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Mazda's diesel to take on hybrids

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Mazda's diesel to take on hybrids

Bryce G. Hoffman / The Detroit News

New York -- As other automakers rush to bring more hybrids to market, Mazda Motor Corp. is taking an entirely different approach to fuel economy.

The Japanese automaker plans to bring a diesel-powered midsized sedan to the United States in 2012 that will get 43 miles per gallon. That is better than any of today's midsized hybrids, and Mazda promises its car will cost far less.

Consumer Reports test engineer Jake Fisher called it one of the most important announcements made at the New York auto show last week.

"That was big news, because we need a small displacement, fuel-efficient diesel that doesn't cost an arm and a leg," he said. "Volkswagen has one, but every other manufacturer seems scared of diesels. I think it's fabulous that Mazda has thrown its hat in the ring."

Mazda, Japan's fifth-largest carmaker, has a history of contrarian thinking. It remains the only proponent of the rotary engine and has always found its biggest successes by zigging when other zag.

Its new Sky-D diesel is no exception. While the engine has been in development for years, Mazda CEO Takashi Yamanouchi said his company only decided to bring it to the U.S. market after learning Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. would not bring diesels here. Toyota does not see a "substantial" market for diesels in the United States.

"That provides us with a huge opportunity," he told The Detroit News. "We're able to provide hybrid-like performance at lower cost. It will probably make some hybrids unnecessary."

Diesel engines have always gotten better mileage than their gasoline counterparts, but they also have been significantly more expensive. That is because they usually require a costly after-treatment system to remove polluting nitrogen oxide from the exhaust. Mazda says it can avoid this because of a unique approach to building diesel engines.

"The trend in the past has been to increase the compression ratio in the diesel. But when we studied the combustion itself, we found a better way was to go for a lower compression ratio. When you do that, it significantly reduces the emission of nitrogen oxide," Yamanouchi said. "When you burn the air-fuel mixture more cleanly, you need less after-treatment -- and that means lower cost."

Mazda has already patented its diesel system, he noted.

"It's something that others won't be able to easily emulate," Yamanouchi said, noting that the Volkswagen Jetta is the only sedan available in the United States that offers a small, low-cost diesel. "Our diesel's performance will be superior to the Jetta's, so it provides us with a huge opportunity."

Diesels lack U.S. success

Not everyone is sure it does.

Analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLC in Birmingham says Americans have never been sold on diesels and doubts Mazda can do much to change that -- particularly with the price gap between diesel and gasoline fuel closing.

"Diesels are not going to fly in this country unless there is a significant discount for diesel fuel, but at this point, it's approaching parity with gasoline," he said. "You will go broke trying to educate the American customer about the benefits of diesel."

Diesels have long been regarded by most Americans as loud, dirty and expensive. But thanks to reformulated clean diesel fuel, today's models are neither. And both VW and its luxury brand, Audi, have found that plenty of Americans do appreciate the fuel-savings and environmental benefits they offer.

Audi introduced two diesels to the United States in 2009, and sales of both have far exceeded expectations, said Audi spokesman Christian Bokich.

"We think this is the right time for diesel," he said, noting the Audi A3 TDI won the last Green Car of the Year Award.

Still, diesels account for 3.7 percent of the U.S. light vehicle market, according to Ward's Automotive Group.

Diesels have long dominated the European car market, largely because hefty taxes on gas made them more economical, Hall said. But diesels' lead has narrowed in recent years, with the market almost evenly split between the two fuel options as automakers are figuring out how to coax more miles per gallon out of gas engines, Hall said.

Performance issue raised

He has other concerns about Mazda's strategy. Mazda says its diesel sedan will cost even less than VW's because it will not turbo-charge its engine. But Hall said naturally aspirated diesels offer lackluster performance -- a shortcoming that could undermine the "zoom-zoom" image Mazda has worked hard to earn.

Yamanouchi said the high torque offered by the Sky-D engine will certainly deliver more driving excitement than a hybrid and at a much more attractive price. He hinted that Mazda's unique approach will deliver unexpected performance gains.

Mazda's new clean diesel will make its U.S. debut on the next-generation Mazda6 midsize sedan, the current version of which is built at a Flat Rock plant Mazda operates jointly with Ford Motor Co., its largest shareholder.

The Sky-D motor will likely find its way into most of Mazda's lineup. The automaker believes diesel engines will allow it to meet the U.S. government's tough new fuel economy requirements without a hybrid. Finalized last week, these new rules require automakers to achieve an average fleet fuel economy rating of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016.

Hall said that is technically possible, but only if American consumers buy the vehicles.

From The Detroit News:


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