DETROIT — By offering diesel powertrains in their light-duty pickup trucks, the Detroit Three automakers are betting they can eke out even more sales in what’s been a red-hot market.
Diesel options are now available on the top-volume pickups from General Motors, Ford and Ram, despite concerns over recent scandals like Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate,” where the German automaker fitted diesel engines with software to cheat on emissions tests.
While the death of the diesel engine in passenger cars has been predicted for years, OEMs are reasoning that truck consumers are much more open to the powertrains. In fact, many truck buyers have been asking for years for more diesel options in light-duty trucks, said Mike Wall, director of automotive analysis at IHS Markit in Grand Rapids.
“The reason for (diesel) is high torque for those dedicated towing buyers,” Wall said, adding that customers also benefit from higher fuel economy. “Those buyers had been clamoring for a light-duty diesel in those pickups.”
Each of the Detroit Three will offer a V-6 diesel option in their half-ton pickup trucks, including the Silverado, F-150 and Ram 1500. Jeep will also allow customers to select a diesel in the newly redesigned Wrangler a year after its launch.
GM, which has offered a four-cylinder diesel in its midsize Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon pickups, has also stepped out of the pickup market with diesel options for the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan and the Equinox crossover.
The Detroit automakers’ moves come as some European car companies have stepped back from diesel powertrains in the market, citing their low uptake and the cost and difficulty of getting them certified for U.S. emission standards. Still, Jaguar-Land Rover and BMW have doubled down on diesels, offering them in both passenger cars and crossover SUVs for the 2017-2018 model year.
However, in the wake of the Dieselgate scandal, Volkswagen said it would stop selling diesel cars and SUVs in the U.S. across all its brands. Similarily, Mercedes-Benz stopped offering diesel-powered passenger cars stateside in the 2017 model year and has no plans to reintroduce them, citing low volumes, according to reports.
Accordingly, U.S. sales of light-duty diesel-powered vehicles dropped 19 percent in 2017 to just 94,810, a fraction of the overall market, according to hybridcars.com.
Diesels remain a niche product in part because of their higher costs, sources said. For example, picking the new diesel option for the F-150 will add between $2,400 and $4,000 to the price of the truck.
Beyond the added upfront cost, customers typically can expect improved fuel economy compared to similar gasoline-powered models.
Ultimately, success for the Detroit automakers will come down to “cementing that owner loyalty” by adding diesel options in trucks, Wall said, noting the fervent following diesels have in the three-quarter ton and one-ton truck market. As OEMs boost the capabilities of their half-ton trucks and as some buyers transition away from heavier duty models, it makes sense that the manufacturers would start to consider offering diesels in lighter models in a bid to keep customers, he said.
The delay in adding diesel options in the light-duty truck market stems from automakers not being sold on the demand and wrestling with justifying the sales model, particularly because they did not want to “cannibalize from the big rigs, because there’s more money in those,” Wall said.
“On the other hand, they don’t want to lose the buyer either,” he said. “Ram came out first with their diesel and now they had some issues with the EPA in getting recertified and things like that … but with GM and Ford both showing new diesels at the auto show … there is a different demand, a different customer profile for diesel.”
According to Wall, diesel options are “much more sustainable on the truck side” compared to the crossovers and cars.
“When you look at diesel in the U.S. market in particular, you almost have to decouple that car versus truck, or look at them separately,” Wall said.