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What's Up Mac? - Diesel Cars Catch On in U.S.

Dr. Rudolph Diesel

By Mac Gordon
Senior Editor At Large
Michigan Bureau
The Auto Channel

CHICAGO-Diesel engines are a living example of the axiom, “When you can't succeed at first, try, try again!”

The Windy City's show in huge McCormick Place kicked off to the public with more diesel-powered cars than it has ever had before in the 112-year-old show's history.

Why diesel now? Because all domestic automaker's have seen the opportunities diesel presents to meet higher oncoming MPG fleet averages and consumer interest in buying diesels has never been greater.

This reviewer recalls driving a diesel-equipped Cadillac on Ontario Highway 7 in the early 1980s, watching the fuel gauge dip to near-zero and breathing a sigh of relief when an Esso truck stop displayed a “diesel sold here” sign.

Yes, GM's then-CEO, Roger Smith, agreed to offer a diesel-engine option on Caddies and Olds 98s, but the trial was a disaster.

Diesel engines were smoky, smelly and hard to start.

Then and now, most diesel cars were those of German automakers Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz.

Heavy duty trucks were dieselized, but U.S. sales were negligible, as the Big 3 failed to find ways to mitigate diesel drawbacks-hard starting, exhaust smoke and interior odor beyond consumer tolerance.

Refineries, joined the engineers of automakers in eventually ridding diesel fuel of its problems, but Americans have steered clear of using diesel engines for 30 years.

Only now, at 2013 auto shows, is consumer interest in diesels turning sharply upward.

The Chicago and Detroit shows are unveiling a bevy of diesel V-8 pickup trucks, as has always been the case.

But three newly-dieselized cars have been added in Chicago-Chevrolet subcompact Cruze, Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV and Mazda 6 midsize sedan.

Diesel pioneer VW always did include diesel editions for Beetle, Golf and Jetta cars, but not until this year has enough buzz on car diesels stirred the crowds at the stands of GM, VW, Audi, Chrysler and Mazda.

Last year, the diesel share of U.S. new vehicles sold held at 2.8 percent-a pittance which most analysts expect to surge this year as consumers seek more fuel-saving cars.

With more gas stations adding diesel pumps, in cities and at Interstate highway stops, and with addition of small cars to the mix, along with a banner headline in the media, “New models try to sell American diesels,” U.S. diesel penetration already has doubled from a year ago, as VW's share of U.S. diesel sales clings to 90 percent.

Veteran auto writer and analyst Bill Visnic, opines: “Chicago's show absolutely starts the conversation about diesels among mainstream buyers. Diesel's real-world fuel economy is often higher than comparable gasoline engines, and it tows, accelerates and off roads with ease.”