This year’s LA Auto Show is buzzing with real-life and concept hybrid and all-electric cars. But in the clean diesel corner, the crickets were chirping. Will Americans ever be ready for clean diesels?
German automakers Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz are selling their newest “clean” diesel vehicles nationally, including in California—home of the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show—a state that, historically, with its air pollution regulations, has been hostile to diesel cars.
But even the auto companies with umlauts on their computer keyboards are making plug-in electrics and hybrids a major part of their U.S. future. The Germans keep plugging away to make their case for diesel to Americans. At the same time, BMW showed a hybrid, and Audi showed its fully electric e-Tron Concept at the LA show.
Speaking of plugging in, one of the biggest rivals to diesel in terms of grabbing the green spotlight is Chevrolet’s Volt extended-range electric plug-in, which we drove recently. The car promises to go around 40 miles on a charge before the gas-powered motor kicks in to power the battery.
At an estimated $40,000-plus before government tax credits whittle the price down, one wonders why GM wouldn’t consider opting to bring a diesel over from Europe. “A lot of it is marketing,” says independent marketing consultant Dennis Keene. “An extended-range electric is greener, cleaner and whiz-bang technology that could vault Chevrolet’s image ahead by light years if they pull it off, and a diesel Malibu that gets 40 mpg just isn’t going to do that.”
Chevrolet chief Brent Dewar agrees. “Diesel presents a big hurdle in terms of marketing to American consumers,” he says. Plus, “we [GM] aren’t convinced the cost of meeting future clean-air regulations is going to make diesel cars and light trucks too tough a business case to sustain,” Dewar says. GM had several separate events touting the Volt this week, including a panel to discuss electric infrastructure in California and the rest of the U.S. to support what Chevy hopes is an onslaught of interest in extended-range EVs and straight EVs.
Toyota has avoided diesels in the U.S. as well, instead focusing on plug-ins and hybrids. Toyota not only showed its Lexus LF-Ch hybrid concept, but also the plug-in Prius that will challenge the Volt for attention. When fully charged, the Prius is targeted to achieve a maximum electric-only range of approximately 13 miles and will be capable of achieving highway speeds up to 60 mph in electric-only mode. The Lexus offering, in the meantime, is a slick, brawny-looking hatchback. Finally, Toyota put some styling mojo into a hybrid.
“One of the things hybrids and extended-range electric vehicles have going for them is that two behemoths like Chevrolet and Toyota are invested in making these vehicles successful and are spending big money to market them as the best technology,” says Peter Sullivan, a Los Angeles–based consultant specializing in green marketing. “What diesel has been in Europe, hybrids and EVs are in the U.S. And that train has left the station.”
Indeed, Chevrolet and Toyota seem to be in a cage match over which company seizes the plug-in-hybrid limelight. Toyota is putting 150 U.S. drivers into PHEVs starting early next year for real-world driving evaluation and, of course, social-networking fodder. That’s 50 more cars than GM is planning. The battle between automakers used to be about horsepower, and now it is kilowatt-hours and the number of vehicles you can get into the field with the Twitter and Facebook crowd.
Volkswagen, on the other hand, is the diesel leader in the U.S. with its TDI technology. About 40 percent of Jetta sales today are running diesel, and 90 percent of Jetta Sport Wagons are TDIs. But VW is grappling with an interest in hybrids too—unveiling a concept at this show that has the best of both worlds, according to the German automaker; diesel and hybrid. The Up Lite is a diesel hybrid capable of up to 70 mpg on the highway, with room for four adults. It’s powered by a 0.8-liter two-cylinder TDI clean diesel engine, and an electric motor that acts as the vehicle’s starter, alternator, and e-drive unit. “Hybrid technology is uniquely popular in the U.S., but we think there is definitely an opportunity to combine the best of our diesel technology with hybrid to set new standards in fuel economy,” says VW U.S. chief Stefan Jacoby.
Audi, along with sibling company Volkswagen, perhaps the biggest booster of diesel in the industry when it comes to marketing spending, showed the e-Tron electric sports car in North America for the first time, trying to prove it too is ready to play both sides of the green street. But the company is far from abandoning diesel. Audi this year funded an ad campaign to promote clean diesel as a flanker effort to the Q7 and A3 TDI launches. The campaign—whose tag line is “Diesel: It’s No Longer a Dirty Word”—has been aired on TV and the Web, specifically all over Facebook. “We have a great advantage in diesel technology that other automakers do not have,” says Audi executive director of powertrain Wolfgang Hatz. “We have enormous economies of scale for diesel, and the experience of selling it on multiple continents for decades.” The TDI moniker is 20 years old.
Is the campaign working? Audi is finding that 40 percent of its Q7 sales are TDI, above expectations of about 15 percent. Those are the kind of numbers that encourage Indian automaker Mahindra, which plans to enter the U.S. in 2010 with a midsize pickup offered with only a diesel engine. Mahindra is not represented at the Los Angeles show, and is not expected to be at the Detroit Auto Show either. “It could be they will stand out for being the first Indian brand and for having the uniqueness of an all-clean-diesel lineup,” says green marketing consultant Sullivan, “but they would definitely have an easier time of it if it was a hybrid.”