Exhaust Note #33: Audi Continues U.S. Diesel Education Program0
I just finished the fourth leg of Audi’s Mileage Marathon, a coast-to-coast demonstration and competition drive for the best fuel economy from a range of Audi TDI clean diesels. The drive started in New York City on October 6, ending in Santa Monica on October 19. I joined the crew in Las Vegas, which included driving through Monterey, California, and the chance to see the Audi R10 TDI cars take 1-2 in the final American Le Mans Series race of the year at Laguna Seca, their ninth consecutive victory.
The undertaking allowed attending Audi engineers, designers, and product planners to take a deep dive into the extremes of American driving conditions, from a crowded New York City street through the Rocky Mountains, Red Rocks at Sedona, Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes (from altitude of minus 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin in the Valley to 11,000 feet in Mammoth Lakes), and finally down Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Monica.
This convoy of 23 silver Audi Q7s, Q5s, A3s, and A4s, dressed in nearly as many stickers as the R10 racing car, could not be missed. U.S. and international journalists and Audi engineers, designers, and executives got to see people over the country, talk to them about the car and the benefits of diesel, as well as gain firsthand knowledge of U.S. reactions. When the 3.0L TDI Q7 becomes available in the States next year, Audi will begin to see the results of the overall diesel communication strategy and education outreaches.
This was an astounding event in ambition, scope, and execution, and next week I’ll be telling my driving story. Today, we’re going to talk a little about diesel acceptance and Audi’s positioning.
Are Americans Ready for More Diesel?
For reasons including different taxation strategies and emissions restrictions between America and Europe, Americans have not demanded diesel in notable numbers. According to AutoPacific’s latest consumer survey, only 9 percent will consider a diesel for their next car (compared with 24 percent who would consider a gasoline hybrid).
American resistance to diesel seems to fall into two basic categories: those who remember past bad diesels and associate the engines with stinky, smelly fuel and a noisy ride, something appropriate for a pickup or semi but not a passenger car and those simply not aware of diesel benefits or challenges.
The motoring press and industry insiders are aware of the excellence of modern diesels. And Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI has reached iconic, cult status. The number of consumers dedicated and enthusiastic about passenger-car diesels is not large enough to cause a dramatic increase in the percent of America’s vehicle diesel fleet, though it is large enough to support some brands adding diesels to their arsenal.
Remember that consideration number? It has increased in recent years, but not enough for diesels to become mainstream in the States. Diesel is destined to be a niche powertrain option in passenger cars for a long time yet. However, within that niche, Volkswagen, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz have brand loyalist support. These companies can add diesel models and find success. But for brands without a DNA that already supports diesel, likelihood of success is smaller. The diesel consumer pool is simply not growing rapidly. Adding more players means more brands fighting over the same small piece of the pie.
Why (or Why Not) Consider Diesel?
There are several factors in diesels favor. Diesel, when equipped with particulate filters and all the technology on hand to clean its natural exhaust, offers lower CO2 emissions. Diesel engines deliver better fuel economy. Both are agreed to be good for the environment. Advances in computing power means much more precise engine control systems, allowing a bias toward fuel economy, sport, or the ability for the car to read the driver and guess. Because engines must be able to withstand higher compression ratios, diesel engines can have longer lives. Diesel engines deliver more torque than comparable displacement gasoline units, and that torque translates to more power on the ground and smoother acceleration. That torque can allow a diesel with less horsepower to outperform a higher-rated gasoline engine in many situations.
Going against diesel for the States are other factors. Along with the lack of awareness and/or negative impressions, diesel engines themselves cost more. Vehicles with diesel engines have higher resale values, but that doesn’t help you until it is time to sell. The emissions controls that gave us clean diesels cost more than emissions controls for gasoline engines. Diesel fuel cost fluctuates like gasoline, but not on the same cycle, and it is taxed notably higher. And diesel supply is not as fluid as gasoline supply; because Americans prefer gasoline, the oil companies refine and provide more gasoline than diesel.
At one point on the Audi drive, we saw regular unleaded gasoline and diesel both for $3.99 at the same station. We also so 30-cent swings in other areas; in Michigan not too long ago, the disparity was as much as $1 more for diesel than for regular unleaded gasoline. Diesel has been less expensive at times, too.
Diesel, in very general terms, can give you 20 to 30 percent better fuel economy. At $1 more and $4.47 diesel and $3.47 gasoline, diesel is 22% more expensive than gasoline. Adding in the extra $1500 to $2000 for the diesel engine, and the cost comparison can be a wash. When diesel and regular gasoline are at the same price point, the diesel would be the logical choice even with more expensive hardware.
For diesel to gain serious traction, it must be driven by consumer interest. Somehow, consumers have to start to have affection for diesels. Once that happens, they can take all the numbers I’ve just cited and turn them into support for their smart choice.