Among major automakers, opinions and strategies on light-duty diesels usually fall into one of two camps: enthusiastic supporters and circumspect skeptics standing on the sidelines taking a "wait and see" attitude. The skeptics have often cited the high production costs of diesel engines, combined with the high cost of emissions compliance, along with the traditionally high cost of diesel fuel relative to unleaded as a triple-whammy against the prospects of oil-burners in the U.S.
The success of soon-to-be-introduced diesel models in the U.S. may be determined, at least initially, by fuel prices. In the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area near the Truck Trend headquarters, prices for diesel have often been below those for gasoline over the past few months. Need evidence? Look at these photos of gas station marquees. These pictures were taken over the course of two months, at multiple locations. While there were certainly plenty of instances where diesel fuel was at a price parity or higher than unleaded, the instances where we could find diesel for less than unleaded were common enough to where you couldn't consider them a fluke or exception.
A handful of significant light-duty diesel models are about to hit showrooms in the next six months. The Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel, the Ram 1500 equipped with the same engine, the Chevrolet Cruze diesel, the Mazda 6 Skyactiv-D, expected to be followed later in calendar 2014 by a CX-5 diesel. Each of these models, with the possible exception of the Grand Cherokee, is considered a gamble by many in the industry, with an offering where price sensitivity is a paramount concern.
Those of us who have experienced the recent crop of diesels can attest to their torquey, fun-to-drive character, excellent fuel economy (often surpassing official EPA ratings), and surprising refinement. In many ways, with their robust low-end torque and outstanding highway fuel economy, diesels are ideally suited to American driving conditions and tastes. With the dark days (literally and figuratively) of GM's smoky, unreliable efforts from the late 1970s and early '80s a distant memory for many buyers, and before many new-car buyers were born, diesel has a great chance for redemption.
The success or failure of many of these models may hinge on the seasonal fuel price when they hit showrooms. If diesel prices stay below gasoline going into fall and winter, and into the first quarter of 2014, these new models could surpass all expectations of sales. If prices ratchet back up to where they're 30 cents above premium, they could remain niche novelties like the cynics proclaim.