James R. Healey and Fred Meier , USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Diesel vehicle sales could explode the next few years, hitting as much as 10% of new vehicle sales by 2018, according to an expert panel here.
That's several times the current diesel sales pace, a huge jump for an engine that's heavier, costlier and noisier that gasoline engines, uses more-expensive fuel that's harder to find and smells bad.
Are the experts sniffing that diesel fuel? Not really. There are sound reasons that diesel-power vehicles could catch on.
The first is diesel's 20% to 40% better fuel economy than gasoline. It means automakers will offer more and more diesel vehicles as a way to meet ever-tightening federal mileage regulations. They require 54.5 mpg in laboratory testing in 2025, which converts roughly 39 mpg for the "combined" rating on the new vehicle window sticker. .
The number of diesel models on sale in the U.S. already will double this year from the end of 2012, and "that gives the consumer quite a lot of choice," said diesel panelist Andreas Sambel, marketing director for Bosch Diesel Systems North America. "We've noticed that in the U.S., choice is everything."
SUVs will drive the increase. A forecast by LMC Automotive says that 26% of SUVs sold in 2018 will have diesels, up from 8% last year. SUVs are by far the biggest part of the truck market, and trucks are half the total new-vehicle market.
And growth in compact car diesel sales will partly offset an expected diesel decline to 10% of the mid-size car market in 2018, LMC forecasts, from 17% last year.
The comments and data were part of a diesel discussion hosted by Audi to complement its rollout of new diesel vehicles this year that will bring a diesel option to most of its models.
Also driving diesel acceptance is lower prices. Mercedes-Benz is making diesel models the entry-level versions of some vehicles, luring more buyers with a combination of high mileage and, by M-B standards, low price.
That's likely to force Volkswagen Group, parent of the diesel-rich VW and Audi brands, to match with less-expensive diesel models of their own. And because VW is the biggest diesel-seller in the U.S., a price move could crowd rivals into doing the same.
As an option, diesels in cars often add $1,500 or more to the sticker price. In the Ram standard pickup, which will offer an optional diesel later this year, it will be $2,850 more than the optional Hemi V-8 gasoline engine.
Another selling point for diesel-power vehicles that's apparently more important than it seems: Fewer stops to fill up. Many diesels can go 600 to 800 miles on a tank. Especially in urban areas, where most people live, time is precious and being able to skip the filling station is appealing, panelists said.
Backing that up: Years ago, before Lexus launched its first gas-electric hybrid, it surveyed possible buyers to test a hybrid's drawing power. The No. 1 reason people said they'd like a hybrid was because they wouldn't have to stop at the gas station as often.
Also in diesel's favor:
•Growing discussion of the government treating high-mileage diesels more favorably as a "greener" choice than gasoline vehicles. That could include privileges, much as hybrids get special access to HOV lanes in some cities, or at for federal and state governments to stop penalizing diesel fuel with higher taxes that adds to the gap with gasoline prices.
Nothing's imminent, but "as there are more diesels in the market, you start getting consumer 'pull' " for equitable treatment and elected representatives "will start listening to what their constituents want," said panelist Bruce Belzowski, assistant research scientist in automotive analysis at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.
•Better image with better diesel vehicles that are far from the slow, noisy, smoky cars in the last century. "It's an age question. My kids have no idea what this is about. Yes, (diesels) were bad 30 years ago, but that's 30 years ago," said Belzowski.
•Lower lifetime cost. Belzowski's research on 2000- through 2011-model vehicles showed that diesels typically cost their owners about $3,000 to $6,000 less over three years, $4,000 to $16,000 less over five years.
Exceptions according to Belzowski's data: diesel versions of Ford F-250 and Ram heavy-duty pickups, which cost owners more than the gasoline models.
•The possibility of diesel-electric hybrids, which promise really eye-popping fuel economy. Already available in Europe, though not widely, they marry a diesel's inherently good mileage with the fuel-saving properties of the additional electric drive system.
During a government-industry experiment during the Clinton administration -- Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles -- diesel-electrics were able to get as much as 80 mpg in mid-size family cars.
Sambel says the price difference vs. gas-electric hybrids, using current diesel and hybrid hardware and technology, would be $1,500 to $2,500. That could drop as diesels get more efficient and hybrid technology evolves.
Here is the array of cars, SUVs and light-duty pickups that offer diesel power this year or will early next year.
•Audi: A6, A7 and A8L sedans, Q5 and Q7 SUVs.
•BMW: 3-series sedan and wagon, 5-series sedan, X5 SUV.
•Chevrolet: Cruze compact sedan.
•Jeep: Grand Cherokee SUV.
•Mazda: Mazda6 midsize sedan.
•Mercedes-Benz: GLK, ML and GL SUVs, E-class sedan.
•Porsche: Cayenne SUV.
•Ram: 1500 full-size standard pickup.
•Volkswagen: Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat sedans, convertible and wagon, Touareg SUV.