We just bought a new car. It was a frustrating experience, but not for the usual reasons. We got a good deal, the color wasn’t an issue, and the salesperson seemed a decent guy. The car is a manual Hyundai Sonata sedan with an EPA rating of 22 City / 32 highway. It’s highly rated and appears to be a good buy, but it isn’t nearly as green as I would have liked.
Here was our problem: small cars like the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic (hybrid or not) and Hyundai Elantra get excellent mileage, but just don’t have enough rear seat leg room for our two growing teenagers. So, not an option. The car that really fits my needs (and more visceral wants) is the VW Jetta TDI, a turbocharged diesel that gets terrific mileage. Yes, diesel fuel is expensive at the moment compared to gasoline, but great fuel economy offsets part of that. And, when gas prices go up, diesel gets more attractive. As someone who cares about sustainability, I am willing to pay somewhat more for fuel if I can generate less carbon dioxide.
Ultimately, what knocked the Jetta out of the box was price; about $8,000 more than the Sonata, even taking into account the $1300 Federal tax credit for clean-burning diesels. There weren’t viable alternatives: VW, BMW and Mercedes produce the only diesel cars available today in the US. And, the Toyota Camry hybrid is also relatively expensive and doesn’t get mileage that much better than its conventional sibling.
Why don’t we have more choices? According to a Forbes article in the fall, “Between now and 2011, Acura, Nissan, Hyundai and Kia all plan to launch clean-diesel cars of their own.” Does it have to take that long? Estimates from auto experts are that 50-60% of new cars sold in Europe are diesels. I believe it; every car I’ve rented there over the past six years has been a diesel, many of them Fords, GMs and Toyotas. The engineering changes needed to accommodate minor differences in US-produced ultra low sulfur diesel can’t be that daunting.
The issue of high-priced diesel fuel in the US remains an issue, but one that should resolve. If gas prices do go back up, the economy advantage of a diesel will skew the cost delta back toward the diesel. As people start to buy and drive more diesels, the oil companies will certainly increase supply, helping to drive down prices, at least from that side of the supply and demand equation. And, today, a relatively low percentage of “gas stations,” at least where I live in the northeast, offer diesel, so there’s little price competition between outlets. Diesel drivers, I suspect, are just happy to find their fuel. That should change, too, as the number of diesel-powered vehicles goes up.
We’re seeing an emerging market thirst for cars with better mileage. Part of GM, Ford and Chrysler’s travails stem from their years of ramping up production of gas guzzlers. Giving US consumers access to what’s been available in Europe for years would be one expedient answer to the problems of the US auto industry. Maybe that should be a condition of any bailout package.
– Posted by Tom Witkin