Carmakers Revamp Diesels as Green Machines

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Jetta i

The diesel Jetta won't be available until late summer. There are no official mileage estimates yet, but Volkswagen expects its miles per gallon will be in the high 30s to low 40s in the city and high 40s to low 50s on the highway. Courtesy of Volkswagen hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Volkswagen
Jetta

The diesel Jetta won't be available until late summer. There are no official mileage estimates yet, but Volkswagen expects its miles per gallon will be in the high 30s to low 40s in the city and high 40s to low 50s on the highway.

Courtesy of Volkswagen
Sue Ellen and Sarah Myers i

Sarah and her mother, Sue Ellen Myers, are waiting for Jeep to come out with a new, cleaner diesel Grand Cherokee. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Sue Ellen and Sarah Myers

Sarah and her mother, Sue Ellen Myers, are waiting for Jeep to come out with a new, cleaner diesel Grand Cherokee.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR

For decades, diesel vehicles have had a reputation as loud, smelly, polluting cars. Their one saving grace was that they went farther on a gallon of fuel. But now with new, cleaner diesel fuel and pollution-control devices, automakers are pitching diesels as clean vehicles of the future.

Outside the Washington, D.C., auto show last month, Volkswagen's Marijke Smith was showing off a 2009 prototype diesel Jetta.

It wasn't noisy, and no plume of black smoke came out of the tailpipe. The car won't be available until late summer, so there are no official mileage estimates yet, but Smith says it will give most hybrids a run for their money.

"What we're estimating is that it will probably be in the high 30s/low 40s in the city and high 40s/low 50s on the highway," Smith says.

The new diesel Jetta is supposed be clean enough that it will even be available in California, where tough smog standards have kept new diesels off the market for many years.

The Jetta is one of a slew of cleaner diesel cars, SUVs and trucks that automakers plan to offer to Americans over the next couple years. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jeep, Volkswagen, Toyota, Mitsubishi, General Motors and Hyundai are some of the carmakers that have made announcements.

"And there's going to be more coming to this diesel party," says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of Diesel Technology Forum, a trade group that promotes cleaner diesel.

Several factors have contributed to diesel's rise:

  • The federal government adopted new fuel economy standards, and diesel cars go farther on a gallon of fuel than gasoline cars.
  • Government mandates have cleaned up diesel — both the fuel and the cars themselves.
  • Most diesel cars emit less greenhouse gases, which addresses growing concerns about climate change.

Deciding on Diesel

None of the diesel improvements was news to Sarah Myers and her mother, Sue Ellen Myers, who arrived at the car show with a mission.

"We came to look at the new clean-burning diesel Jeep that's coming out," Sarah Myers says.

Sarah runs a free-trade import company and uses her aging Jeep to pull a trailer. Her mother uses hers on her family farm. But both women are waiting for a new diesel Grand Cherokee. Despite her green ethics, Myers justifies driving a Jeep because she uses it in ways she couldn't use a Honda Civic hybrid or the Toyota Prius.

"But I hate the . . . gas mileage," she says. "So the diesel makes me feel a lot better about driving a Jeep."

As it turns out, Jeep was not showing the SUV that Myers and her mother hope to buy. In fact, a Jeep spokesman says it won't be available for another couple of years.

Jeep already sells another diesel Grand Cherokee. But it pollutes more than the one on the drawing board. And the federal government, at fueleconomy.gov, says its greenhouse gas footprint is slightly bigger than the gasoline version.

The Catch: Carbon

David Friedman from the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists says the Grand Cherokee fuel stats illustrate one of the caveats to diesel's environmental credentials.

"Because you use less fuel, you tend to produce less global-warming pollution, but of course with diesel there's a bit of a catch," Friedman says.

Even though diesels go farther on a gallon of fuel, diesel fuel is higher in carbon. So, per gallon, diesel engines emit more carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Also, it takes more oil to make a gallon of diesel than a gallon of gasoline, and refining diesel creates more air pollution.

Still, most diesel engines should send 10 percent to 20 percent less greenhouse-gas pollution into the air than similar gasoline engines.

Friedman says this shows why today's consumers need to be more careful shoppers.

"You need to do things like go to fueleconomy.gov and do your research and compare not only the fuel economy of the vehicle, but also how many barrels of oil is it going to use, how much global-warming pollution is it going to produce. You've got to do your homework," Friedman says.

Diesel Makeover

Diesels face a bigger challenge: their image.

Pam Loeb, another visitor to the D.C. auto show, had been looking at a new diesel, but she says she'll never buy one.

"I've never been much of a fan," she says. "They were low powered, and they didn't smell very good. Not for me."

Several car companies see that bias as too high of a hurdle. They're investing in hybrids instead. Some say they'll only try diesels in large SUVs and pickups. But other automakers, like Volkswagen, are betting that the new, cleaner diesels will take off.

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