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Decade of diesel

Back in 1999, the only diesel-powered vehicles on the Australian market were sports utility vehicles, light commercials and trucks.  Today there are diesel models in every segment of the market, including light cars, convertibles and even sports cars.

While the industry figures for 2009 will not be released until January 6, the official VFACTS report for November shows diesels now represent almost 6 per cent of the private passenger car market and 8 per cent of the non-private passenger market.

In 2004, less than 0.1 per cent of passenger vehicles were diesels. Diesel uptake is, of course, much higher in the SUV segment, where it now represents about half of all sales. In the light commercial vehicles segment, diesels are twice as popular as petrol.

Hybrid sales still represent only a small proportion of sales and are slightly down on last year's record numbers.  Similarly, LPG sales are small, but there are few new vehicles on the market that come equipped with LPG. Most gas-powered cars on our streets are after-market conversions fitted in the past few years since the Howard Government provided generous subsidies.

None of these figures would have even been available in 1999 as VFACTS only began issuing new vehicles sales breakdowns according to fuel type in January 2006.  This was a reflection of the surge in the import and sale of diesel models through 2004 and 2005.

In 2004, diesel-engined vehicles represented almost half of all passenger vehicles sold in Europe and were increasing rapidly around the world.  This was due to several factors such as improved diesel engine technology with lower fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions; diesel fuel costing less at the bowser than petrol; and governments playing their part by offering tax incentives on diesel cars.

Australia was lagging behind. Not only because of relatively lax emission laws and the absence of any incentives, but also because diesel fuel cost much more than petrol.  The other hurdles were technical and perception.

The technical problem was that our diesel fuel was too high in sulphur for the sophisticated common-rail engines coming mainly from Europe.  The perception problem was that the car-buying public was more familiar with the first passenger diesels — the Golf and Mercedes in the 1970s. These were slow, smelly, loud, took a while to start and left soot marks on the car's rear.

When the sulphur content of Australian diesel was reduced, importers started bringing in common-rail turbo diesel models, but still had a hard sell on their hands, despite the record oil prices in the middle of the decade.

Customers called ``early adopters'' began buying diesel models, even though they were more expensive than their petrol counterparts and despite the fact that any savings would only be achieved after more than 100,000km had been travelled.  The early adopters also had to contend with a lack of pumps at service stations, sometimes only wide high-flow nozzles and an oily mess around the diesel bowser.

Service stations in metropolitan areas have now cleaned up their act in response to the surge in diesel sales and diesel fuel is now often cheaper than petrol.  Early adopters who had travelled to Europe had witnessed first hand the added benefits of diesel power: drivability, torque, acceleration and the enormous range from a tank.

And many have since found that diesel models have a high retained value when they go to trade in on their next car.  These lessons have begun filtering through to the motoring public, backed by such high-profile motorsport landmarks as diesel sports cars winning the past few Le Mans 24-Hour races and high-powered diesel SUVs now dominating the Dakar Rally.

In Australia, Volkswagen and Peugeot importers were the driving force in getting diesel models to market.  Peugeot was the first to have a diesel in every model line, while VW followed closely.When new boss and diesel addict Jutta Dierks took over the reins of VW in Australia, oil burners became the crux of their marketing plan.

Who can forget the VW ads where the child wonders what a service station is?  VW's advertising dollar was almost solely directed at pushing the diesel message and it was backed by a host of great engine choices, many of which went on to win categories in the International Engine of the Year awards over several years.

In 2005, Carsguide compared diesel models priced under $30,000. We could only find four.  Today there are more than 20, including the most economical car in Australia, the $24,990 (drive-away) Ford Fiesta ECOnetic which is also Carsguide's green car of the year.

In 2005, the only diesel passenger cars were from Europe.  Today, Asia and the US also produce diesel models.

In 2005, the most common question from motoring journalists at a new car launch was when would a diesel model be introduced to Australia.  At the launch of the Mercedes-Benz CLS in 2005, group managing director Horst von Sanden was asked when we would get the diesel V6 engine which was available overseas.

He replied that he did not believe diesel would suit Australian luxury car customers.  Within a year a CLS diesel was available in Australia.  Luxury diesel sales have continued to spiral to the point where BMW diesel models now represent more than 40 per cent of sales, compared with about 33 per cent last year.

In 2010, BMW will add 10 new diesel models to its fleet, including their first diesel convertibles and their most economical car yet, the 118d which was voted World Green car of the Year in 2008.

Diesel still only represents a small proportion of the cars on the road and the pumps at service stations, but it is the fastest-growing sector of the motoring market.  Perhaps in the next 10 years we will even see diesel-engined race cars competing in Formula One.


Audi TT 2.0 TDI quattro, $70,900, 5.3L/100km
BMW 118d, $44,370, 4.5L/100km
Ford Fiesta ECOnetic, $24,990, 3.7 litres/100km
Holden Cruze CD, $26,390, 6.8L/100km
Hyundai i30 SLX CRDi $26,390, 4.7L/100km
Mazda CX-7 2.2 Diesel Sports, $43,640, 7.6L/100km
Mercedes-Benz E250CDI, $96,900, 5.3L/100km
Mini Cooper D, $36,100, 3.9L/100km
Peugeot 407 2.0 ST HDi $43,190, 7.1L/100km
VW Golf 103TDI, $33,190, 5.6L/100km

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