The Return of Diesel in America

By Jonathan Spira on 22 March 2010
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From 1960 through 2002, over 20 car makers ranging from Audi to Volvo offered over 80 diesel-powered passenger cars in the U.S. Indeed, 1981 marked a watershed year for diesel car sales with 520,788 sold. 60% of those came from General Motors and included the company’s biggest sedans, the Cadillac Sedan de Ville and Fleetwood, the Buick Electra and LeSabre, and the Oldsmobile 98 and 88. The oil crises of the 1970s had scared new car buyers enough so that they would put up with the diesel’s noise, fumes, and somewhat iffy starting in cold weather.

Diesel cars at that time accounted for 85% of Peugeot’s U.S. sales, 78% of Mercedes-Benz’, 58% of Isuzu’s, and 50% of Volkswagen’s.

Many popular cars came in diesel versions as well. In 1984, this included the Ford Escort, Nissan Sentra, Pontiac Grand Prix, Toyota Camry and Tercel, and the Volvo 760.

But the GM diesel-powered cars, which comprised the majority of U.S. diesel sales, had significant reliability issues. Blocks cracked and crankshafts as well as the patience of the cars’ owners wore out. As a result, GM ended diesel production in 1985.

1985 was also the year that BMW offered its first diesel in the U.S. market, the 524td. Based on the E28 5er Series platform, which was introduced in 1981, the 524td featured an inline six-cylinder turbodiesel engine that produced 114 hp (85 kW). Ford purchased the 524td’s engine for use in the Lincoln Continental Mark VII for a brief period of time.

BMW exited the diesel market in the U.S. in 1988, a point at which the U.S. market for diesel-powered cars had all but disappeared, in part thanks to the low cost of petrol but also due to increased emissions standards and a rather deserved reputation for unreliability.

Fast Forward 20 Years
By 2008, multiple factors, namely the availability of ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel, the emergence of exhaust-scrubbing technologies that meet California emissions requirements, skyrocketing fuel costs, and higher fuel-economy standards, had set the stage for a diesel renaissance in the U.S. Numerous diesel-powered cars were announced by Acura, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen at the 2008 auto shows

Diesel concept cars on display included the Audi R8 V12 TDI, Jeep Renegade, Land Rover LRX, Mitsubishi Concept-RA and Saturn Flextreme.

The engines in these cars have far better pollution control systems yet they use less fuel than ever. They are far more powerful as well; while a typical 1988 diesel sedan might have taken 18 seconds to get from zero to 60, its 2008 counterpart can accomplish that in less than a third of the time.

Indeed, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen are out to change America’s perceptions of diesel-powered cars. Today, Audi offers the A3 TDI 2.0 and the Q7 TDI; BMW has the 335d and the X5 xDrive35d, Volkswagen has four models, the Golf TDI, Jetta TDI, Jetta SportWagen TDI, and Touareg TDI; and Mercedes offers the ML350 BlueTec, the GL350 BlueTec, and the R350 BlueTec.

These cars are fast, clean, fuel efficient, and gaining market acceptance. As if to prove the point, the BMW X5 Advanced Diesel is the most forward ordered vehicle in BMW’s model and it has accounted for over 25% of all X5 sales since November 2009.