New Diesels Hit Streets

Remember diesel cars in the '70s and '80s? Those loud, smoky, smelly things that were hard to start on cold mornings? Meet the new diesel.

Remember diesel cars in the '70s and '80s? Those loud, smoky, smelly things that were hard to start on cold mornings?

Meet the new diesel.

New diesel cars and light trucks still sound a little different from gasoline engines, but they're not as noisy as they were a few decades ago. With new engine and filter technology, they don't smell as bad or spew as much soot as their older versions.

And they get pretty good mileage, enough even to make some hybrid car owners a little envious.

With the introduction of the new diesel Jeep Liberty, the reintroduction of a diesel Mercedes sedan and continuing sales of diesel Volkswagens in the United States, diesel is, one might say, making a comeback.

But they're not exactly taking the auto market by storm. Diesels make up a little less than 1 percent of new car sales. Compare that to Europe, where they are about 50 percent of new car sales.

Diesel never really went away in the United States farmers and other drivers of pickups have been buying diesel trucks for years but thanks to new technology, "it's rising to new levels," said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum in Frederick, Md.

Within five months of introducing its diesel sedan E320 CDI, Mercedes met its 2004 sales goal of 3,000.

Area dealers said curious customers have been calling and stopping by to take a look or drive the new models.

The Mercedes diesels are difficult to get, said Ken Moerdyk, sales manager at Sullivan-Parkhill in Champaign.

"We've sold half a dozen or more. They're still in tight supply and good demand," he said.

Over at Shelby Motors in Champaign, General Manager Scott Johnson said the diesel Jeep Liberty, a compact SUV, is "pretty hot." He has one in stock and six on order.

"It's a great idea a vehicle with better fuel economy, better capabilities, more torque in the engine for towing power and still room for five passengers," Johnson said.

To encourage and promote the use of clean-burning fuels, Jeep is shipping the diesel Liberty with a 5 percent biodiesel blend, an alternative fuel made from vegetable oil.

But diesel cars and pickups are not exactly clean-burning, and they're not for everyone.

"Not everyone likes diesel," said Peter Alexander, mechanic and owner of Peter B.'s, a repair shop in Urbana.

Because diesels were fraught with problems back in the '70s and '80s, "it took a real special person to love a diesel," he said.

According to Alexander, diesel owners tend to be mechanical and understand how diesels work. They like to drink fine wine, but they're also economical. They watch their money. They're not in any hurry.

"With diesel, everything is slower," Alexander said.

Because of the way a diesel engine is built and the way it works, it'll last longer than a gasoline engine.

"Diesel engines inherently run cooler than gas engines. They don't generate nearly as much heat as a gas engine. That aids to their having a longer life," Alexander said.

If you maintain your diesel engine, you could log 300,000 miles, or even more, he said.

"One of the key factors that manufacturers in the U.S. have to overcome, in addition to emission standards, is acceptance. It's almost to the level of, 'what is a diesel car?' because there are so few diesel options available to consumers," Schaeffer said.

The diesel engine works by compression ignition, said Mark Ziegler, diesel power program director at Parkland College in Champaign. Air is compressed, the air heats up and the heat ignites the diesel.

The gas engine also uses compression, but not as much as the diesel. It uses an electrical system ignition. The spark plugs get the car going by igniting the fuel.

Diesel engines don't generate as much heat as gas engines, which helps them last longer. However, they weigh more than gas engines. And due to the compression system ignition, they could take longer to start on cold mornings, Ziegler said.

"For people who have lingering memories of diesel technology from the '70s, consumer acceptance is clearly a challenge," Schaeffer said.

In the late '70s, some auto manufacturers, instead of building a diesel engine from scratch, redesigned the base gasoline engine (such as changing the compression ratio, among other things).

"But they didn't re-engineer other parts to take the higher stress load that a diesel engine produces," Ziegler said.

As a result, many of those engines prematurely wore out.

Plus, in the old days, diesel engines were mechanically controlled.

"They had a mechanical injection pump that was all gears and little cylinders, and now it's a direct injection. It's more precise and all computer-controlled," Alexander said.

"In the last three years we've seen lot of design changes. They've kept the reliability, but lost weight and the fuel is not as temperature sensitive," Ziegler said.

As far as noise levels go, the new diesels are quiet, he added. The diesel Jeep Liberty, for example, has an engine cover to help buffer the noise.

In addition, the exhaust systems are set up differently now to better control emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions in diesels is 10 percent to 20 percent lower than gasoline engines. But diesels emit more particulates (fine soot from the engine) and nitrogen oxides than gasoline-powered cars.

Beginning in 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require stations and fuel dealers to sell low-sulfur diesel fuel. This fuel emits fewer particulates than the regular diesel.

Taking sulfur out of diesel "is sort of akin to taking lead out of gasoline," Schaeffer said.

"On these emissions issues there is a challenge ahead for manufacturers, and they're trying to meet that challenge," he said.

When cleaner fuel is available and more models become available, consumer acceptance will continue to grow, Schaeffer predicted.

More consumers could turn to diesels because of their fuel efficiency, he said.

For highway driving, the Mercedes sedan can get 37 miles per gallon; the Jetta diesel can get 44 miles per gallon; and the Jeep Liberty can get 27 on the highway, according to the manufacturers.

Diesel and gas prices tend to rise and fall in tandem. Currently diesel costs more per gallon than gasoline, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's fuel price reports. The Midwest average for diesel was $2.06 per gallon as of Feb. 28 and $1.92 for gasoline.

Plus, if you live in a strictly residential area and local gas stations don't carry diesel, that could deter folks from buying a diesel car, Ziegler said.

However, Alexander is optimistic, particularly because of the recent strides in technology.

"I think the diesel engine will, as time goes on, get better and better," he said.

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