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fuel economy

Mercedes-Benz GL 350 CDI BLUETECMercedes-Benz

Tim Reuss, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Canada, is making a point about diesel-powered vehicles, explaining how they are embraced in Canada in a way similar to Europe: "Eighty per cent of M-Class sales in Canada – diesel. Canada is much more European for styling and for diesel acceptance," he says.

The M-Class SUV (sport-utility vehicle) is just one of the many diesel-powered rides Mercedes sells here. Mercedes Canada also sells a diesel E-Class sedan (2012 Mercedes-Benz E350 BlueTEC), a diesel SUV even larger than the M (2012 Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC), a large diesel R-Class wagon (2012 Mercedes-Benz R350 BlueTEC), a luxurious S-Class sedan (2012 Mercedes-Benz S350 BlueTEC 4MATIC) and even a diesel Sprinter utility van.

Mercedes Canada, in fact, has been enjoying what you might call a diesel advantage. Long ago, the company took stock of Canadian tastes and chose then to push diesels into the Canadian market is a way utterly unlike what's been a long-held practice in the United States. For Americans, diesel is a dirty word when it comes to passenger vehicles. Americans as a group associate diesel with nightmarish black smoke, clattering engines, lousy reliability, smelly exhaust and endless, unpleasant fueling experiences – including higher pump prices for diesel and the need often to use truck stops for a fill-up.

But Canadians? We like diesels for their durability, fuel efficiency, and performance. The typical diesel passenger vehicle today has a range of 1,000 km or more, which means longer runs between fill-ups. Diesel is readily available across the country and at the same filling stations used by gas cars. And unlike in the U.S., diesel fuel is at par with gasoline, or even cheaper. Consider: The most recent pump price survey from MJ Ervin & Associates/Kent Marketing Services shows a litre of diesel (automobile) fuel selling for $1.179 in Toronto, versus $1.219 for a litre of regular. Meanwhile, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that a gallon of diesel averaged $3.678 in the U.S., versus $3.437 for a gallon of regular.

Despite the barriers to diesel, however, U.S. buyers are on the brink of embracing oil-burners like never, ever before. The Diesel Technology Forum, a lobbying and information group in the U.S., argues that the tide is turning in diesel's favour. The proof is a slew of new diesels on the way to dealer showrooms:

  • Chrysler announced at the Detroit auto show that it will be introducing a Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel in 2013 or 2014, and possibly other Jeep diesels later.
  • General Motors says it will bring a diesel version of the Cadillac ATS to the U.S. and presumably Canada, as well.
  • Audi plans to sell an Audi A8 TDI diesel in the U.S. in 2013, with Canada surely in the mix, too.
  • A diesel-powered Porsche Cayenne is coming to Canada and the U.S. in 2012.
  • A diesel version of the compact Chevrolet Cruze will go on sale here and in the U.S. next year;
  • Mazda plans to be the first Asian car manufacturer to sell diesel cars in Canada and the U.S. when it introduces its SKYACTIV-D 2.2-liter clean diesel engine in about 18 months or so.
  • A diesel version of the Volkswagen Beetle will soon be in showrooms and there are indications a diesel-powered Tiguan SUV might not be far behind.

And those bullish on the future of diesel say even more diesels are on the way, beyond what's already been announced.

"While most auto makers have clean diesel autos on the market in Europe, Asia and Australia, there are growing indications that even more diesels are on their way to the U.S. market," says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum.

His group argues that high fuel prices and stricter fleet-wide fuel economy rules are behind the diesel surge. By 2015, Baum and Associates expects diesel car sales to grow to 6.0-6.5 per cent of the entire U.S. market, compared to just more than 3 per cent today. Research firm J.D. Power & Associates sees the U.S. diesel market share growing steadily to 7.4 per cent by 2017. In Canada, diesels account for about 3 per cent of light vehicle sales, but if more diesel models were offered – and they will be – the diesel share will likely explode in Canada. Volkswagen Canada says nearly a third of its customers opt for diesel and more would make that move if VW Canada had more diesel models to sell.

For the average buyer, diesels offer plenty of advantages. Today's diesels have emissions as clean as the cleanest gasoline vehicles, yet diesel cars are 20-40 per cent more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts. Schaeffer argues that better fuel economy leads to a reduction in the CO2 footprint, too. And, in an effort to push the "green" diesel argument, he also notes that standard diesel cars "can use renewable diesel fuels like biodiesel which reduce greenhouse gas emissions up to 60 per cent and also reduce petroleum consumption."

All that is good, but so is a list of practical, everyday considerations. For one, Canadian Black Book reports that the resale value of diesel vehicles is typically higher than for comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. That's because diesel engines last so long. It's not unusual for a diesel to keep chugging away well past 300,000, 400,000, even 500,000 km with no discernible loss of power and utility. Typically, all the parts around a diesel-powered car wear out, rust and fall apart long before the engine itself has given up the ghost.

Of course, there's a price to be paid for a long-lasting diesel and it's usually a premium of about $2,000 over the same gas model, sometimes more. Over time, the money saved in fuel will offset the higher sticker price. And as fuel prices rise, the diesel fuel savings become greater.

Fuel savings aside, governments are also acting in ways that at least in the short term are giving diesels a boost. That is, Canada and the U.S. are pushing ahead with ever-stricter fleet-wide fuel economy rules and diesels will help auto makers meet them.

"The new (U.S.) federal fuel efficiency standards that wil l required a 54.5 mpg average by 2025 will also boost clean diesel auto sales, as diesel cars are 20 to 40 per cent more fuel efficient than gasoline versions," says Schaeffer.

Mazda Motor is unusual in that this is a Japanese auto maker which has fully embraced diesels. Dave Coleman, the self-described techno-geek who in reality is a senior product development engineers at Mazda, says Mazda is coming with a 2.2-litre four-cylinder diesel and it will be an eye-opener.

Mazda is not yet saying what passenger vehicle or vehicles will get the new SkyActiv diesel, but Coleman says the engine will have more than 300 lb-ft of torque, even though the engine itself is small.

The bottom line: Mazda's small diesel will deliver the real-world performance of a healthy V-6.

"We think we'll sell every one we can get," says Mazda vice-president Robert Davis.

So, too, might every other car company bringing a diesel to market over the next few years.