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 today 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.
Getting the right mix
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 it'll seem familiar to buyers.
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