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Diesel autos making a comeback

ATLANTA — Vehicles with diesel engines are poised to make a comeback in the U.S. market after a disastrous introduction in the 1970s.

Back then, diesels got a bad rap as being smelly, loud and sluggish.

Today's diesel engines, however, are cleaner and quieter.

With rising gas prices, automakers believe Americans are ready to embrace the improved fuel economy and lower emissions offered by today's diesels.

Mercedes introduced new diesel passenger vehicles last year, Volkswagen has plans to do likewise next year, and Chrysler, which offers the Jeep Grand Cherokee as a diesel model, may introduce others.

"The buying public understands that diesel engines and fuels are a lot cleaner than they were in the '70s," said Lou Ann Hammond, CEO of Carlist.com, an automotive information service. "When people realize that diesel engines get at least 25 percent better fuel economy than regular gasoline engines, they'll be even more interested." With some smaller vehicles with diesel engines, the improved fuel economy makes them compare favorably with gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

As a result, sales of diesel passenger vehicles are forecast to rise dramatically, as are sales of hybrids, in the near future.

Much of the diesel gain is expected to be in passenger vehicles.

Diesel passenger vehicles are much more common in Europe, where nearly half of the vehicles being driven are diesels. Most estimates say that fewer than 3 percent of cars on the road in the United States are diesels.

Automakers hope that diesel's widespread availability in this country will help broaden its appeal to car buyers.

"The distribution network is already there. The same fuel that you put in a long-haul truck, you put in a car," said Frank Washington, editor of Aboutthatcar.com. Ford says it will offer a diesel-powered version of the F-150 pickup, the best-selling vehicle in the United States, by 2010, and it's possible that the engine will be used in SUVs.

Mercedes last year rolled out the R320 CDI and two other diesel-powered SUVs, and offers the E320 car in diesel.

Volkswagen will bring out a new diesel car next year.

Cummins, a diesel-engine supplier, plans to build light-duty engines for Chrysler's Dodge and Jeep brands.

General Motors' Hummer division is developing a biodiesel engine.

So all this production and the retail availability of fuel means we'll all be driving diesels in a decade, right?

Not so fast.

But like other alternatives to gasoline, diesel still has some drawbacks.

First, it costs automakers more to produce diesel vehicles, by most estimates $4,000-$6,000 more per vehicle.

That cost is, at least in part, passed on to the consumer. 'It can be a stumbling block. The question is what is the price differential?" Washington said. "If you've got a price differential that is more than, say, $1,500, that could be an impediment."

Also, the price of diesel fuel is quite volatile, sometimes running significantly higher than the price of gasoline.

So even though you might use less, thanks to the diesel engine's better fuel efficiency, you might pay more per gallon.

"You have to look at the long-term costs. A diesel vehicle may cost you $30 more a month in car payments, but then you may save $70 a month on your fuel bill," even if diesel prices are higher, Washington said. Diesel supply could also be an issue.

"The big question is where are we going to get our diesel?" Hammond said.

"The refineries are tapped out - production, capacity-wise - most of them producing gasoline. So you would have to convert some to refining diesel. Which ones?"

Hammond said economics are an issue as well.

"Right now, we are exporting diesel to Europe."

Needing more of that here to satisfy increased demand in this country would result in strained supplies, she said.