General Motors and Ford Motor Co. got smoked by their rivals, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., in the hybrid-vehicle game.
Toyota and Honda brought hybrids to the United States and spent liberally on marketing to tout the benefits. GM and Ford stood by, wrung their hands and offered excuses: too expensive, not right for this market, can't make a profit.
It was a marketing coup for Toyota and, to a lesser extent, Honda.
Now, just as GM and Ford are seriously getting into the hybrid game, they're gonna get smoked again.
This time by diesels.
I'm not talking about those massive, International Truck and Engine Corp.-powered Ford F-250 Super Duty and Duramax-powered Chevrolet Silverado 2500 pickups -- the U.S. automakers have that niche blanketed.
But anyone who has traveled across the Atlantic Ocean over the past few years has seen the wonders of modern diesel technology in cars and light trucks -- they're quiet, fuel-efficient and emit much cleaner exhaust than diesels of old. Diesels have become the dominant powertrain on that continent.
Diesels are coming
Just as fashion has a way of crossing the ocean from Europe to America, light-duty diesels are coming, too.
And diesels are likely to be at least as important here, or even more so, than hybrids.
Every time gasoline prices spike, Volkswagen dealers say, the few diesel cars they have in inventory disappear, and they beg the automaker for more.
Mercedes-Benz has no trouble selling all the diesel-powered E-class sedans it imports, and the automaker's BlueTec advanced diesels will be slipped under the hood of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. That's where light-duty diesels should be a home run in this market, bringing better fuel economy to America's cherished SUVs. Just think what kind of hit GM would have on its hands if it offered a diesel in its redesigned full-sized SUVs.
And the real sign that this is serious was buried in the announcement last month that Honda Motor Co. was going to build an assembly plant and an engine plant in North America. In the release, Honda said it would bring a new diesel engine to North America within three years, based on the diesel engine it sells in Europe.
But GM and Ford don't seem to want to have any skin in the game. And that just blows my mind.
Americans, who judge their vehicles on the ability to rocket away from stoplights, are gonna love the low-end torque of diesels. Yes, diesel fuel and gasoline cost about the same at the fuel pump these days, but you'll get at least an extra 100 miles of driving range from a full tank of diesel.
Yes, there are other hurdles: sulfur content in diesel fuel (it's coming down this year) and tighter emissions regulations kick in next year. But auto suppliers have developed good, robust technology that will deal with these issues.
Ghost from the past
Of course, at GM there's the ghost in the closet: the whole era of truly terrible diesels the automaker put out in the late 1970s and early 1980s as we grappled with an earlier fuel crisis. In America, "GM really poisoned the well" is a comment I hear many times.
But the truth is that it happened so long ago that the only people who remember are gearheads like me and the poor saps who bought a GM diesel car.
Most people around my age (45) and younger don't know about GM's diesel legacy and don't care. So my advice to GM is: Get over it.
GM and Ford make good diesel engines and sell plenty of them in Europe. Ironically, my first experience with modern diesel engines was at a GM/Opel press event in Europe in 1999, just before the Frankfurt motor show. They were strong, quiet and virtually smoke-free. And the technology has improved greatly since then.
Maybe GM and Ford do have big plans for light-duty diesels in this market but aren't saying anything out of slavish devotion to the "we don't talk about future product plans" rule. The primary goal of that rule is don't kill sales of current products -- but right now those two automakers have no diesel cars in this market.
So I'd argue that here's a case when that rule needs to be trashed. Other automakers are lining up their diesel plans for this market and talking about them. GM and Ford need to get in the game. Now.
Or they're gonna get smoked. Again.
You may e-mail Dale Jewett at [email protected]