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The Green Highway

Diesel is great now - but can Audi convince Americans to buy it? Add to ...

Yes, 2014 is already being called “The Year of the Diesel.”

General Motors, Chrysler, Mazda, Daimler, BMW and Audi have all announced or launched 2014 diesel passenger cars and light trucks for the United States. As you know, 99 per cent of the stuff that makes it to Canadian showrooms only gets here because it sells in the United States, so we’re getting diesels, too.

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But will Americans buy diesels? Manufacturers might have a lot of unsold cars and trucks on their hands unless American consumers decide they don’t hate diesels any more.

Audi has announced five new diesel models for 2014 and probably has the most at stake in getting Americans to change their minds. As Audi bluntly states in its marketing material, “We’re overcoming misperceptions.”

The “misperceptions” that poor deluded Americans are struggling with are rooted in fact. Step forward, Oldsmobile, and take a bow. Yes, the brand is extinct now but in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Oldsmobile was given the task of building diesel engines for a whole range of General Motors cars. And what a job it did. Popular Mechanics has correctly identified Oldsmobile diesels as one of the worst automotive engineering failures of all time.

Oldsmobile produced various versions of the noisy, polluting, underpowered, unreliable, dismal diesels and stuffed them into Chevys and Cadillacs, too. These engines were absolutely no good.

Mercifully, production of the Olds diesels lasted only from 1978 until 1985. But before it was over it caused a class-action lawsuit that saw owners reimbursed for up to 80 per cent of the cost of engine replacement and caused angry legislators to pass the first “Lemon Laws” offering automobile consumer protection. This fiasco also ruined Americans’ appetite for diesels.

Audi states, “America is only now coming around to the benefits ... of Diesel.” It had better hope so. Americans don’t like being told they’re wrong, so Audi had to frame its message cleverly, as follows:

“Democracy. Style. The Enlightenment. It’s no secret that America has been importing new refinements from Europe since there’s been an America. We think Americans are ready for the next big idea: TDI Clean Diesel.”

How’s that for getting in their face? You Americans couldn’t do it right so we’re going to show you how.

Audi has been building diesels for 40 years and today slightly more than half its worldwide sales are diesel-powered. Audi diesels got my attention in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the world’s most difficult, demanding and gruelling race. The company had won seven times when it surprised the world by switching its team over to diesel power and won six more times in a row.

Audi’s hard-sell to the Yanks is based on re-educating them about their “misperceptions,” so Audi is pushing the technology story hard. Glossy brochures explain the composition of diesel fuel (15 per cent more energy than gasoline), then there’s much detail on the “piezo injectors” (which optimize the distribution and timing of the fuel into the cylinders) and there are all kinds of technical explanations about the exhaust after-treatment (that makes the tailpipe emissions cleaner than comparable gasoline engines).

Audi wants Americans to understand how wrong they’ve been about diesels and put them on the path to “Enlightenment.” It’s a commendable effort that I’m sure will find favour with many Canadians who are also only too happy to inform Americans of their shortcomings.

But there’s more at stake here than Audi marketing methods. Diesel engines are about 30 per cent more fuel-efficient than gasoline engines. If diesels in North America achieved the level of popularity they have in Europe, that’s millions of barrels of oil saved.

Advanced diesel engines, which are absolutely nothing like the Oldsmobile monstrosities, first started reaching the market around 2000. Since then, and particularly in the last five years, the technology has zoomed forward again.

Audi is now rolling out its latest diesel, a 3-litre turbocharged V-6, which is another game-changer. This is going in Audi A6 and A7 sedans and the Q5 SUV. I spent a day driving all three in town and country, over hill and dale, near Washington D.C. I love the torque and smooth power of diesel and this is the most responsive yet. It felt like a V-8 and I did not refrain from hammering the throttle (safely and at appropriate times) and overall the day’s fuel economy still averaged more than 32 miles per U.S. gallon (7.3 litres/100 km).

Diesel isn’t a dirty word any more and can now, for the first time, be considered a green technology. But will it sell to skeptical Americans?

An Audi lobbyist seriously suggested that these big $60,000 to $100,000 sedans and SUVs be allowed with a single passenger to roar down the nation’s HOV lanes. That’ll be the day. The re-education of American diesel haters still has a long way to go.

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