily increasing, they continue to face competition for market share" from other alternative powertrains.

Carmakers, meanwhile, have been working hard to shed the negative image many Americans have of diesel engines dating back to the 1970s and '80s.

The auto companies "learned their lessons from the mistakes they made in the past," said Paul Lacy of consulting firm Global Insight. "They're trying to let people know that the diesels of today are not the noisy, smelly, underperforming engines of the past here in the United States."

Improvements in diesel engine technology and recent federal mandates requiring cleaner diesel fuel are leading to diesel-powered vehicles that can meet air-quality standards in all 50 states.

Beyond Chrysler's Jeep Grand Cherokee and some Mercedes-Benz models, there are few diesel-powered passenger cars or light trucks currently for sale in the U.S. (The $52,000 Mercedes E320 sedan is the only diesel passenger car currently certified for sale in California, according to the California Air Resources Board.) But a slew of other automakers, including Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co., Volkswagen and Audi, are planning to introduce diesel models in the U.S. in the next few years.

Publicity about the coming diesel introductions helps account for the rising level of buyer consideration, which typically runs several months ahead of an actual vehicle purchase, Marshall said. Also, survey participants were asked last year about buying a "diesel." This year they were asked about buying a "clean diesel," which probably helped boost the numbers, Marshall said.

Besides making strides environmentally, diesels are scoring pocketbook points. Diesels typically cost $1,000 to $2,000 more than a comparable gasoline-powered car but get 25% to 40% better gas mileage. On the downside, in some states -- including California -- diesel fuel costs a few cents a gallon more than regular gas.

Diesel engines, which ignite fuel by compression rather than with spark plugs, are noted for delivering better mileage while still providing the kind of acceleration traditionally favored by American drivers. Hybrids, by contrast, are sometimes derided as being under-powered.

Toyota, meanwhile, says it isn't losing any sleep over the latest survey results. It hasn't announced plans to launch a diesel-powered vehicle in the U.S., and sales of the Prius and the hybrid version of its popular Camry sedan are surging.

Some of that is due to greater availability, which is helping to bring down transaction prices. Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said survey respondents told J.D. Power they'd pay nearly $2,400 extra for a hybrid -- which is just about the price spread between a regular Camry and a hybrid version. And with gasoline prices stuck at about $3 a gallon or higher, Toyota calculates that a Prius buyer can recoup "the hybrid premium" in less than two years.

"Consumers are going to see a greater diversity of powertrain options going forward," Michels said, "but we still think the hybrid has the best balance of miles per gallon, greenhouse gas emissions and, particularly important for California, low smog emissions."

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