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Diesel Vehicles Stay Alive Despite Constant Drama For Car Companies


Diesel vehicles have caused a lot of problems for car companies in recent years. Diesel cost Volkswagen billions in fines and judgments. And now Fiat Chrysler is defending itself against allegations that it, too, rigged engines to cheat on emissions tests. With all the bad PR, some are wondering if there is a future for diesel in this country. NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Diesels in the popular imagination are dirty, loud. They belt soot. They're slow, expensive. But that's not how people who drive cars for a living see them, though.

JENNIFER STOCKBURGER: I am Jennifer Stockburger, the director of operations here at Consumer Reports auto test center in Connecticut.

GLINTON: Stockburger tests and compares all kinds of things, but she's mainly into powertrains. You know, the engine and transmission and other parts that make your car go. And Stockburger says diesel-powered vehicles have a lot to recommend them. They're efficient and very powerful.

STOCKBURGER: So if you were thinking you wanted a diesel for some of the benefits they might have such as the fuel economy, the longer range, the vehicles themselves are actually better and less polluting. The concern may come from how some of the manufacturers have chosen to approach getting them to meet the mandates.

GLINTON: Stockburger says over the years, diesel technology has gotten a lot better. But recently carmakers have gotten themselves in a lot of trouble cutting corners. It's almost a pride thing. These are engineering companies, and it's like they didn't want to admit how hard it was engineering a way to meet these tougher standards. And that's why Volkswagen is dealing with the $25 billion price tag for installing software that fakes out emissions tests. Fiat Chrysler is also defending itself against similar allegations. In this environment, what's keeping the diesel market afloat? Stockburger says the automobile enthusiast.

STOCKBURGER: I think the diesel shopper is one who knows diesels, who understands that they're better, has liked them in the past and continues to like them in the current market, and really likes the convenience and the fuel efficiency of that long range.

GLINTON: Despite diesel's advantages and its fan base, automakers don't see a lot of upside to selling the cars here in the U.S. anymore. They're much more interested in hybrids and electrics. This has some worrying that diesel's days are numbered.

REBECCA LINDLAND: The death of diesel is a bit exaggerated when it comes to cars and very exaggerated when it comes to trucks and, like, pickup trucks and such.

GLINTON: Rebecca Lindland is executive analyst at Kelley Blue Book. She says we will continue to see diesel engines being offered, particularly in full-size trucks where that powerful engine comes in really handy.

LINDLAND: You can go, like, six, seven, 800 miles on a tankful. So you know, for consumers that drive long distances or just hate going to the gas station, a diesel is a great option.

GLINTON: Lindland says with all the commercial trucks and diesel pickup trucks on the road there's no real threat to the diesel infrastructure.

LINDLAND: What is more of a threat is whether manufacturers are going to be coming out with new diesel technology and new - and offering diesels in new models.

GLINTON: The reality is diesel isn't going away any time soon. But its future is more and more in doubt as carmakers pour money into developing technologies like electrics, hybrids and autonomous vehicles. Diesel has been counted out before - oh, and before that as well. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT COSTA'S "POND HOPPER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.