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May 2006 Diesel Decade - Limited Articulation

Posted in Features on May 1, 2006
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As I write this, we've recently returned from the North American International Auto Show, the auto industry's annual coming-out party for the upcoming model year.

Notwithstanding the opportunity to visit sunny Detroit each January, we always look forward to this show as we always leave it having learned a lot more than we knew before we arrived-plus, we get a ringside seat for all the first looks at the latest OE offerings in 4x4 iron (and aluminum, and ABS plastic, sure).

While the Motor City-like its native auto industry-has weathered some rough storms in recent years, the Detroit show is still the biggest and most important new-vehicle showcase in the world. It's the one place where all-and I mean all-the prime movers and shakers in our business can be spotted, and it's likely the one place where humble scribes such as ourselves can walk up to corporate honchos like Dieter Zetsche and Bill Ford and ask them, point-blank, when they're actually going to build the Gladiator pickup, or if we really need another muscle car with Carroll Shelby's name on it.

This year in Detroit, the buzzwords were "small" and "hybrid," as a succession of automakers tripped over themselves to show off their latest crossover cute-utes running various forms of gas-electric propulsion. City dwellers that we are, we do find hybrids of passing interest (for around-town fuel savings, certainly), but for those of us who need big torque at low revs (i.e., 'wheeling our rigs on a trail) or who log thousands of miles on the highway each year (commuting to work, or towing our rigs), the benefit of hybrids is, well ... of passing interest, let's put it that way.

The way we see it, when it comes to alternative fuel for low-end torque, big-load towing, and good mileage, there's nothing that quite beats a diesel. And fortunately, there was big news on this front from Mercedes, who unveiled its new Bluetec diesel technology. It's a system that uses a combination of EGR, particulate filters, and a nontoxic urea-based agent, stored in a separate tank from the fuel, that converts into ammonia when combined with recirculated exhaust gases downstream of the engine. The ammonia in turn causes the NOx to be converted into harmless nitrogen and water when the mix is passed through the catalytic converter. If it all sounds a bit confusing, well, you're not alone, but the result is an overall emissions reduction of 80 percent, with no ill effect on power or mileage. Mercedes is offering a Bluetec 3.2L V-6 turbodiesel in its new GL-class fullsize SUV next fall, with claimed fuel economy of 26 mpg-a figure that would make it best in its class. (And yes, you're right, we'll be all over it like a cheap suit when we can get one for testing-it's got a 2.93:1 low-range gear.) Finally, just in case you're wondering what this all portends for those of us in the States, you only had to check out the Bluetec Grand Cherokee concept on display in the Jeep booth to see the possible ramifications for the U.S. market down the road.

If that's not enough, rumor has it that Jeep will offer a diesel option on the new Wrangler Unlimited in the near future; that Toyota will offer some sort of diesel hybrid (!) on the new-for-'07 Tundra pickup; and that Nissan is currently working with International on a new oil-burner mill for the Titan, possibly for 2008. With low-sulfur diesel fuel set to roll out by the end of the year, we just may be on the verge of witnessing the first great Diesel Decade. And possibly, the decline of gas-electric hybrids-at least as an alternative for 4x4s.
-Douglas McColloch

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