When the question of diesel-powered passenger cars comes up, only four are worth mentioning: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, and BMW. Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen took action on diesel many years ago—long before most of their competitors began to entertain the possibility.
Mercedes-Benz issued its first diesel-engine passenger car way back in 1936. Several years after World War II came the 180D diesel and its successors. Mercedes-Benz introduced a five-cylinder diesel engine in 1974, and a turbodiesel four years later—in the big S-Class sedan.
Volkswagen made diesel power available on its Rabbit in 1978, adding a turbodiesel in 1983. Diesel remained an option through the 1990s, on Golf/Jetta models. When the New Beetle debuted for 1998, a diesel engine was available.
BMW, introduced a diesel-engine version of its 3 Series sedan for 2009, but dropped the diesel as part of that model's 2012 redesign. BMW is reported to be bringing back the diesel option to the U.S. 3 Series lineup, with a 2.0-liter diesel four. A hybrid 3 Series is also expected soon. Nearly one-third of BMWs X5 SUVs sold in the U.S. lately have been diesel-powered.
Today, Mercedes-Benz offers BlueTEC diesel-engine versions of E-Class and S-Class sedans, GL-Class and ML-Class SUVs, and the R-Class wagon. In 2011, the GL-Class had the highest diesel “take rate,” at 39 percent. Almost 5,800 diesel-engine GL-Class SUVs were sold. The R-Class was next at 24 percent, followed by the more popular ML-Class at 16.8 percent (30,008 sold). Diesels haven’t been as popular in sedans, but 14 percent of E-Class buyers took that option in 2011, accounting for 2,773 sales. Only 5.5 percent of top-end S-Class sedan buyers opted for diesel power, with 301 sold during the year.
Volkswagen has been aiming its diesel engines largely at the Jetta sedan, but those account for a sizable chunk of sales. In the first quarter of 2012, diesels constituted 23 percent of Volkswagen’s total U.S. sales. Bosch has reported that 44 percent of U.S. diesels sold in 2011 were Jettas. Volkswagen alone accounted for 58 percent of total U.S. diesel sales. Passats and Beetles, both redesigned for 2012, have a diesel option, along with Golf/Jetta models.
Something like three out of five little Audi A3 hatchbacks have diesel engines, but that’s not been a popular model, so total sales are modest. About one-third of Audi’s big Q7 SUVs have diesel power.
In the first half of 2012, clean diesel sales in U.S. rose 27.5 percent, according to data from HybridCars.com and Baum and Associates. In that same period, hybrid car sales jumped 63.5 percent, as the overall auto market increased 14.9 percent. The Forum claims diesel cars at 20 to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline-powered equivalents.
Diesel sales are expected to double by 2014, says Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum, noting that more than 15 new diesel autos will soon arrive in the U.S. market. Despite their modest market share, “the steady double-digit monthly sales increases show a definite trend of interest in diesels,” Shaeffer adds. In Europe, of course, diesels account for about half of sales.
Sometime in 2013, Chevrolet is expected to reveal a diesel-engine variant of its popular Cruze compact sedan. Porsche will have first diesel in 2013: Cayenne. Mazda plans one by 2014: a SKYACTIV-D version of its CX-5. By 2014, a Jeep Grand Cherokee Ecodiesel will be on the market. Audi is expected to add several TDI diesel models, including the A6, A6, and Q5. BMW could have both four and six-cylinder diesels in the next year. Even Cadillac is in the running, anticipating a diesel ATS model.