By on March 24, 2008

280557626_78d46ce301.jpgDuring our recent audience with GM Car Czar Bob Lutz, Maximum Bob proclaimed "diesels are not the answer." While cynics might say that even a stopped clock is right twice a day, props to Bob for doing the math. Reuters reports the average price for a gallon of diesel has hit $4.06. It's as high as $4.60/gallon in places. As MB pointed out, "asking people to pay a 20 percent premium for a diesel engine and a 20 percent premium at the pump makes no sense at all." True dat. Without huge gains in fuel economy over regular gasoline counterparts, manufacturers are going to have a hard time getting people to switch to diesel-powered propulsion. The next step: the feds intercede to drive down the cost of diesel and diesel cars, as they are doing with ethanol and E85-compatible vehicles. And then high mileage U.S. oil burners will fly off the showroom floor. [Note to Bob: will GM be ready?] Lest we forget, $4.00/gallon diesel has a huge impact on our truck-based shipping infrastructure. And that could be a BIG problem… News of an April first trucker's strike to follow. 

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38 Comments on “Lutz is Right: “Diesels are Not the Answer”...”


  • avatar
    TriShield

    Indeed, Lutz is correct about diesel’s prospects in the US. Outside of trucks, it has none here.

  • avatar
    menno

    Still won’t work because US refineries are maxed out with diesel production. I did not know it until recently, but read that US refineries work on one principle, which maximizes gasoline production from oil, and European ones work from a different one, obviously tilting production towards diesel.

    What’s the point in changing to a car more expensive than a hybrid, with fuel costs 24% more (and likely to go up with increased use of more diesel cars)? Not to mention, quite significantly dirtier emissions than a gas electric hybrid?

    Answer: none.

    Lutz is right this time.

  • avatar
    Kevin

    I agree diesel’s “not the answer” but that’s because it only gives you a one-time bump in fuel economy, and then what? OK, we all switch to diesel and improve fuel economy by 25%, but where do we go from there? Diesel engines have been around since the 1800s.

    On the other hand, hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electrics, ethanol … you can criticize them all but that’s because they are, really, nascent technologies that have tremendous room for growth and improvement over time to massively reduce oil consumption.

  • avatar
    thalter

    The only reason diesel is cheaper in Europe (and hence the popularity of diesels) is that it is taxed less heavily.

    High prices (and bad memories of the Oldsmobile 5.7L diesels of the late 70’s and early 80’s) will pretty much doom diesels here. Given the current pricing disparity, I question even how well diesels will do in the forthcoming light duty truck applications.

  • avatar
    bfg9k

    High prices (and bad memories of the Oldsmobile 5.7L diesels of the late 70’s and early 80’s) will pretty much doom diesels here.

    Maybe for Boomers, but those of us Gen X and below don’t have too much memory of those old diesels.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Disagree wholeheartedly with all the comments above. Previous diesels stunk, were difficult to start in winter and were pieces of junk. No coincidence most of the worst diesels were Big 2.8 products.

    Let’s see what happens next year whent Honda releases their Diesels and later VW sends some over.
    My understanding of diesel fuel pricing is that the process required to create the fuel competes with the fuel for heating oil. Winter means higher prices due to increased demand.

    For the time being, diesel is a good immediate step forward at reducing oil consumption.

  • avatar
    threeer

    And the price disparity between diesel and gasoline is closing rapidly in Europe (at least in Germany). Still, a large portion of consumers by them. If diesel were at least on par with gasoline, then perhaps there would be a better chance at diesels taking root in the US, but as many have mentioned, with there being a nearly 50 cent premium for each gallon of regular vs. diesel, it’s going to continue to be a hard sell. At least with hybrids, while you do pay more for the initial purchase, people aren’t seeing the pain at the pump, since they can buy regular. I love driving the diesels overseas and wish we could see more of them here, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. And this is probably the first time I can say I’ve agreed with MaxBob on anything.

  • avatar
    TomAnderson

    menno: Some recent light-duty diesels have only been $1-2k dearer than the closest gas version. Granted, the new aftertreatment systems needed to meet Tier 2 Bin 5 will probably tack on another grand or so, but that’s still on par with (and in some cases less than) some hybrid premiums.
    For example, I’m almost certain the 4.5L “Baby Duramax” option for the GMT900s will be less than the $7-8k for the hybrids.

  • avatar
    M1EK

    CURRENT diesels stink. CURRENT diesels are noisy. Don’t any of you guys ever pull up next to or behind one of the diesel pickups at a light? I, unfortunately, do all the time.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Isn’t diesel fuel processed less and includes much less (additional) detergents than gasoline meaning that it removes several costly stages – cheaper to produce?

    I guess I have to ask is what is the true reason why diesel is so expensive than gasoline since it’s cheaper to make? I’m figuring it’s the market determining it’s price so less supply (compared to gasoine) leads to greater demand and prices.

    The economist in me sees diesel as our short term solution (not ethanol/hybrids/etc.) – reason is the technology is definitely there and proven and cost effective, infrastructure is already built and it can travel by existing pipelines unlike E85, cars are cost effective as the removal of the ignition system for switch over to higher compression fuel lines, advanced emissions equipment almost offset the costs (plus the advantage of economies of scale if diesels become the engine of choice), there will be some 20-30 average cars sporting diesel engines by 2010, and with bio-diesel blends it can help further reduce OPEC oil consumption on top of the 20-30% increase in fuel economy.

    The simplest answer is for us to stop driving so much – commute less, work from home, etc. but I think diesels are the closest thing we have to make an immediate impact and simply looking at it’s cost at the pump does not provide a proper analyis of its potential.

  • avatar
    jaje

    M1EK – current truck diesels stink and bellow out particles b/c they are not regulated very well as they are “commerical” loopholes for CAFE.

    Have you ever driven an Audi diesel or the upcoming Honda diesel – they don’t stink or smell or belch out black sooty exhaust – the 50 state standard will also make a difference in tailpipe emissions with the urea or the Honda patented catalytic convertible.

    A BMW 520d (a 5 series) gets 2 mpg greater fuel economy at highway and only 3 mpg less in city. Trucks and the Olds diesel basically ruined diesels reputation here in America. But with the foreign competition who have properly built their engines are a major improvement and definitely worth a second look.

  • avatar

    The price of Diesel seems to be determined by taxes rather than markets. Back in the 80s it was less than half the cost of gasoline. I remember paying 60¢ a gallon for Diesel when gasoline was about $1.30.

    Diesel is the most efficient internal combustion engine yet developed, and seems to be the logical choice for combining with electrical motors to make a hybrid drive. Why dismiss it off-hand because Oldsmobile built a crap Diesel V-8 30 years ago?

    –chuck
    http://chuck.goolsbee.org

  • avatar
    M1EK

    jaje, I’ll believe it when I see it – recent (not 2007, but not 1970s era either) diesel cars are just as stinky and almost as noisy. Wishful thinking abounds.

  • avatar
    menno

    Just saw the news that Hyundai has jumped from the diesel band-wagon to the hybrid band-wagon. Their US head honcho (which ever one it was I can’t recall because they are moving in and out so fast, they need a revolving door on the corner office) was saying diesel – he wanted Hyundai to send over diesels.

    Now the South Korean head honcho is saying no, it’s hybrids. And fuel cells down the road.

    http://www.autobloggreen.com/2008/03/24/hyundai-to-go-hi-tech-with-hybrids-and-fuel-cells/

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    I’ll be a contrarrian on this one. Diesel isn’t the answer, but it’s part of the answer to meeting forthcoming efficiency regs.

    VW, BMW, Mercedes, et al sell cars with TDI diesel engine almost worldwide. The low end torque allows a small displacement to have good pulling power at low rpm. The low end grunt allows the driver to cruise at lower revs and save fuel provided that engine is coupled to decent transmission.

    I said almost worldwide, because Congress allows the Republic of California and states like New York to set the regulatory environment.

    Congress could change that and have the Federal EPA set one standard. This would give the domestic auto industry some breathing room, if they’ll use it, on the approaching efficiency regs. Are they still referred them as CAFE?

  • avatar
    P71_CrownVic

    Hmmm…a diesel Grand Cherokee gets 25% better mileage than it’s 4.7 and 5.7 counterparts.

    Diesel is the answer. A diesel 5-series gets better gas mileage than a Prius.

    The problem is our governments deep hatred for diesel. They would much rather you use MORE GAS…as long as it is made from corn.

    Take the Ford Escape Hybrid for example. That “SUV” can only tow 1000 pounds. Thats it. So, if I want to pull two PWCs or a 16′ fishing boat, I am SOL…but I am getting good gas mileage. Now, with a diesel Jeep Liberty, I can tow up to 5000 pounds and still get 35 MPG on the highway.

    With the puny Escape Hybrid, I am forced to buy another vehicle to tow my tows…but with the Libery Diesel…all I need is one.

  • avatar
    eastaboga

    I do credit Max Bob for almost singlehandedly refocusing the big blue square on its core business of making cars people actually want to buy. I do however disagree with Mr. Global-warming-is-a-crock-of-shit pretty regularly, and this is one of those times.

    A few simple misconceptions:

    Ever seen a gas powered old clunker that was noisy and didn’t run well. ALL poorly maintained vehicles are noisy and dirty.

    Diesel actually emits LESS green house gas than gasoline, period. Diesel combustion does produce more heavy particulates (soot), but modern system are all but eliminating that as well.

    To misquote Max Bob, Ethanol-is-a-crock-of… For the simple fact that in real world studies vehicles get significantly reduced mileage when burning Crisco.

    This is like the old riddle, what’s heavier a pound of feathers or a pound of rocks. Whether simple minded do-gooders’ realize it or not, a 520D gets better gas mileage than a Prius. Therefore, it is better for the environment than a Prius. Never mind the enviromental impact of a 400 pound ni-hd battery at the end of the life cycle.

    Please, please, please would everybody stop talking about Olds diesels from the 70’s. The whole problem with that lump was that GM tried to strengthen an existing gas-engine block to save money. Ka-blammo!

    Finally, Bio-diesel, need a diesel, veggie oil from the local McD’s, need a diesel, hell you can run a diesel on anything. Never mind that the fact that it will last twice as long as a comparable gas engine.

    All the thousands of trucking companies across great USofA must have the whole total cost of operation wrong. Yeah, that’s it.

  • avatar
    M1EK

    “A diesel 5-series gets better gas mileage than a Prius.”

    The other reason to be skeptical of diesel: it apparently causes brain damage.

  • avatar
    Luther

    And the fuel mileage will decrease for diesels even more just to meet EPA Tier 2, Bin 5 which will wipe out diesels MPG advantage.

  • avatar
    eastaboga

    OK, short and sweet

    Better mileage, check 502d > Prius

    Better emissions, check (yep boys and girls, do some home work here, while diesels produce more heavy particulates, aka soot, they produce fewer green house gases)

    Longer service life, check

    Run on bio-diesel, vegtable oil, vodka, etc. check

    But I’m sure all the naysayers are right.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    The main problem for diesel car sales in the US is that it is (nearly) impossible to build a diesel car that passes pollution standards for California and the states that follow California’s laws. There is some indication that they have figured out how to do so recently, but other than a pilot program for Mercedes, no 50-state diesel cars have actually been offered for sale yet, AFAIK (and the Mercedes diesels were for lease only).

  • avatar
    jaje

    M1EK “I’ll believe it when I see it – recent (not 2007, but not 1970s era either) diesel cars are just as stinky and almost as noisy. Wishful thinking abounds.”

    Well I’m not here to convince someones (seemingly biased) opinion just stating the facts. Heck I’m a amateur SCCA & NASA racecar driver and love my petrol engines and prefer them for racing and owning over diesels. But times have changed and with Honda/BMW/Audi/VW/Benz making some of the worlds best diesel engines to date – that biased stinky smelly viewpoint is no longer relevant unless all you consider are trucks. And I think that is the problem…there’s probably thousands of diesels on the road around you that you’d never notice b/c they aren’t an F250 soot belcher or a semi.

    Diesels are making a comeback in the US – it is faster/cheaper and easier for the US to promote them b/c the entire framework is already in place – they get more mpg than gas and equal many a hybrid w/o the $2k / $3k hybrid drivetrain (if you’d made hybrid to a diesel you’d get even better mileage than the gas/hybrid) – there’s bio diesel which is waste to most people and clogs our sewers but can now be used by others besides hippies – diesel fuel is cheaper to produce and is artificially high b/c of taxes and lack of production in the US – and technology has finally catching up to diesels to have clean emissions (the only reason is that US allows such big loop holes for diesels for transportation).

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    The current price difference for diesel is an aberration that the market will correct. The only new refinery being built in 30 years is going to come on to produce more diesel. Us diesel fans can only hope that the new diesel models get sales incentives before the price of diesel goes back down to the normal relationship.

  • avatar
    bluecon

    Diesels have higher initial cost, higher maintenance costs and now the higher fuel price is the kiss of death. Wasn’t that long ago diesel was quite a bit cheaper than gasoline.

  • avatar
    Johnson

    Compared to a hybrid, a diesel will have a shorter service life.

  • avatar
    M1EK

    And I think that is the problem…there’s probably thousands of diesels on the road around you that you’d never notice b/c they aren’t an F250 soot belcher or a semi.

    Nope. I see stinky Volvos and MBs. I’ve even seen a stinky TDI or two. But what I have yet to see is a huge fleet of non-stinky diesels, and, yes, I know what to look for.

    As for the 520d beating the Prius – it was a completely rigged test (extremely high-speed highway driving with no urban driving at all). More realistic scenarios have the Prius beating it quite easily.

  • avatar
    Johnson

    In a pure city-only setting, the Prius beats a 520d in fuel economy by a big margin. The 520d’s only advantage is highway driving, an advantage that will dissapear once the next-gen Prius debuts next year.

  • avatar
    marc

    Responding to individual posts doesnt seem to be working. So I’ll just try to throw some points out in general opposition to what I have read here today.

    I do not think it is any longer fair to say that diesels will last longer than gasoline vehicles. The engine may be inherently more durable, but the quality of all vehicles has gone up to make that negligible.

    A BMW 520d does not get better gas mileage than a Prius, unless the test is geared to it, such as a test where more than 3/4s of it is highway at speeds of 75mph.

    The environmental cost of all those nickel batteries is way too overexaggerated. The nickel used in them is less than the nickel components in many other auto parts, and a lucrative recycling program exists.

    The lower CO2 due to higher mpg is largely offset by higher CO2 in production.

    ULSD, Urea, et al are adding to the costs of diesel fuel and engines, making the premiums close to what hybrid premiums are, and yet they still only meet T2B5, not coming close to the hybrid SULEVs and PZEVs.

    The best examples out there now are the new MBZ diesel utes, which get 17/23 and 18/24, slightly slower 0-60 than their gasoline counterparts, barely pass T2B5. After all the cleaner diesel hype, this is what we get. Big thrill.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Those poo poo’ing the BMW 520d v. Prius mileage comparison are forgetting 1 thing: The Prius is 400-500 lbs lighter that the BMW. The Prius should have smoked the diesel, but that didn’t happen.

  • avatar
    jaje

    A lot of Prius worshippers here and diesel haters.

    The hybrid has the advantage in town b/c of the option to run on electric only. On the highway the diesel has the advantage. Then add in the fact that the diesel makes tons more torque and can out accelerate the Prius even though the Prius is 450lbs lighter.

    Want to tickle your brain – what if the Prius was a diesel hybrid. Why do locomotives use diesel engines for their generators rather than petrol?

    When I hear “I see lots of yada, yada, yada” that’s the end all conversation ender – your observations mean little to me – those who dislike something are very predisposed to see what they dislike.

  • avatar
    Bancho

    jkross :
    The Prius in that test was operating at speeds where diesel had the advantage.

    I don’t see this as a zero sum game. I think choices in efficient vehicles would be great to see. There are instances where hybrids excel and others where diesel is the smarter choice.

    I’d love to see more diversity in efficient small engines available in the US and less pushing of ethanol as some imaginary savior.

  • avatar
    Johnson

    jkross22:
    Those poo poo’ing the BMW 520d v. Prius mileage comparison are forgetting 1 thing: The Prius is 400-500 lbs lighter that the BMW. The Prius should have smoked the diesel, but that didn’t happen.

    And the Prius is faster than the 520d, what’s your point? Let’s also not forget the Prius is more refined. The 520d cannot beat the Prius when it’s running in electric mode, and it definitely cannot beat the Prius is city driving or in traffic.

    This can be argued about all day long, but the fact is the Prius has more advantages over the 520d. The 520d is also a lot more expensive than the Prius, and the 520d is not available in North America.

  • avatar
    davey49

    The Prius is a pretty lousy driving car.
    A hybrid Mazda 3 would be better.

  • avatar
    shaker

    The Prius recovers braking energy in the batteries; thus, it is the superior alternative in city driving.

  • avatar
    turbobeetle

    So let’s get this strait.

    Hybrids rule the roast in city driving…

    Diesels rule the roast in highway driving…

    Hybrid diesels would be the best of both worlds…

    and the big 2.8 need something to stomp on the Prius with?

    Hmmm…

    And on a 2nd note, diesels are not for everyone, but should we not at least be giving the option of driving one other than a VW? I personally would LOVE a Ford Ranger that got 30 mpg and could tow an elephant!

  • avatar
    menno

    It’s all a moot point, if there isn’t enough diesel fuel to go around, though, isn’t it?

    I suppose we could convince Jimmah Cahtah to get back into growing peanuts for oil.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Interesting article on the state of Diesel in the US. Diesels will pay for themselves quicker than a Hybrid will – and when you reach 10 years – no expensive battery replacement.

    http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/content/mar2008/db20080321_748642.htm?campaign_id=yhoo

  • avatar
    corsa

    I think diesels ARE the short-term solution, or at least a better solution than hybrids, especially if bio-diesel is used.

    As for fuel economy: check out this article from 2006 showing the European diesels with the best fuel economy. At the top is the Audi A2 diesel, with a whopping 65 mpg city, 87 mpg highway.

    Five Diesels from Europe that will out-eco a Prius

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