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Dirty Diesel? Not so fast. Cool your jets.

October 12, 2010
Illustration of a Toyota Prius.
Image via Wikipedia

Diesel fuel may help jump-start green-car success.

The next generation of diesel vehicles will be even cleaner. Next spring Peugeot plans to release its 3008 Hybrid4, a crossover vehicle that will be the first diesel hybrid on the market. The car consumes 35 percent less fuel than its ordinary diesel sibling. It emits just 99 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, 10 grams more than the smaller Prius. Yet the Peugeot gets slightly better gas mileage and is far more powerful. Controlling the front wheels is a 163-horsepower, 2-liter turbo diesel engine, while a 37-horsepower electric motor that runs on a nickel-metal-hydride battery, controls the back.

The vehicle generated considerable buzz at the 2010 Paris Motor Show and is expected to do quite well in European markets, especially France and Germany. This is due in part to the fact that European regulators, unlike their American counterparts, have taxed gasoline at far higher rates than diesel for roughly a decade; thus, 50 percent of all cars sold in Western Europe run on diesel. In France, that percentage is more than 70. The availability of cheap, powerful, and clean diesel cars is why gasoline hybrids account for less than 1 percent of auto sales in Europe, says Julie Boote, an auto analyst for Pelham Smithers Associates in London.

Diesel hybrids do, however, have a major limiting factor: price. Diesel engines add as much as $2,000 to the cost of making an automobile, and hybrid technology can tack on an additional $5,000. This added price tag is why automakers such as Toyota and Volkswagen have balked thus far at introducing their own diesel-hybrid vehicles, according to analysts. “People like to be environmentally friendly but not if it costs them too much,” says Jay Baron, the president of the Center for Automotive Research in Michigan.

That’s why, with the exception of the Prius, most Americans continue to buy cars that use conventional gasoline engines. Yet Peugeot and others are hoping their diesel hybrids will become exceptions to the trend. They’re also hoping that tax rebates for hybrids in Europe (France offers close to $3,000 for instance) will spur consumers to choose a more powerful and fuel-efficient vehicle. For those who don’t want to buy, Peugeot plans to lease its diesel-hybrid crossover at a lower monthly rate than its nonhybrid sibling. And eventually, says the company, costs will come down due to economies of scale, and sales of its diesel hybrids and plug-in hybrids for the 3008 will reach 100,000 in 2015.

It took about five years for Toyota to reach that sales mark with the Prius, so if Peugeot does the same, that would certainly be a success. With European emissions regulations expected to increase considerably by 2014, the success of Peugeot and other diesel hybrids will likely be determined by how fast auto companies can make an affordable electric car without all the expected hassles. As Baron puts it, if battery costs do not come down quickly, “the ultimate way to get high fuel economy would be a diesel hybrid.”

With Azriel James Relph and Tania Barnes in New York


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