Will Jeep lovers blaze a new trail for diesel?

Make no mistake, Chrysler will use its diesel-powered Grand Cherokee next year as a test. If consumers flock to it, Chrysler will offer diesel engines on other models.
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Even though fuel prices have generally fallen in recent weeks -- outside of areas ravaged by superstorm Sandy -- there are more than a few consumers out there who would line up to gladly pay $1 more per gallon or more to get what they want.

And what they want -- these few, these happy few -- are diesel-powered Jeep SUVs that are legal to drive anywhere in the United States.

Chrysler Group's go-anywhere brand will answer these petitions early next year when it begins selling Jeep Grand Cherokees in North America outfitted with a highly regarded 3.0-liter diesel engine currently used in Europe.

The oil-burner will be paired with Chrysler's Torqueflite 8-speed automatic transmission. Though I don't know where the mileage rating will come in, I suspect the combination will give Jeep's luxury SUV an mpg comparable to a full-sized sedan.

Make no mistake, Chrysler will use its diesel-powered Grand Cherokee next year as a test. If consumers flock to it, Chrysler will offer diesel engines on other models, including the vehicle that most cries out for diesel's many benefits -- the Jeep Wrangler. But if consumers are put off by diesel's premium price at the pump, the automaker is likely to put diesel engines in the United States back on the shelf for a few more years.

Several years and at least two Chrysler corporate owners ago, I spoke with a Chrysler powertrain executive who told me that the main obstacle hindering broader use of diesel in the United States was oil refiners, not pollution controls.

Though diesel fuel is easier to refine, the price remains higher than gasoline because refiners had a limited market for their diesel product. In short, the price wouldn't come down until there were more vehicles on the road to use diesel fuel, he argued.

To me, today's cleaner-burning diesel engines offer the best bridge to tomorrow's alternative powertrain technology. But to get there, it seems that the United States will need several thousand early adopters to blaze the trail and drive diesel prices down to their natural levels below gasoline.

If ever there was a natural job for a bunch of Jeep enthusiasts, it's blazing a trail.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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