Thursday, May 22, 2008

Clean(er) diesels motoring to the U.S.

If you're a conscious consumer in the market for a new car, the first word that pops into your mind is most likely "hybrid." But there is another option that's greener than traditional gas-guzzlers: clean-diesel vehicles.

Most people think of diesel as being anything but clean. Plus, aren't diesels slow, clunky, and hard to start? Not necessarily anymore. A new breed of autos is coming to market that promises to be cleaner and generally more appealing than your mother-in-law's rumbler. Thanks to a 2006 EPA mandate, oil refineries are now making ultra-low-sulfur diesel (ULSD), which is significantly less polluting than old-style diesel. In response, carmakers are coming out with filters and exhaust-scrubbing systems that keep much more particulate matter from exiting the tailpipe.

As Clayton Cornell reports in Gas 2.0, we'll see the first clean-diesel cars—made by Volkswagen—hitting the road as early as August. These will be followed by BMWs in the fall and Mercedes in November; Audi, Honda, and Jeep clean-diesel vehicles are due in 2009.

With fuel prices shooting through the roof—especially diesel—and not likely to come down anytime soon, it may not be appealing to choose a diesel car. But as Cornell points out, in return you get mileage that's 25% to 40% better than comparable gas models. And they still cost about the same as their conventional counterparts, with some, such as VW's Jetta SportWagen, likely having an even lower sticker price.

Of course, some hybrid fans thumb their noses at clean diesel, saying that hybrids can also use clean diesel (although no clean-diesel hybrids are available yet in the U.S.) and that the two types of cars will only be competitive in the short term, since hybrid technology is still nascent and keeps improving by leaps and bounds.

But let the chips fall where they will, I'm just glad to see the number of greener options growing for our auto-addicted society.

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