German carmakers attempt to relaunch diesel engines in USA in face of cheap petrol and poor image

Detroit. Mercedes-Benz boss Juergen Hubbert tried to whip up enthusiasm at the Detroit auto show for diesel cars among Americans.

He used the launch of the E 320 CDI -- the first Mercedes diesel intended for the USA since 1999 -- to promote M-B's diesel technology.

A new US law requiring lower fleet consumption has raised awareness of fuel efficiency among Americans.

Mercedes-Benz and all other manufacturers have to comply with increasingly strict regulations regarding fleet consumption and emissions.

While Japanese carmakers are focusing on hybrid fuel technology, the Germans are relying on diesel engines.

But diesel engines, which currently have a share of the passenger car market of below one percent in the USA, face an uphill battle.

Experts are skeptical whether the diesel engine for passenger cars will ever catch on.

Diesel is mainly used in trucks and heavy off-road vehicles and has a bad image in America.

Not only do Americans perceive diesel engines as rough, heavy, slow and dirty, they are seen as pricey.

The compression ignition engine has to compete against the low price of gasoline (a liter of super costs the same as a liter of diesel, approximately 31 euro-cents).

The number of service stations that supply diesel is also very small.

Ford boss Nick Scheele, who himself is a definite diesel fan, does not expect quick success.

"This will be a long and rocky path," he said.

Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer from FH Gelsenkirchen warned: "Manufacturers should take the hybrid competitors very, very seriously."

The Mercedes E 320 CDI will be in showrooms from April 2004.

According to Joachim Schmidt, the board member responsible for sales and marketing at Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, the company plans to sell up to 3,500 units by the end of 2004.

Mercedes abandoned its first US diesel project in 1999 because the technology at the time wouldn't allow it to meet the nitrogen oxide emission limits.

In M-B's early days in the USA, nearly four out of five Mercedes passenger cars sold had diesel engines.

In an attempt to convert Americans to diesel, Mercedes is planning a massive advertising and public relations campaign.

"The negative diesel image, which has nothing to do with reality, has to be dispelled from American heads," said Schmidt.

DaimlerChrysler is also is currently negotiating with several oil companies in order to expand the fuels offered by service station networks and also to lower the sulfur content in diesel.

Through that and technical improvements Schmidt hopes to soon comply with all the US regulations. Laws are toughest in California and New York, where new diesel cars cannot be sold.

The only German manufacturer beside Mercedes-Benz currently offering diesel autos is Volkswagen.

BMW will take part in the diesel attack from 2006, according to North America boss Tom Purves. The Bavarian company is waiting to see which technology will win: diesel engines or the hybrid combinations of diesel-electric motor or gasoline-electric motor.

Audi has no diesel plans so far.

The Japanese believe in the gasoline hybrid. More than 100,000 units of the Toyota Prius -- costing less than 20,000 dollars -- have already been sold.

Honda offers its Civic and Insight models with hybrid technology.

The number of hybrid models available is increasing rapidly: the first Lexus hybrid, the RX 400h, had its world premiere in Detroit. This summer the Ford Escape and Toyota Highlander hybrids will be launched.

German carmakers are also working on hybrids. Mercedes-Benz unveiled in Detroit the hybrid S-class with a gasoline main engine and the crossover GST with a diesel hybrid motor.

BMW is working on a hybrid engine, which combines an electric engine with a gasoline motor.

Diesel engines will stand a chance in the USA if technical improvements are successful. Bosch boss Franz Fehrenbach believes that by 2010 a U.S. diesel market share of up to 20 percent might be possible.

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