After spending decades distancing themselves from diesel engines in North America, the Detroit Three automakers have slowly started to come around to the niche potential for diesel-powered cars, trucks and SUVs.
Case in point: Chrysler announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit that it was offering its 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee with a diesel powertrain sourced from one of parent company Fiat’s European suppliers.
For decades, the only diesel-powered vehicles available in North America were imported from Germany or were heavy-duty pickup trucks. But that’s changing.
Along with the Jeep announcement, Chevrolet confirmed plans to offer a diesel in its 2014 Cruze compact sedan, Ford will sell an exclusive diesel option in its new line of Transit vans and Mazda will offer a diesel engine in its Mazda6 sedan.
Adding to the mix, Chrysler said it would also offer a diesel in half-ton versions of its 2014 Ram pickup trucks, the only automaker to offer a light-duty diesel pickup in the United States.
That renewed interest in diesel powertrains has translated into new opportunities for local automotive suppliers, including Robert Bosch LLC, which built a new plant next to an existing facility in Kentwood specifically for diesel exhaust systems. Bosch announced the expansion and investment of $8.2 million to make the diesel exhaust systems in West Michigan last April.
“We’re bullish on diesels,” said Bernd Boisten, regional president of diesel systems North America at Robert Bosch LLC.
The company announced last month that it had been awarded a contract to supply the emissions system for the 3.0-liter V6 EcoDiesel engine for the Grand Cherokee, the first public contract the company secured for systems made at the plant.
Currently, the new Bosch plant employs approximately 30 to 40 people and is in a hiring mode. The company hopes to employ 100 people by 2014 at the Kentwood facility, which includes functions ranging from tube bending, end forming, laser cutting and robotic welding.
While the diesel engine going into the Grand Cherokee will also be used in the Ram 1500, executives were mum on what other activity Bosch — a German company whose North American sales exceeded $9.8 billion in 2011, the most recent year for which it reported sales — had planned for the Kentwood facility.
“We’re looking at all potential segments,” said Boisten, noting that tightening regulations are driving automakers to clean up diesel emissions.
The company was not planning to export any assemblies, Boisten said.
Richard Walker, director of sales project management and engineering at Bosch in Kentwood, said the company supplies the after-treatment system for the Grand Cherokee lines. The system starts after the engine’s turbocharger and includes the diesel exhaust after treatment system, consisting of a diesel oxidation catalyst, diesel particulate filter and the complex system which injects diesel exhaust fluid into the exhaust stream. The system cleans up the diesel particulate matter and the nitrous oxides, Walker said.
The entire system is constructed in Kentwood and is then shipped to Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit, Walker said.
While Bosch has high hopes for diesel sales in the United States, the adoption rate for diesels has been slow to date. Most analysts say diesels account for about 3 percent of the market, and the preponderance of those sales are from diesels sold by the German automakers BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen.
But the company expects diesels to continue to gain market share as more customers realize modern diesels are nothing like the noisy, messy models from decades before — thanks to cleaner emissions technology from companies like Bosch.
“The exhaust that’s coming out the back end is just super clean compared to older diesels,” Walker said of the system on the Grand Cherokee.
A 2011 study by Carnegie Mellon University and underwritten by Bosch found the total cost of ownership for diesel vehicles is less than comparable gasoline-powered cars. In addition, the study said diesels have lower operating costs and higher resale values. As a result, the company believes diesels will reach 10 percent of the North American market by 2018, Boisten said.
Helping push those numbers, according to Bosch, is the improving availability of vehicles with diesel powertrains, the ranks of which are expected to grow to 54 by 2017 in the United States.
“The study was comparing different powertrains and the result was that the total cost of ownership for diesel compared to gasoline is very favorable. That leads us to believe diesel will play a more important role,” Boisten said.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to correct a type in Bosch’s annual revenues in North America.