Wolfgang Hoffman, president of Audi Canada, is standing in front of a very sexy Audi Allroad E-Tron plug-in hybrid concept – fuel economy rated at 1.9 litres/100 km and an electric-only range of about 50 kilometres.
And we are, of course, talking about diesels.
Of course? Yes, of course. Hybrids and various battery-powered cars get the buzz. And they are important to Audi and so many other car companies. But diesels will remain at the heart of Audi's lineup for years to come. Hoffman says it's quite conceivable that, within a few years, every model Audi offers will come with a diesel option.
"I am not saying we will do that, but it's quite possible," he says without pause.
Later, just beside Audi's stand, Mercedes-Benz Canada president Tim Reuss confirms that the next-generation C-class unveiled at the Detroit auto show will also be sold with a diesel option early next year. Mercedes in North America, like Audi, BMW, Volkswagen and Porsche, sells a lot of diesel models to Canadians and Americans, and hopes to sell more.
Over at BMW's Mini brand, rumours swirl of a diesel in the product pipeline for North America – Mini's first diesel here. Peter Schwarzenbauer, who is on BMW's management board, says the next-generation Cooper Works – hinted at, in the latest Mini concept in Detroit – will offer North Americans a diesel option. The current model is already sold in many markets with both gasoline and diesel engines.
Meanwhile, General Motors executives are mulling a small-displacement diesel engine to the Chevrolet and GMC light-duty pickups to boost fuel economy. This surely is a response to the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel just now rolling into showrooms. Steve Kiefer, GM's vice-president of global powertrain, tells reporters that the company might very well revive five-year-old plans to offer a diesel in its light-duty pickups. The diesel was put on hold when GM fell into bankruptcy.
Diesels without question are gaining traction in North America and for good reasons, fuel economy first among them. In Canada, almost 40 different cars, SUVs and pickups are powered by so-called "clean diesel" engines.
Some of the diesels for sale today are luxurious, such as the $47,700 BMW 328d xDrive that I tested recently. And BMW Canada sells a station wagon version, too ($49,350). Or you could take the newest affordable diesel car, the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel sedan ($24,945). It competes with a similarly-sized Volkswagen Jetta TDI diesel that starts at $22,490.
The Jetta stands as a perfect example of VW Canada's commitment to diesels. The Cruze is notable because it comes from one of the Detroit Three auto makers who for the most part have shunned diesels for three decades – since foisting on an unsuspecting public a collection of truly horrible diesels in the early 1980s.
By comparison, the modern diesel passenger vehicles are all quiet; that old "clackety-clack" of less-sophisticated oil-burners is gone. And today's diesels don't blast out clouds of black smoke and particulates, either. All light duty diesels are as clean as any gasoline-powered passenger car; yet, they deliver 20 to 40 per cent better fuel economy than the same vehicle with a comparable gasoline engine.
Diesels are wonderful if you like power from an engine that lasts and lasts, too. The truth is, a diesel engine will keep chugging along for years and years, delivering superior power and steady performance without any trouble at all. The Jetta TDI is far more responsive than the gas Jetta, too – delivering almost twice the torque of the 2.0-litre gas version (236 lb-ft versus 125 lb-ft).
As for road trips, well, diesels don't need as many fuelling stops; they have, as a general rule, much greater range on a tank than a similar gas vehicle. That Cruze diesel, for instance, gets 28 per cent better fuel economy than its basic gasoline counterpart and should go more than 1,100 kilometres between fill-ups. Or take the Audi A6 3.0 TDI diesel. It delivers almost 12 per cent better fuel economy than its gasoline counterpart and should travel nearly 1,200 kilometres on a single fill-up.
Diesel fuel, by the way, is about the same price per litre as gasoline and it's readily available in most markets, right across Canada. Yes, it's a little messy to pump diesel at a self-serve station, but many outlets have full service at no extra cost. The point is, if you drive a diesel, you'll not be inconvenienced and you'll save money.
That Jetta TDI with its 2.0-litre turbodiesel, for instance, will use 1,160 litres a year for a cost of $1,496, according to figures from Natural Resources Canada. By comparison, the gas Jetta with a 2.0-litre engine paired with a six-speed manual will use 1,640 litres a year at a cost of $2,312. The diesel, then, saves you about $800 a year.
True, the diesel premium for the Jetta amounts to about $7,500 over the base Jetta, so it could take the better part of a decade to reclaim the extra cost of a diesel. That's the bad news.
Good news, though, can be found in a University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study that found diesel vehicles saved owners between $2,000 to $6,000 in total ownership costs during a three- to five-year period when compared with similar gasoline vehicles. Yes, the study was conducted by Robert Bosch LLC, which makes diesel engine components. But at least the results had their public airing at the 2013 Alternative Clean Transportation Expo in Washington D.C.
"Over all, the results of our analyses show that diesel vehicles provide owners with a TCO (total cost of ownership) that is less than that of the gas versions of the same vehicles," noted the study. "The estimates of savings for three and five years of ownership vary from a low of $67 [U.S.] in three years to a high of $15,619 in five years, but most of the savings are in the $2,000 to $6,000 range, which also include the extra cost that is usually added to the diesel version of a vehicle."
Fuel economy, of course, played a major role in saving owners money, but so did depreciation. The study found that 11 of 12 diesel vehicles held their value better than comparable gas vehicles over a three-year time frame – some by as much as 46 per cent. Over five years, nine of 10 diesels held their value better, ranging up to as much as 39 per cent.
The case for diesel is also bolstered by ever-increasing fuel economy rules from governments in Canada and the United States. Fleet-wide fuel economy standards are calling for fuel efficiency to about double by 2025 and one way car companies will meet the regulations is by offering more diesels. One study by the Fuels Institute suggests light-duty diesels could account for as much as 18 per cent of the fleet by 2023 in North America, up from about 2.0 per cent now.
This is why the current crop of diesels will grow to include a bunch of new models, notes the Diesel Technology Forum.
"Based on what we know right now, the choices are expected to grow," says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, a non-profit group funded by key players in the diesel industry. "Coming in the next two years are even more new choices for consumers in light trucks and SUVs (Ram 1500, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Chevrolet Colorado, Chrysler Dakota, Nissan Titan and passenger cars including the Audi A3 TDI, Audi A4 TDI, and Mazda Skyactiv-D."
Diesels are gaining favour in North America like never before. They will never account for half the passenger car market here, as in Europe where diesel fuel is taxed lower and consumer resistance to diesel barely exists, if at all.
What's notable in Canada and the U.S., however, is that, while the Germans remain at the forefront, the diesel push is also coming from Detroit Three. From Japan, Mazda plans to trump its hybrid-obsessed rivals – Honda, Toyota and Nissan – as the first Mazda diesel for North America will go to market later this year: Mazda6 Skyactiv-D midsize sedan.
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