The Frontal Cortex

Diesel Engines

This makes me sad:

If ever there was a car made for the times, this would seem to be it: a sporty subcompact that seats five, offers a navigation system, and gets a whopping 65 miles to the gallon. Oh yes, and the car is made by Ford Motor (F), known widely for lumbering gas hogs.

Ford’s 2009 Fiesta ECOnetic goes on sale in November. But here’s the catch: Despite the car’s potential to transform Ford’s image and help it compete with Toyota Motor (TM) and Honda Motor (HMC) in its home market, the company will sell the little fuel sipper only in Europe. “We know it’s an awesome vehicle,” says Ford America President Mark Fields. “But there are business reasons why we can’t sell it in the U.S.” The main one: The Fiesta ECOnetic runs on diesel.

Clean diesel engines are the original hybrid, as they get anywhere from 25 percent to 45 percent better mileage than a comparable gas engine. (Diesels also are the ideal partner for the hybrid cars of the future, in which a fossil fuel engine drives an electric generator.) So why can’t we get more diesel cars here in the US? Part of the problem is onerous clean air regulations, which make diesel engines prohibitively expensive. (Fancy diesel engines, like the Mercedes Bluetec, go to great lengths to reduce their NOx emissions, such as injecting ammonia-rich urea into the exhaust stream. Unfortunately, such engineering tricks aren’t feasible for an economy car.)

The bigger problem, though, is taxes. As Business Week notes, “Taxes aimed at commercial trucks mean diesel costs anywhere from 40 cents to $1 more per gallon than gasoline.” Of course, I won’t hold my breath waiting for a politician to do the sensible thing and raise taxes on ordinary gasoline.


  1. #1 Mark P
    September 10, 2008

    I have heard others blame emissions standards for lack of small diesel cars in the US, but I don’t believe it. For one thing, economical diesels have been around for a long time, long before the latest emissions standards, but we in the US didn’t get them. Only VW offered a small diesel off and on for many years (other than a very few oddballs in the distant past, like Volvo). Now VW is offering a relatively small diesel in the Jetta, and I think it will appear in other VWs, too. Some other manufacturers are planning to introduce small diesels. All of them are European or Japanese. It’s just the US makers that have no plans for diesels, and I think that means you really have to look elsewhere for the reasons.

    As to the price of diesel: so what? My 2001 VW diesel gets 48-50 mpg routinely. A that rate, my fuel cost per mile is still lower than almost every gasoline-powered car on the market.

  2. #2 travc
    September 10, 2008

    I was always under the impression that the real problem with diesel emissions wise was the high manufacturing tolerances needed to achieve more complete combustion. Of course, if that is the case, it is a non-reason now since manufacturing tolerances that tight are routine.

    Am I mistaken?

  3. #3 erika
    September 10, 2008

    Any word on the estimated cost of this vehicle yet?

  4. #4 Tom Bentzen
    September 10, 2008

    What a load of crap. So Volkswagen can somehow magically offer TDI/CRD powered small economy cars here in the U.S. and Ford cant? What an absurd joke. Ford doesnt want to. They make all their profit off of trucks, and very little from economy cars. I have a 2001 VW TDI Jetta and my last fill up got me 62 MPG! Does anyone think that Ill EVER buy a gasser again? I’ll start buying U.S. cars WHEN they get smart and start giving a sh** about the people who live here!

  5. #5 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 11, 2008

    Clean diesel engines … Part of the problem is onerous clean air regulations,…

    You appear to be contradicting yourself. Is it too much of a stretch for me to suggest that if diesel engines cannot pass clean air regulations, it is because they are not clean?

  6. #6 Mark P
    September 11, 2008

    TB, your suggestion is circular. It’s possible to define “clean” in such a way that nothing is clean. The real issue is whether the regulations in fact result in a useful net gain in air quality, and whether there are other, equally important factors to consider.

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