Except for Europeans, Vehicle Manufacturers Ditch Diesel PlansBy Michelle Krebs March 17, 2009
By Bill Visnic
Plans to use clean-running diesel engines for U.S. passenger are being shredded almost daily as troubles in the auto industry deepen, with the latest backtracking said to be coming from Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
Nissan confirmed in early 2008 it would launch a sophisticated 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel -- developed by partner Renault S.A. -- for the U.S.-market Maxima flagship later this year. That plan now is likely to change, as industry sources speculate Nissan will join several other makers to recently retreat on diesel-launch strategies.
A Nissan spokesman told AutoObserver there is "no official word yet," regarding Nissan's maintaining the U.S. launch timeline for diesel-engine 2010 Maxima, but would not deny the model is likely to be delayed, if not cancelled outright.
"We're reviewing our mid-term product plans right now [some to be delayed, some potentially canceled], but nothing in concrete as yet," the spokesman added, saying the company's U.S. arm "should have some clarity in the coming weeks."
If Nissan changes course regarding the Maxima diesel, it will join others to recently drop plans for new U.S.-market diesel vehicles and engines.
General Motors Corp. drew groans from diesel promoters last week when it confirmed the company is shelving further development of a sophisticated new V8 diesel earmarked for light pickups and SUVs.
And Nissan rival Honda Motor Co. Ltd. retreated late last year from an earlier-announced plan to use its well-regarded four-cylinder turbodiesel for a U.S. market Acura TSX originally scheduled for launch this year. Honda said the diesel-powered TSX would be delayed until 2010, but since has made scant mention of the plan and has done little to dispel a belief the program in fact will be canceled (Acura did recently announce the addition of a gasoline V6 to the 2010 TSX lineup).
Plummeting worldwide sales and rising concerns about the high cost of the engines and their exhaust emissions systems are the primary reasons many automakers are backtracking on once-ambitious strategies to reintroduce diesel to the U.S. market. Adding to that pressure was last year's runup in diesel-fuel prices that more than erased the diesel's approximately 25 percent fuel-economy advantage compared with gasoline engines.
Although gasoline and diesel-fuel prices have subsided, diesel has yet to return to a more traditional price relationship with gasoline, causing worry the engines might not make a strong financial case with consumers.
Like GM, Ford Motor Co. also has a V8 diesel penned into the product plan for light-duty versions of its 2010 F-150 pickup, but recently has been quiet about the current status of the engine, reputedly a 4.4-liter V8 derived from a smaller V8 already used by Ford's former Land Rover unit.
Barb Samardzich, Ford's vice president, powertrain product development, told AutoObserver last fall the company was not optimistic about the prospects for diesel passenger cars in the U.S. Even before the full brunt of the world economic recession and its body blow to the auto industry, Samardzich said price pressures in non-truck segments and the high price of diesel fuel made diesel a hard sell for passenger cars.
Samardzich said the cost of the diesel engine might be tolerable, but the added cost of the emissions components to enable nationwide emissions compliancy for diesel passenger cars is the deal breaker for vehicles sold at Ford price points. "No [Ford] customer is going to pay for all that," Samardzich said.
After going to the trouble and expense to develop the sophisticated exhaust aftertreatment systems that allow for emissions compliance even for the squeaky-clean states such as California, diesel's brief time in the spotlight may now be fast eclipsed.
Only European makers remain overtly committed to the technology. Volkswagen has been selling the new diesel-powered Jetta. Audi launches in the U.S. the diesel-powered Q7 late spring, followed by the diesel A3 in the fall as a 2010 model. Mercedes-Benz has three diesel-powered U.S. models, the ML-, GL- and R-Class, while BMW currently offers a diesel-engine 3 Series sedan and a diesel-powered X5 crossover in the U.S.
Photos by Manufacturers
1 - Nissan's plans for a diesel-powered Maxima appear to be up in the air. (Courtesy of Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.)
2 - Acura TSX: diesel power once-promised, now delayed -- or ditched altogether. (Courtesy of Honda Motor Co. Ltd.)