Diesel's last gasp? Don't believe it

By John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Are diesels on their last legs? Consumers would be forgiven for thinking so, given the impact of Volkswagen Group’s notorious diesel emissions cheating scandal.

After being caught using software to reduce emissions illegally, VW Group has decided to stop selling diesel models from its VW, Audi and Porsche brands in the U.S.

So does this sound the death knell for the diesel engine? The answer is complicated. First, let’s put diesels in a wider context. Diesels are used in commercial applications – trucking, construction, shipping, farming, buses and more – on a massive scale and there is no feasible alternative available now or on the horizon.

Ford F-150 diesel

In the light-duty automotive car and truck world, the picture is more nuanced. Even though VW has abandoned diesels in the U.S. (but not in Europe), the fact is that many existing American VW diesel owners love their cars for their drivability and fuel efficiency.

While VW was by far the largest seller of diesel cars in the U.S., it was by no means the only one. A small but significant list of existing and new diesel models is available for 2018.

General Motors has stepped up its diesel model selection with five vehicles: the Chevrolet Cruze, the Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain crossovers, plus the Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon mid-size pickups.

In the luxury arena, Jaguar Land Rover is bucking the tide by bringing to the U.S. several diesel models from its European portfolio. These include the compact Jaguar XE and mid-size XF sedans and F-Pace crossover. From Land Rover, three versions of the Range Rover, including the Velar, have optional diesel engines, as does the Discovery model.

While Mercedes-Benz has dropped diesels from its U.S. lineup,  arch-rival BMW is still offering the 328d sedan and wagon, and the X5 35d and 540d models for 2018. 

In the more affordable market sector, two mainstream brands are making somewhat surprising moves into the diesel world. Mazda is introducing diesel versions of its Mazda 6 sedan and CX-5 crossover, while Kia is readying a diesel Sorento crossover.

For its part, Jeep offers a diesel Grand Cherokee and has a diesel Wrangler in the works.

Move into the light- and medium-duty truck and van arena, and diesels are thick on the ground. Most of the major full-size pick-up makers – Ram, Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Nissan –  have diesel models. Notably Ford has just introduced its first diesel version of its F-150 and Chevrolet will be following suit with its new-generation pickups his fall. 

So it would appear that rumors of diesel’s death are exaggerated. Despite efficiency gains made by gasoline powertrains, diesels are still far more energy-frugal and therefore kinder to the environment (assuming proper and legal emissions treatment). For any sort of heavy-duty transportation work or for towing purposes, the low-end torque developed by diesels is a huge advantage over gasoline engines.

On the downside, diesel engines are inherently more expensive to produce and controlling emissions – especially of particulates – requires complex and costly exhaust systems. 

The pressure on diesel engines is being amplified by the rise of battery-electric vehicles. EVs are many years away from widespread adoption by U.S. consumers. But there is a perception, not necessarily accurate, that electric cars must be better than diesel vehicles. 

Suffice to say, the long-term outlook for diesel cars is cloudy at best. But for trucks, the engine technology that German Rudolf Diesel pioneered in 1893 still has a strong future.

 John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at jmccor@aol.com