Mazda testing U.S. diesel market with new CX-5 SUV

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Los Angeles — Mazda Motor Corp. will use its best-selling vehicle to test the embattled U.S. diesel market after Volkwagen AG’s diesel emissions scandal.

The all-new 2017 CX-5 should be in showrooms by March with options for SkyActiv 2.0-liter and 2.5-liter gasoline engines. In the second half of 2017, the Japanese automaker will release a 2.2-liter diesel version of the the compact crossover SUV.

Mazda North America President and CEO Masahiro Moro said the company will use the diesel CX-5 to “test the market” to determine whether or not the automaker will offer more models with diesels.

“I’m very interested in the diesel engine,” he told The Detroit News earlier this month on the sidelines of the Los Angeles Auto Show. “I’m not seeking for big volume, but a very good challenge in terms for us to show, mostly, the big benefit that diesel has.”

Mazda has successfully sold the diesel version of the CX-5 outside of the United States since the vehicle’s introduction in 2012. Moro declined to estimate what percentage of sales the company expects domestically. However, he said between 5 percent and 10 percent “would be nice.”

With the diesel engine, Mazda expects the CX-5 to be one of the most fuel-efficient vehicles in its class. But it declined to release fuel economy expectations until they are certified.

The company is in a unique position in the U.S. market. It leads in fuel economy thanks to its popular SkyActiv engine lineup and doesn’t necessarily need to offer diesel models — which are generally more fuel-efficient — to meet federal fuel economy regulations.

Mazda’s first diesel for the United States comes as diesel sales have slowed in the U.S. in the wake of Volkswagen’s costly exhaust-emissions cheating scandal, which surfaced a year ago.

Volkswagen and Audi have been prohibited from selling diesels in the U.S. since revelations that VW had doctored software to turn off pollution-control devices whenever the cars weren’t being tested by regulators.

The German automaker had a stranglehold on the non-truck diesel market. But last week, VW chief executive Herbert Diess said the company is “working under the assumption that we will no longer offer diesel vehicles in the United States.”

Mazda isn’t the only mainstream automaker looking to capitalize on VW driving away from the U.S. diesel market, which represented only about 3 percent of overall sales in 2014 and 2015, according to auto analytics firm IHS Markit.

General Motors Co. earlier this year announced the redesigned Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback would be available with diesel power around the third quarter of next year. Chevy first offered a diesel version of the Cruze for the 2014 model year.

The Detroit-based automaker also has announced the redesigned compact Equinox SUV will be available with a 1.6-liter diesel that could turn an estimated 40 mpg on the highway.

Offering compact crossover/SUVs with diesel engines is an emerging trend, as consumer preferences in recent years have moved from sedans to crossovers. But not everyone is bullish on the compact diesel market for the U.S., as Americans outside of heavy-duty truck buyers have never fully embraced them.

“I don’t expect it will be much volume, because diesels have just fallen out of favor,” senior analyst Michelle Krebs said about the CX-5 diesel. “Mazda struggles to breakthrough the noise with all the other big Japanese automakers, maybe this gives them something to crow about to make them a little bit different.”

Jeep boss Mike Manley last week told reporters that the company does not plan to offer a diesel version of its all-new Compass for the U.S. “We can meet the emissions standards,” he said after the vehicle’s debut in Los Angeles. “I just don’t think at this moment and time there’s a viable market for the diesel in the U.S.”

Jeep started offering a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel engine for its Jeep Grand Cherokeefor the 2014 model-year. Mike Manley, global head of the brand, said sales of the diesel variant represent about between 3 percent and 8 percent of sales.

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