Diesel engines are a bit like soccer.
Soccer is the most popular game in the world. But the prospect of Monday Night Football stepping aside for men in shorts is about as likely as U.S. auto companies ever replacing their gasoline engines with diesels.
The soccer thing is a matter of taste. But diesels offer clear benefits over gasoline. So at a time when automakers have to gear up for stringent fuel-economy rules -- and clean-diesel technology has cleaned up diesel emissions -- you might think that diesel's moment has come.
And, in fact, a few more diesels appear to be headed to the United States. But, for perspective, consider Honda Motor Co.
Honda's gasoline-engine Civic sedan is one of the best selling cars in the United States and also delivers respectable fuel economy, averaging 32 mpg for city and highway driving.
But last month in Tokyo, Honda gave reporters a sneak peek at a new fuel-efficient turbodiesel engine for the Civic. The new clean-burning 1.6-liter engine is physically smaller than Honda's other popular engines, lighter in weight and delivers the horsepower of bigger gasoline engines. Honda intends to start building the engine in late 2012 in hopes of improving the 2013 Civic's efficiency.
But not in the United States.
Like most of the other diesel engine programs these days, Honda's 1.6 is targeted at Europe, where smooth-running, highly efficient diesels now account for half of all new-vehicle sales -- and where, unlike in the United States, diesel fuel prices are lower than those of gasoline. In Italy and France, diesels represent closer to 70 percent of sales. Honda thinks European customers will be so wowed that the diesel will account for two-thirds of Civic sales.
But Honda CEO Takanobu Ito says he has no intention of introducing diesels to the United States.
Automakers have been holding diesels out of the United States for years, but such decisions are especially perplexing today. If there ever were a moment when the North American industry could benefit from a switch to different engine architectures to claim quick and easy fuel-economy improvements, it would be now.
Under proposed U.S. regulations for the 2017-25 model years, corporate average fuel economy would rise to 54.5 mpg in the 2025 model year, up from 30.1 mpg today. The industry needs to hit a 35.5 mpg CAFE by the 2016 model year.
Diesel engines deliver as much as a 40 percent boost in fuel economy. Volkswagen of America's recently introduced diesel-powered Passat family sedan, a vehicle the size of the Toyota Camry, claims 43 mpg combined city and highway, compared with 29 mpg combined for the Passat with a gasoline engine.