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Is U.S. auto market, with its F-150, Chevy Silverado, diesel's safe haven?

Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

DETROIT -- It's been a bad few years for the image of diesel engines.

Ever since the Volkswagen emissions scandal erupted in 2015, the idea of so-called clean diesel has taken a pounding, with a steady diet of new allegations accusing more automakers of trying to cheat emissions testing. Now, VW, which paid billions to settle civil and criminal claims, is aggressively switching its focus from diesel, an engine type it used to champion, to electrification.

The overall effect has been predictions that the end will come for diesel in Europe, where it has long been a key piece of the automotive puzzle. According to Forbes, diesel sales in Germany fell in January to 33.3 percent of the market from 45.1 percent just a year earlier.

But even as diesel faces an existential crisis in Europe, experts say the engine will continue to play a role in the U.S. for years to come. One reason? Americans love trucks.

"In the U.S. we're all about the diesel pickup truck. There's really nothing better for torque, there's really nothing better for towing ... there's really nothing better in the tank for fuel economy," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Rebecca Lindland, who refers to the trio as the "three T's."

Lindland, who noted that diesel promises up to 30 percent better fuel economy than gas, said she believes Europe will continue to offer opportunities for diesel in station wagons and SUVs for the near future because "what we do with the pickups, they do with station wagons and SUVs."

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Some automakers in the U.S. are banking on diesel technology. Ford and General Motors both plan diesel engine options for the 2019 F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado, and Fiat Chrysler is likely to announce a diesel option for the Ram 1500 later this year. Diesel is even featured on the 2018 Chevy Cruze sedan, which promises 702 miles on a tank.

Diesel is only a small piece of the U.S. market (low single digits, per Lindland), but that market is growing. An IHS Markit report from last year showed a steady increase in diesel production over the next several years. IHS attributed most of that to light trucks, but it also showed an increase in diesel cars. That report shows diesel peaking at more than 1.5 million vehicles by about 2020 from fewer than 600,000 vehicles in 2000.

Diesel passenger car production dropped off in the U.S. in 2015 and 2016 as the VW scandal was hitting, but IHS expects those numbers to now increase or at least plateau through 2025.

But diesel emissions are still considered problematic.


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