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How to get the U.S. into diesels

European automakers and suppliers have been trying for years to get U.S. drivers excited about diesels. Experience has proved that a test drive can be a deal-maker.

At least that was what I witnessed when testing a 2014 BMW X4 diesel with my father when he visited Germany from the U.S. a month ago.

He couldn’t believe how powerful, responsive and quiet the X4 was compared with his last diesel, which was a 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit.

The fact that he hasn’t been in a new diesel in decades says a lot, especially since he's owned a repair shop since the late 1960s, giving him more contact with all kinds of vehicles than the average consumer. For him, the X4 was a revelation. It also got him thinking about switching to a diesel because unlike a lot of Americans he is a fan of the powertrain.

He loved that VW Rabbit (better known as the Golf in Europe) despite it being underpowered, smelly and loud. How loud? Dad jokes that when he was at a traffic light people would ask him what end of the car the cement came out of. He had the last laugh because the car could easily achieve 50 mpg.

No one can call the X4 loud, or dirty, and it’s definitely not underpowered. Quite the contrary as it made my 2006 X3 diesel seem sluggish.

The big hurdles that diesels face in the U.S. are that the fuel isn’t as readily available there as it is in Europe and it is more expensive. At current prices, a gallon (3.8 liters) of diesel is 78 cents more expensive than a gallon of regular gasoline. Also, many diesel variants are more expensive than their gasoline counterparts.

Despite this, a 2013 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute concluded that diesels still win the total cost of ownership battle against gasoline-powered vehicles. The average savings over three to five years from a diesel is $2,000 to $6,000 (about 1,600 euros to 4,800 euros) compared with its gasoline-powered counterpart, according to the 25-page study, which was done for German supplier Robert Bosch, a world leader in diesel parts production.

The report is enlightening, but that’s a lot of data to process for the average customer. For people with substantial commutes, however, and people like Dad who are open to the thought of making the switch, the benefits are there.

You can reach Douglas A. Bolduc at dbolduc@crain.com -- Follow Douglas A. on Twitter: BolducANE2014

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