Driving the Green Diesel

Diesels are loud, smoky and they stink. Right? Wrong.

Mercedes-Benz might have the answer to getting the average car buyer thinking much differently about the smog-inducing, black-smoke-puffing diesel era of the 1970s. It might even hold the key to a diesel revolution in North America. OK, maybe evolution.

Bluetec, as Mercedes calls its new range of engines, is not your father’s diesel.

In a very short time, the technology will find its way into more than just Mercedes vehicles. It could even become the standard in the industry. Most major German automakers are eyeing the technology and you can expect an equally major push into this country. With the durability and cost savings associated with diesel’s lower fuel consumption, it might move North Americans in a new direction . . . if only we could get over our perceptions of diesel.

Diesel engines have never been embraced in North America the way they have in the rest of the world.

In Europe, for example, every other car purchased is a diesel. In North America it is less than five percent.

According to a recent Kelley Blue Book Marketing Research study (January 2008), diesel’s stereotypes are ingrained in North Americans with only a small percentage believing that diesel has a hope of becoming a mainstream fuel. In fact, more survey respondents believe that hydrogen has a better shot at becoming a mainstream fuel than diesel even though there are no consumer-based hydrogen vehicles, no infrastructure to deliver hydrogen and that some automakers are saying that practical use of hydrogen might be 30 years away.

Perception, it appears, is everything since modern diesels deliver better fuel economy than gasoline engines, provide fantastic low-end thrust and are more durable. But emissions have always been a problem and fuel availability is limited.

Bluetec — and changing (tougher) emissions laws — could be the answer.

So, what is Bluetec, and how is it better?

Marketed by Mercedes as a “powerful, economical and clean drive system,” Bluetec is actually a combination of technologies for passenger cars and light trucks.

In technical terms, Mercedes’ Bluetec system includes an oxidizing catalytic converter and a diesel particulate filter as well as systems for reducing oxides of nitrogen emissions.

In simple terms, old diesels polluted the air by releasing noise and dirty, black exhaust “dust.” Mercedes’ new system emits cleaner fumes without all that noise and dirt.

Over the last decade, Mercedes invested hundreds of millions of dollars into making a better diesel.

“Bluetec is the new blueprint for the cleanest diesels in the world,” said Dieter Zetsche of Daimler, formerly of DaimlerChrysler.

“While it was developed by Mercedes-Benz, it won’t be exclusive to Mercedes.”

With other German manufacturers, such as BMW, chomping at the bit, Blutec-powered Mercedes-Benz vehicles are just the beginning.

The Mercedes E320 Bluetec is the first vehicle to showcase the system in passenger cars. Equipped with a 208-horsepower 3.0-liter V6, the Bluetec E320 makes an incredible 398 pound-feet of torque — comparable to the peak output of a 6.0-liter V8 gas engine, but at a much lower engine speed — while achieving a combined city/highway consumption of 35 mpg and a range of up to 700 miles. While we’re conditioned to look at peak horsepower numbers, remember, it’s torque — twisting force — you feel when you step on the gas.

While North Americans remain skeptical, it’s full speed ahead for Mercedes as Bluetec finds its way into many of its vehicles as well as some North American models such as the Jeep Grand Cherokee. This vehicle has similar around-town thrust as the gas-V8-powered model with substantially improved economy and a similar pricetag.

Will these attributes eventually overcome the negative stigma of diesel? Perceptions change, but, ultimately, you’ll have to get behind the wheel and drive a new clean diesel to make your own assessment.

Fuel savings. More power where you need it. Longer engine life.

Could this finally be the answer North Americans have longed for in diesel technology?

Time will tell.

Coughing and belching black smoke not included.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase is a world-wide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.

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