Unprecedented development could signal a major U.S. comeback
Over the last five years, one of the most persistent rumors was that diesel would make a major comeback in the U.S. But most of the talk about new oil burners coming to our shores amounted to nothing.
Increasingly strict regulatory environments that required costly after-treatment on top of the already considerable cost of the engines caused many companies to curtail their diesel ambitions for the U.S. market. Add to that diesel fuel’s persistent price premium over unleaded for most of that time, as well as the stereotype that American buyers still saw diesels as the slow, smoky, clattering roadblocks they were in the ’70s and ’80s, and the engines were more than some companies wanted to deal with.
But today, well past the sales doldrums of 2008 and 2009 and the domestic auto crisis, Rudolf Diesel’s revolutionary combustion model may be poised for a major revival in the US, one of the few markets in the world where efficient diesel engines aren’t the choice of the majority of new vehicle buyers.
Four Wheeler readers will be pleased to know we will finally see the return of diesels to the light truck and SUV market after a nearly three-decade absence. At the forefront of the light truck diesel revolution is Chrysler, which has announced the availability of the VM Motori-engineered 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 in both the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and 2014 Ram 1500. We recently got the opportunity to drive the Jeep equipped with this new powerplant, and came away thoroughly impressed with its well-rounded combination of refinement, performance, capability, and economy. We expect the engine to be a similarly compelling option in the light-duty Ram pickups.
Currently Ram and Jeep are the only domestic brands so far that have publicly committed to light-duty diesel trucks. The responses we received from the other companies have potentially left the door open to more diesel options for buyers interested in something other than an HD truck.
Room in the Blue Oval
Since the game-changing introduction of the EcoBoost V-6 in the F-150 in mid-2011, Ford has aggressively rolled out its brand of direct-injected, turbocharged technology across its car, truck, and SUV lineups. In the context of the F-150, the company touted the benefits of the gas direct-injected turbo as having economy approaching that of a diesel, with comparable torque, at a much lower price point. Consumers have certainly responded favorably to the availability of the EcoBoost, and along with the 300-plus-horsepower base V-6 engine, the majority of F-150 sales are now of V-6 models. That’s a trend not seen in ½-ton models for several decades, a segment traditionally dominated by V-8 engines.
As staunchly as the company stands behind the EcoBoost strategy, there’s a possibility of diesels in models aside from the Super Duty and Transit. “Ford does not rule out someday offering a diesel engine in something other than Super Duty trucks,” says Richard Truett, Ford Powertrain communications manager. “As we work toward improving the fuel economy of our entire corporate fleet, all powertrain options are on the table. But right now, the significant premium for the diesel powertrain and emissions system coupled with the additional cost of diesel fuel over gasoline does not make a diesel engine in a light-duty truck cost-effective.”
Ford hasn’t announced plans for a diesel in the F-150, but Truett confirms that a diesel option for the U.S.-spec Transit has been in the plans from the start of the project. This is likely to create a competitive hedge against the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, which is exclusively offered with a diesel engine.
Diesel for Every Need
With Ford a vocal advocate of gasoline direct-injection turbo technology, one could see Chrysler as either the contrarian or visionary in the ½-ton truck segment with its announcement of the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 as an option in the Ram 1500. Prior to Chrysler’s announcement, the only diesel options in fullsize pickups for the past 25 years were limited to ¾- and 1-ton models. Official output and pricing have not yet been announced specifically for the Ram application, but the engine produces 240hp and 420 lb-ft of torque in the Grand Cherokee, and is a $4,500 to $5,000 option. While a substantially more expensive option than either Chrysler’s own Hemi or Ford’s EcoBoost option, the Ram 1500 diesel promises to deliver even better fuel economy. The 3.0L diesel is actually touted to be better than the already class-leading 3.6-liter Pentastar in the Ram 1500 that delivers up to 25 mpg highway.
There are differing opinions among truck manufacturers as to the cost-effectiveness of a diesel in a ½-ton application, but Chrysler is firmly convinced of its benefits. Eric Mayne, powertrain communications manager for Chrysler, says diesels shine in efficiency under load. “Comparable vehicles powered by diesel engines under load deliver fuel economy consistently superior—especially at highway speeds—to vehicles powered by similarly sized gasoline-powered turbocharged engines equipped with direct injection.”
In response to those who say a diesel makes sense in an HD application, but not a lighter-duty application, Reid Bigland, former head of Chrysler’s U.S. sales group, says, “Our decision to deploy a diesel engine was really based upon the significant benefits it can provide a customer in the areas of fuel economy, performance, and longevity, and we felt those benefits could be realized best in the Ram and Grand Cherokee.”
Ready To Respond
Between Ford’s advocacy of EcoBoost and Chrysler’s bold diesel gambit sits General Motors, which also has shown interest in reentering the light-diesel market in the US. However, it has instead chosen a passenger car, the Chevrolet Cruze, as its first non-HD truck diesel in the U.S. market in the last quarter-century. Although many credit Chrysler’s offering of Cummins diesels in its heavy-duty Ram models with popularizing the diesel as a performance option in the pickup market, GM’s introduction of the Duramax 6.6-liter diesel for the ’01 model year is credited with attracting many new customers to diesel trucks with its then-unprecedented level of refinement and gas-engine-like horsepower.
Prior to the company’s 2009 restructuring, a smaller 4.5-liter turbodiesel V-8 was in development for use in ½-ton trucks. That engine got so close to production that there were even announcements that the engine would be built in GM’s Tonawanda, New York, engine plant. Although future plans for that specific engine are unclear, GM says the knowledge gained in the development of that powerplant will be applied to future projects.
The one product niche where GM still has an official entry that Ford and Chrysler have (for the time being) abandoned is midsize trucks. This makes for an intriguing light-truck diesel possibility, one GM is not outright denying. The global-market Colorado, which will share a great deal of its components with the U.S.-spec model built in Missouri, is offered in overseas markets exclusively with a choice of two four-cylinder diesel engines.
The U.S.-spec Colorado will come to market with one or more gasoline powerplants, but Gary Arvan, chief engineer and program manager for the Duramax diesel, says the company is closely monitoring market trends in regard to diesel acceptance and popularity, and in a lighter-duty application such as the Colorado, a diesel could make sense. “In the light-duty pickups, a balance of capability and efficiency will continue to play an important factor in customer choice,” he adds.
Although ½-ton truck manufacturers are still cautiously dipping their toes in the water when it comes to offering diesel engines, the option of the EcoDiesel in the ’14 Ram 1500 signals a potentially game-changing trend in the light truck market. As availability of and familiarity with diesel-exhaust fluid expands, customers are growing more accustomed to that periodic maintenance item. If the price premium of diesel fuel continues diminishing to where it’s within the same price range as mid-grade or premium unleaded, in addition to the inherent eye-opening fuel economy advantage, the up-front price premium of a diesel powerplant could be seen as well worth the cost over a 3-5-year ownership period. It may be slightly premature to say the diesel revolution is officially upon us, but the market conditions look more promising now than at any other time in the last five years.