Nebraska dealer Brian Hamilton still has flashbacks to the 1982 energy crisis, when half the Cadillacs on his lot came standard with General Motors' ill-mannered diesel engine. In cold weather, the fuel would become so thick that the engines wouldn't run, making the diesel vehicles a tough sell for Nebraska winters.
Now, Hamilton is gearing up to sell GM's newest diesel model, the 2014 Cruze, at his Chevrolet stores. With a peppy turbocharged engine, clean emissions and a heater to keep the fuel from congealing, the Cruze diesel is nothing like its dyspeptic ancestor. But Hamilton knows he still has a tough sales job ahead.
Even with today's cleaner diesels, he says, "there's a misunderstanding that they're smoky and loud." He expects to sell only a few of the vehicles at each of his dealerships.
The future of clean diesels may be here, but memories of diesel engines' unsavory past haven't gone away. Reshaping perceptions has become a key marketing challenge for automakers and dealers as they prepare to unleash a new crop of diesel-powered vehicles on a public that still associates the fuel with a clattering motor, oily odors and tailpipe smoke.
Marketers are divided on how to get buyers to consider a switch. Some are focusing first on debunking stereotypes of diesels, while others are addressing performance, extended range or fuel efficiency.
Clean-diesel vehicles represent a critical component of many automakers' product plans. That's because automakers -- especially those that haven't invested as much in hybrids and electric vehicles -- need the efficiency gains from diesels to stay on pace to meet new federal fuel economy standards that take effect for the 2025 model year.
Diesels get roughly one-third better fuel economy than gasoline-powered cars but deliver more power than most hybrids.
But a report by Maritz Research found that only 1.2 percent of U.S. buyers this year switched from a gasoline-powered car to a diesel car, a figure that has remained roughly constant over the past few years.
"The stereotypical image consumers have of diesel as smelly and noisy needs to be overcome," says Chris Travell, Maritz's vice president for strategic consulting.
It doesn't help that diesel fuel is available at only half of U.S. gas stations, according to the U.S. Energy Department, and usually costs more than gasoline, or that diesel cars are priced at a premium. The Cruze diesel, for example, costs roughly $2,000 more than a comparably equipped gasoline model, a Chevy spokeswoman says.
Then there's the challenge of promoting diesel as eco-friendly, amid broadening competition from hybrids, electric vehicles and higher efficiency gasoline engines.