Infernal Combustion

September 9, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — It seems too good to be true: Spend $1,000 more on a vehicle and save $1,000 each year on fuel costs. That simple matter of mathematics has convinced a rising number of car buyers to make a major switch. Although they still represent less than 1 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States each year, diesel vehicles are becoming more popular and prevalent with each bump in the price of gasoline.

The diesel engine is inherently more efficient than the internal combustion gasoline engine. Pair that with the lower costs associated with refining diesel fuel, and the savings begin to add up. For example, a Volkswagen Golf with a turbo diesel engine can get over 50 miles per gallon — that’s about 50 percent more efficient than the same model with a gasoline engine. And diesel fuel has historically cost about 5 percent less than standard unleaded gasoline.

But what motivates the budget-minded consumer does not necessarily motivate car companies. Although diesel trucks and commercial vehicles have long been the standard in this country, the diesel engine has never managed to catch on in the passenger car market. The diesel engines of old were noisy, smoky, sluggish and temperamental. In many ways, they spoiled the name of diesels for generations of Americans.

However, the technology is out there to build cleaner, quieter, zippier diesel-powered cars. Not surprisingly, the few diesel passenger cars available on the U.S. market come from Europe, where 40 percent of cars sold are diesel-powered. The only companies currently selling diesel passenger cars in this country are Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler Corp.’s Jeep and Mercedes-Benz divisions.

In Grand Rapids, dealers can’t keep diesels on their lots. From $18,000 Golfs to $60,000 Mercedes-Benz E320 CDIs, the demand for fuel-efficient diesel cars is far outstripping supply.

Gary Faasse, Volkswagen sales manager at Betten Imports, said that more than 25 percent of the Volkswagens his team sold last month were diesels. Betten usually receives seven to 10 new diesel cars each month. They are often sold by the time they arrive.

“We have one diesel right now. It’s a demo Passat wagon, but it’s out on a test drive,” he said. “If we sell that one, we won’t have any diesels until next month.”

That was on the first of the month.

Gezon Motors, the other VW dealership in town, has had the same experience. Sales Consultant Jay Poling said that diesel sales were slow until the recent fuel price spike.

“Boom. This $3 thing came along and people went crazy,” he said. “We had some diesels sitting around for almost nine months. We sold them all in the last four weeks.”

The same is true for the higher-end Mercedes. Aubrey Barber, Mercedes-Benz salesperson at Betten Imports, said that the diesels have been selling at a brisk pace since they were introduced in 2004.

The surge of diesel popularity in the U.S. may be short lived, however. New emissions laws going into effect in 2007 could make today’s cleaner-by-comparison diesels too dirty to drive. That’s already the case in the four states with the toughest anti-pollution laws. California, Maine, New York and Vermont do not allow the sale of diesel passenger vehicles. Cutting off such a sizable chunk of the market has made other manufacturers leery of joining VW and Mercedes in the diesel business. The upcoming clean-air laws are another reason why the competition has stayed on the sidelines.

In the meantime, budget-conscious individuals will continue snapping up all the diesels they can get their hands on. In fact, businesses have been getting into the act at an increasing rate, as well.

Paul Vredevelt, sales manager at K&M Dodge/Sprinter, said that he has been selling 15 diesel-powered Sprinter vans each month. For those not familiar with the Sprinter, it is the somewhat boxy, high-topped, pointy-nosed vehicle that has become the delivery van of choice for small business owners and major carriers such as FedEx and United Parcel Service. Vredevelt said that many businesses are choosing to swap their traditional vans and work trucks for the more economical Sprinter. The vehicles cost around $30,000 and regularly score fuel economy in the mid-20-mpg range.

As is the case with the local Volkswagen dealers, Vredevelt said that his dealership has a hard time getting as many diesel vehicles as they’d like. Nonetheless, he said K&M currently has a larger selection of Sprinters than any dealer in the state.

While the diesels have sold well, Vredevelt said the car buyers of West Michigan have not turned their back on huge, gasoline-powered monsters such as the “Hemi” engine. Although the new version of this classic Chrysler power plant is more fuel efficient than its forebears, it still chugs through $3-a-gallon gas at a healthy clip. Logic might dictate that Hemi sales have fallen off in recent weeks.

“This week with gas going to $3, we sold more Hemi’s than anything else,” Vredevelt said.

Who said logic had anything to do with car buying?    

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