Diesel Cars Attempt Comeback With Clean Diesel

Hybrid cars have been getting a lot of publicity lately. Now some manufacturers are offering another option: "clean diesel" cars. Some can get 40 or even 50 miles to the gallon; they aren't the noisy, smoke belching and sluggish diesels of years ago.

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With oil prices now hovering around $70 a barrel and gas prices rising, the longing for cars with better gas mileage continues. We've been hearing a lot about hybrid cars. Some car makers are offering another option, clean diesel cars. Some get 40 or even 50 miles to the gallon. As Chris Arnold reports, these are not the noisy, smoke-belching, and sluggish diesels of years ago.

CHRIS ARNOLD: When a lot of Americans think about a diesel car, they remember something like this.

(Soundbite of old diesel vehicle starting up)

ARNOLD: That's a 15 year old Volkswagen Jetta diesel.

Mr. KEITH HARLEY (Mechanic, KMH Motors): Yeah, you definitely know it's a diesel, or someone will tell you that there's something wrong with your car.

ARNOLD: Keith Harley is a mechanic at KMH Motors in North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and he works on older diesel cars.

Mr. HARLEY: A gasoline engine can make this noise when it has a serious problem.

ARNOLD: And what makes a diesel so loud like this?

Mr. HARLEY: Well, it's more violent explosion, combustion, so I think that's what makes it louder.

ARNOLD: That's also part of what makes a diesel engine more efficient. It's a higher pressure, more complete combustion of the fuel, and so you can drive around 30 percent farther on every gallon of fuel that you put in the tank. And in recent years, a lot of European car companies have been perfecting the diesel and making it a lot cleaner and more quiet.

Ms. ANYA TASCHNER (Sales Person, Colonial Volkswagen): I'm going to start up the 2009 Jetta clean diesel.

(Soundbite of engine starting)

ARNOLD: If you're having trouble hearing that, it's because this diesel really is just a tiny bit louder and a little bit throatier sounding than a regular gas-powered car. Anya Taschner is a sales person at Colonial Volkswagen in Medford, Massachusetts. She let me take the latest Jetta Turbo Diesel on a test drive.

So, okay, we're pulling out of the onramp here. I'm going to hit the gas a little bit.

(Soundbite of engine revving)

ARNOLD: Yeah, that's got some pick up. Are we going to go down 93 or -

Ms. TASCHNER: Yep.

ARNOLD: Okay.

The car is rated at 40 miles per gallon on the highway, though some customers report better mileage. One car analyst that I talked to said managed to 53 miles per gallon by avoiding quick starts and stops. And with gas prices higher again, that's making this car pretty popular right now.

Ms. TASCHNER: This is probably our number one selling vehicle, and we can't get enough of them. The demand is so high. The TDI sport's wagon, which are a very unique vehicle, people are putting their name on multiple waiting lists at multiple dealerships.

ARNOLD: Volkswagen says 35 percent of sales of its Jetta model are now diesels, and it's ramping up production. While Asian manufacturers focused more on hybrid technologies, regulations in Europe pushed the European car makers to develop cleaner diesels. And now, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi are all selling more of them here.

Still, overall, diesels make up less than 3 percent of the U.S. auto market.

Ms. REBECCA LINDLAND (Auto Analyst, IHS Global Insight): We are definitely getting more diesels available in the U.S. One of the biggest obstacles though is the state of California which has not decided yet if they're comfortable with the level of carcinogenics that diesel puts out, basically does it cause cancer?

ARNOLD: Rebecca Lindland is an auto analyst at IHS Global Insight. She explains that these cleaner diesels emit less greenhouse gases, but they also emit particulates, soot basically, that California considers carcinogenic. The concentration coming out of the tailpipe is extremely low on the new diesels. And the VWs do comply with clean air laws in all 50 states.

But Lindland says that California might craft tougher regulations. And she says, that makes many car makers nervous about developing diesel models for the U.S. Still, Lindland herself is a big fan of these new diesel cars.

Ms. LINDLAND: By far and away, the most fun car that I've driven this year, and I drive a lot of them, was BMW Turbo Charged Diesel. That thing was so much fun to drive. I got fabulous fuel economy, and I had torque to the point where I was going to get arrested. It's so fast. I mean I was convinced I was going to end up in jail.

ARNOLD: More auto makers say they are bringing clean diesel cars to the U.S. Honda's talked about it. Subaru is considering a diesel Outback and Forester, and actually an Indian company that makes tractors, says it's planning to make diesel pickup trucks and SUVs to sell on the U.S. market.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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