Americans who want a diesel-powered light vehicle are forced to choose from opposite ends of the spectrum: small cars or big trucks.
On the big-truck end of the scale, buyers at Heintzelman's Ford Truck Center in Orlando, Fla., often wait up to three months to take delivery of a diesel-powered F-series truck or Excursion sport-utility. Most buyers want the vehicle because they tow boats or trailers or drive long distances.
'They sell as fast as we get them,' says Charlie Blake, sales manager of the truck-only Ford store.
Blake says he has seen an increase in diesel buyers in the wake of gasoline prices spiking to near $2 a gallon last summer, even though the price since has retreated to about $1.50. Heintzelman's is on track to sell about 750 new and used diesels this model year.
Still, diesels have made a very small dent in the U.S. market. Most of the them are in pickups, where their sales last year ranged from 1.2 percent of GM Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups to 25.9 percent of Dodge Ram pickups.
VW stands alone
At the small end of the scale, the U.S. buyer will have a tough time finding a diesel to consider.
Volkswagen is the only automaker to offer diesel-powered cars in the United States. It sold 352,000 cars in the United States in 2000, and 22,599 were diesels.
At Livonia Volkswagen in Livonia, Mich., diesel-engine New Beetles, Golfs and Jettas also sell about as fast as the dealership gets them. The problem is that not many are delivered. The dealership, which gets only about two diesels each month from VW, expects to sell about 25 this model year.
VW is not attracting many new buyers to diesels. Steven McCabe, a salesman at the dealership, said most people who buy a VW diesel are replacing a worn-out one.
'The typical customer is someone who has had a Jetta TDI forever. I'd say previous owners of TDIs are our number one diesel customers,' said McCabe.
While VW has no plans to drop its diesels, it doesn't see the market growing much in the near future.
'Volkswagen has a tradition of offering high-mileage cars. We absolutely have a market out there that is very loyal,' says Tony Fouladpour, Volkswagen of America spokesman.
Fouladpour says the market for VW diesels likely will remain small unless VW spends millions on advertising. He said VW diesel customers are heavily into technology, research their purchases strongly and aren't usually swayed by expensive marketing campaigns. 'If we wanted to reach beyond that group, it would be a big investment,' he says.
However, last summer when fuel prices soared, sales of VW diesels did increase, a sign that at least some consumers not used to diesel engines would set aside their mistrust of them for the promise of lower fuel costs.
Mercedes backs off
Mercedes-Benz has had a tradition of selling diesels in the United States. But a redesign two years ago of the E-class sedan eliminated the diesel option. The straight-six diesel wouldn't fit under the new sloping hood, says Fred Heiler, Mercedes-Benz spokesman. At the same time, sales of the diesel were so low that it wasn't worth the investment to make changes to the engine to bring it back, especially in light of new emissions standards.
Mercedes now has a diesel that fits in the E class, but there are no plans to bring a diesel back to the U.S. market, Heiler says.
Proposed legislation by the California Air Resources Board, which would require automakers to cut emissions of particulate matter by 90 percent, would make it almost impossible to sell an existing diesel there, Heiler says. If New York and several other northeastern states follow California's lead, Mercedes would be shut out of its biggest markets for a diesel, he notes.