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Why aren't North Americans buying diesel vehicles?

Photo by Timitrius, via Flicker

Photo by Timitrius, via Flicker


Michael Philp
Beat The Traffic

Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 12:11 PM -

They are the most fuel efficient, conventional powered cars that nobody in North America is buying.

Diesel vehicles have been tremendously popular in Europe for years now and just about every model you can buy offers it as an option. About half of all drivers own one, with good reason. They’re more powerful, have fewer parts, and are more efficient than gasoline cars.

How much more efficient? According to the EPA, you gain an extra 10 miles per gallon on average over the same car with a gasoline engine. That’s with no batteries, no electric motors, or other high tech gimmicks. Yet North Americans don’t seem to be buying in to these simple, fuel sipping cars.

Diesel accounts for only three percent of the total market on this side of the pond. About the same number as hybrids. According to Forbes, while diesel registrations are increasing in the US, they’re still being beaten out by gas-electric vehicles.


SEE ALSO: Are we better drivers at 60 than we are at 30?


So what gives?

It’s a hotly debated topic in the auto world, and there are a few theories being tossed around.

While diesels do save fuel, they usually cost thousands of dollars more up front than their gasoline counterparts. Consumer choice is fairly limited as well. German makes represent the vast majority of diesel cars sold in North America. If you don’t happen to like any of those, you don’t have many options left.

Yet with so many choices in Europe, from every automaker under the sun, why not just import them? That’s where things get complicated.

Diesel is a dirtier fuel than gasoline. It’s more energy dense, which is why it’s so efficient. Yet it produces soot and other pollutants that gas doesn't. While modern diesel cars are clean burning, consumers still associate them with trucks and buses belching black smoke from their stacks.

The United States, and especially California, have strict limits on diesel emissions. While that’s not a bad thing, it does discourage domestic automakers from building diesel cars. It’s simply easier to make clean gasoline engines, which the Big Three are more familiar with.

For European automakers, juggling two sets of complicated regulations gives them little incentive to move their products across the pond.

Taxes on diesel in the US have also been traditionally higher According to Scientific American, they’re about seven percent higher than gasoline which can push prices higher at the pumps. Tax incentives for purchasing new fuel efficient vehicles also heavily favour hybrids.

Despite the drawbacks, diesel is becoming more popular in both the US and Canada. According to Forbes, American diesel sales increased 24 percent between 2010 and 2012. Consumer choice is also growing as domestic automakers look to try their hand at Europe’s success, though progress is still slow.

For the time being though, diesel cars will remain a niche product on North America’s roads.


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