Americans and their anti-love affair with diesels

I recently spent a week driving a diesel-powered Ford Fiesta in England and Wales. The experience left me wondering once again: what is it with Americans and diesels?

Car manufacturers seem frozen in their belief that U.S. consumers haven’t forgotten the rackety, stinky, pokey oil burners of the early 1980s. I believe customers know better than carmakers give them credit for. The latest diesels are a revelation -- a testament to the industry’s boundless technical innovation. But that light stubbornly remains hidden under a bushel in the U.S.

With its 1.6-liter TDCi motor, the little Fiesta comported itself like a big luxury car on the English motorways, barely panting at 80 mph. A four-cylinder gas engine would have been thrashing noisily at those speeds. On the twisty roads in south Wales, the Fiesta accelerated effortlessly out of corners boosted by gobs of torque. When I first turned the key, I had to get out and check Ford’s TDCi logo to be sure I had really gotten the diesel I requested. It was that quiet.

A couple of years ago, before Smart began selling its ForTwo in the United States, I crossed the border to Windsor, Ontario, and borrowed a Smart ForTwo for an Automotive News green car special report. The little Smart three-cylinder diesel I drove was rated at more than 80 mpg.

I asked the Windsor Smart dealership if any Americans had stopped in to inquire about buying the tiny car (which they couldn’t). The answer was swift -- ‘Yes, and they always say they want the diesel engine.’ But Smart still sells only the gas-powered version in the U.S. Ditto with Ford and the new Fiesta. Chrysler seems in no hurry to bring Fiat’s state-of-the-art diesels to North America.

We’re missing the boat.

OK, I know common rail diesel engines cost more to build so there’s a price premium and U.S. tax regimes don’t favor diesel consumption as they do in Europe. You can’t just flick a switch on the factory floor to convert an engine line from gas to diesel. But Volkswagen’s small diesels have been winners here. VW’s success shows there’s room for more players. Diesel is still a niche play, but the game these days is all about niches.

Reducing fossil fuel consumption is the most crucial battle the auto industry is fighting. We need every available weapon.

But this isn’t just about being green. The best diesels, like my little red Fiesta, will sell for one simple reason -- they’re a hoot to drive.