Fuel economy cited in double-digit rise in sales for diesel automobiles

| Friday, Sept. 20, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Mark Mey spent several minutes ticking off the benefits of his diesel Volkswagen Jetta TDI. Chief among them: superb fuel mileage.

“I buy a new one every 3-to-3 12 years, and I put 200,000 miles on it during that time for my job,” said Mey, 54, of Wheeling, W.Va. He bought his latest diesel car from #1 Cochran Volkswagen of South Hills two years ago. “I make money on that car because of my (work) fuel reimbursement. I drove from Wheeling to Chesapeake, Va., and by the time I got there, I was getting 52 miles per gallon. I'm doubling my money back on mileage reimbursement. Why would I buy any other car?”

Mey is part of a growing number of drivers fueling a surge in diesel sales in the United States. Sales figures show that diesel cars are growing by double-digit percentage increases compared to a year ago.

In August, sales of diesels grew by nearly 42 percent compared to August 2012, according to the Diesel Technology Forum, based in Frederick, Md. That jump was preceded by a 38 percent increase in July over July 2012. It was the 32nd monthly increase in diesel car sales in the past 36 months, according to the group. Volkswagen has led the way, selling about 70 percent of diesels in the United States.

“There's been a resurgence of diesel vehicles in the U.S., especially in the last year or so. A lot of it has to do with economics. Diesel vehicles are 20 to 40 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline cars, so people looking at fuel efficiency are starting to take notice,” said Steve Hansen, spokesman for the Diesel Technology Forum.

Gone are the days of the smoky, “dirty” diesel engines of old, Hansen said. Environmental groups and auto manufacturers have worked to clean up the engines, including using ultra-low sulphur fuel, which has cut emissions dramatically.

Local dealerships are responding.

“We sell nearly a diesel a day,” said Paul Kaseman, general sales manager for #1 Cochran Volkswagen of South Hills. “I think some customers are surprised, because they don't know. Most are not open to it to begin with, but when they're walked through the benefits, they're more easily persuaded. If you have a one- to two-mile commute, a diesel may not be for you, but for any highway traveling, yes.”

Bill Mohler, president of Sendell Motors in Greensburg, which includes a Volkswagen dealership, said diesel sales have gone up “significantly.”

“With the ultra-low sulphur, all the engines have changed. They got rid of the old-style diesel engines. The average consumer can't tell the difference. There's no noise or smoke,” Mohler said. “But a lot of people are well-versed in diesel versus other engines. With the Volkswagen brand, it's about one-third of our sales.”

Diesels do have drawbacks. The cars cost from $3,000 to $5,000 more on average, dealers said, and many gas stations don't carry diesel.

Despite the large increases in sales, diesels command a small market share in the country.

Diesel vehicles accounted for less than 3 percent of the market in 2012. That number shrinks to 1.08 percent for diesel passenger vehicles, which excludes large trucks, according to data from Edmunds.com. Still, that's up from the 0.21 percent of the market that diesel passenger vehicles claimed in 2008.

“If you look at passenger cars, those sales are definitely up. Also, the number of offerings are up. I think (the reason) is the push for better fuel economy, and diesel offers that,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds.com.

Volkswagen isn't the only maker of diesel cars. Scott Ritchey, general manager of Colussy Chevrolet in Bridge-ville, said the dealership sold its first diesel Chevy Cruze about four months ago.

“It just came out. It's brand new this year. The vehicle itself, there were a lot of people calling about it, but it's very limited production so far,” Ritchey said. “Diesel has become a common option. It used to be a niche thing.”

Ewelina Thomas, 38, of Ligonier, who owns a navy blue 2011 Jetta TDI from Sendell, said she would recommend the car to anyone.

“I drove to North Carolina on one tank of fuel. It's a wonderful engine,” said Thomas, who noted one downside is locating gas stations that sell diesel. “The closest commercial diesel station is in Latrobe. You just have to know where to go. I would definitely buy another one.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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