Volkswagen CEO Really Wants the Good Old Days Back, Predicts Diesel Resurgence

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems

Despite a multi-billion-dollar emissions scandal, a massive corporate black eye, and all signs pointing towards a future devoid of diesel passenger cars, Volkswagen Group CEO Matthias Müller isn’t willing to let go of the past.

While addressing media at the the Geneva Motor Show, the VW boss — perhaps angered by all the newfangled electric cars in attendance, one of which is a Volkswagen — predicted the public would soon realize the error of its ways and return to the comforting arms of diesel propulsion. There’s a renaissance on the way, he said.

However, the fly in Müller’s soothing ointment appears in the form the The Government and the industry’s (and public’s) inclination to go where the incentives are.

“Diesel will see a renaissance in the not-too-distant future because people who drove diesels will realize that it was a very comfortable drive concept,” the top executive told the crowd. “Once the knowledge that diesels are eco-friendly firms up in people’s minds, then for me there’s no reason not to buy one.”

Indeed, there’s plenty to love about compression ignition. Diesel powerplants offer gobs of low-end torque and glorious fuel economy — even with the car’s emission controls in the “on” position. But there’s a problem. To enjoy the diesel car lifestyle, those vehicle must first be affordable, available, and — ideally — legal to drive.

Across the globe, automakers have read the writing on the wall are busy phasing out light-duty diesels in favor of investment in electrification — Volkswagen Group included. Porsche has all but sworn off the fuel, while VW Group doesn’t even bother with diesels in North America anymore. For some companies (Infiniti and Mazda, mainly), near-future success lies in developing ultra-efficient gasoline engines.

European diesel sales sank nearly 8 percent in 2017. At one point early this decade, oil-burners made up more than 55 percent of the continent’s new vehicle sales, spurred by tax incentives created by governments seeking greater fuel economy. Now, those governments want to curb air pollution. As emissions standards become ever more stringent, regulators on both sides of the Atlantic are making damn sure automakers don’t try to pull a fast one. And whose fault is that? Right — Volkswagen’s.

The days of diesel incentives are coming to a close (VW’s apparently on board with the idea), and heavily taxed Europeans won’t take too kindly to further punishment at the pumps. Already, government incentives for electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, coupled with a growing availability, have seen the region’s green cars sales soar (comparatively speaking). Battery electric vehicle sales rose 53.7 percent in the European Union in 2017. Of those countries, Germany — birthplace of the diesel engine — took to the electrified lifestyle in a big way, with a 119.7 percent increase.

Even with all of these factors working against the technology, there’s still another diesel assailant: cities. Local governments in western Europe are hopping on the “diesel ban” bandwagon like it’s a new dance craze, falling over each other in a rush to either ban the operation of diesel (or all ICE) cars, or at least levy fees within urban boundaries. The highest court in Germany says it’s completely legal for towns and cities to do so. Should an automaker go to the trouble and expense of developing the cleanest diesel engine in history, there’s still no guarantee a future buyer could even drive the thing in Berlin, Paris, or London.

Still, despite pledging $42 billion towards the creation of electric vehicles and self-driving technology, VW feels there’s still a need for diesel. Basically, it comes down to fuel efficiency vs. emissions. Gasoline engines spew less carbon dioxide per gallon of fuel burned, but gas-powered vehicles, especially heavy SUVs, burn more fuel covering the same distance.

“The rules of the game in the EU in relation to climate protection and emissions goals on CO2 are so challenging that governments cannot do without diesel,” Müller said.

VW brand chief Herbert Diess backed up this assertion, implying that electric cars aren’t ready to fill the void. “We need diesel to get to the CO2 goals,” he said. “Electric vehicles in many cases won’t keep frequent drivers happy.”

Based on these comments, it seems Müller’s diesel “renaissance” is, at best, more of a “longer goodbye.”

[Source: Bloomberg, via Automotive News Europe]

Steph Willems
Steph Willems

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  • JDG1980 JDG1980 on Mar 07, 2018

    Diesel made sense for passenger cars back when gasoline turbos were rare and temperamental, and diesels were held to more lenient emission standards so they could be simple and bulletproof and last 200K+ miles. But today, a diesel engine is usually no better than a turbo gas engine (and turbo gas engines are now common and reliable), and a diesel is required to have expensive and unreliable emissions technology that gas engines can do without. It really only makes sense any more for light trucks where the torque for hauling/towing capacity is absolutely needed. Even then, I think that gas-electric hybrids can do better than diesels with no more overall complexity or cost. I think that the 2020 hybrid F-150 will be the vehicle that drives home the fact that diesel is obsolete.

    • ThomasSchiffer ThomasSchiffer on Mar 07, 2018

      The diesel emissions technology is actually very reliable if used correctly. And this means no short trips. That is really the problem. Many Europeans buy a diesel because they like the excellent fuel economy without realizing that their short trips will eventually harm the engine/components. In such situations the SCR/DPF/Catalytic Converter (as well as the engine) do not get to reach their optimal operating temperatures. This is particularly destructive for a DPF which can quickly clog and then fail, and in the process take out other critical components of the diesel vehicle. It is a common issue here. Someone who works and lives in the city will drive say 10 km to work; none of the components have reached their operating temperatures. This is repeated on a weekly basis. It spells doom for the engine and the anti-pollution add-one. The bigger issue which scares me is this nonsense about small displacement turbo gasoline motors with high horsepower outputs (a 1.2-l turbo engine with 200+ horses for example). The general consensus is that such engines will at best last 300,000 km, if at all. For gasoline engines my personal preference will always be for natural aspiration, which has sadly disappeared except for a handful of performance engines found in impractical sports cars.

  • Sgeffe Sgeffe on Mar 07, 2018

    The hubris (or outright stupidity, or both) is strong in this one, it is!

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Defender looks way better than the Bronco in both 2-door and 4-door.
  • ToolGuy I found this particular episode to be incredibly offensive.I am shocked that eBay Motors is supporting this kind of language and attitudes in 2024.I will certainly keep this in mind next time I am choosing where to buy auto parts (I buy a LOT of auto parts).
  • SaulTigh When I was young in the late 80's one of my friends had the "cool dad." You know the guy, first to buy a Betamax and a C-band satellite dish. Couple of stand up arcade games in the den. Bought my friend an Atari 2600 as soon as they came out. He had two of these crap heaps. One that only ran half the time and one for parts in the yard. My middle school brain though he was the most awesome dad ever, buying us pizza and letting us watch R rated movies recorded on free HBO weekend. At the time I though he was much better than my boring father.Now with adult hindsight, I now know he was "dad who should have taken better care of his family" and not had so many toys.
  • Dave Has to be Indy 500. Many more leaders and front passes than NASCAR, and Monaco is unwatchable with the inability to pass on that circuit.
  • Jeff How did the discussion get from an article about a 56 billion dollar pay package for Elon Musk to a proposal to charge a per mile tax on EVs in California or paying increase registration on vehicles to make up for lost gas tax revenue? I thought such a discussion would better fit Matt's Gas Wars series.