Once derided as dirty and shunned by consumers, diesel cars have made a comeback in California as green machines.
While public attention has focused on flashier technologies like all-electric, hydrogen or hybrid vehicles, registrations for diesel cars and sport-utility vehicles jumped 55 percent in California from 2010 to 2012, according to figures compiled by auto information specialist R.L. Polk & Co.
The national growth rate in diesel cars and SUVs in the same period was a more modest 24.3 percent, said a recent Diesel Technology Forum report that contained the R.L. Polk information. In 2012, there were 84,106 diesel passenger cars and SUVs registered in California — 10.5 percent of the total.
Grinzewitsch Jr., of California’s Von Housen Automotive Group, said his three Mercedes-Benz dealerships sold 99 new diesel vehicles in 2012. They accounted for 7 percent of all new-vehicle sales last year.
They’re on a similar pace this year.
“The simple reason is that diesel cars and their technology are just incredible today ... way better than back in the 1970s and 1980s when we were selling a lot of diesel cars,” Grinzewitsch said. “Today’s diesels not only have strong performance, they’re clean and green. And green is good these days.”
“Clean” and “green” were not words American motorists associated with diesel-fueled cars in the 1960s and 1970s, when engines rattled and exhaust pipes emitted clearly visible fumes and a nose-wrinkling odor.
California’s strict standards for emissions and fuels eventually pushed dirty diesels to the sidelines, and by 1997, only Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen offered diesel engine cars in the United States.
That very same year, however, the clean makeover of diesel began. Mercedes-Benz, proud of its diesel lineage dating back to the 1930s, introduced the Common Rail Direct Injection system, or CDI for short.
The complex system uses high-pressure fuel injection and computer-controlled electronic injectors to achieve more precise — and therefore cleaner — combustion.
Nine years later, at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG introduced its BlueTEC clean diesel technology for the Mercedes E-Class sedan.
The nucleus of the technology is AdBlue, an injected liquid solution that reduces smog-causing nitrogen oxide to nitrogen and water vapor.
BlueTEC’s introduction dovetailed with the rollout of the ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel requirement in California, a standard capable of being met by diesel engines using green technologies that also included particulate filters.
Mercedes-Benz saw an opportunity. Ditto Volkswagen, which had remained doggedly committed to diesel.
At the 2005 Los Angeles Auto Show, Volkswagen AG Chairman Bernd Pischetsrieder told hundreds of journalists that diesels would remain VW’s emphasis despite California’s concern over emissions.
His remarks met with scorn from some California-based auto industry writers who insisted that hydrogen fuel and gas-electric hybrid technology were the future of environmentally friendly cars.
Three years later, at the 2008 Los Angeles Auto Show, the 2009 Volkswagen Jetta TDI was named Green Car of the Year. It got an estimated 41 mpg on the highway and complied with emission standards in all 50 states.
“That really raised the attention,” said Allen Schaeffer, executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum. “Advancements in clean diesel were being recognized. That kind of kicked things forward in California in a big way.”
Today, the vehicle lineups of Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen include multiple diesel passenger-car and SUV offerings. And more competitors are trying to get a piece of the business.
Audi is making a big diesel push this year. Other diesel offerings are coming from BMW, Jeep, Mazda and Porsche.
Even Chevrolet — an icon among devotees of gas-fueled, internal-combustion engines — is heavily touting its 2014 Cruze “clean turbo diesel sedan,” capable of 46 mpg.