Luxury meets clean diesel technology

Kai Ryssdal Nov 13, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Got a phone call from a friend the other day. A guy who’s on the show occasionally. He told me to meet him out in the parking garage next to the studio. Said he had something special to show me. It was a brand new, big ol’ E-class Mercedes. Being driven in a way you’re not supposed to drive in a parking garage.

That’s L.A. Times car critic Dan Neil behind the wheel.

Well, hey Dan!

DAN NEIL: Hey Kai, how are you!

RYSSDAL: I’m all right. Nice car, as always.

NEIL: Thanks. Let me ask you a question.

RYSSDAL: Alright.

NEIL: What do you think the EPA mileage is on this car?

RYSSDAL: It’s a Mercedes, E-type, big, heavy, Germanic thing . . . 18 in the city, 22 on the highway.

NEIL: 26 / 37.

RYSSDAL: You’re lyin’ to me. And I don’t like it when . . .

NEIL: There’s more! There’s more! This is the Mercedes E-320 BlueTec diesel. And I invite you to stick your nose in the tailpipe to see if you can detect the dieselness of it all.

RYSSDAL: Seriously?

NEIL: Yeah.

RYSSDAL: Alright. You sure?

NEIL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Stick it under there. That’s fine. . . . I’ll just throw it in reverse. . . .

RYSSDAL: Alright, now here it is. So it’s this dual-exhaust thing. I’ve got literally my nose up the tailpipe. It’s hot air, feintly perfumy, but, uh, . . .

NEIL: Well, that may be me, I . . .

RYSSDAL: Yeah, OK, so it’s smells nice. Great. So what.

NEIL: This is a super-clean diesel. It’s quiet. It’s ridiculously powerful. And it’s going to be 50-state-legal next year.

RYSSDAL: Mercedes, who else is making this?

NEIL: Well, all the German manufacturers have clean-diesel programs. Also, Honda has proposed to bring a 50-state-legal diesel to the U.S. by 2009.

RYSSDAL: I’m not hearing Detroit in there anywhere. Ford? GM? Those guys?

NEIL: Well, we don’t know too much about General Motors’ and Ford’s plans for clean-diesel for passenger cars. They’re very strong in truck diesel technology. But for the moment, the Europeans are leading the march in clean-diesel.

RYSSDAL: Thirty-seven miles a gallon. Really nice. Almost hybrid-like.

NEIL: Exactly right. In fact, you could argue that there are two downsides to clean-diesel going forward. One is the cost of diesel, which has gone up a lot relative to gasoline in the past five years — anywhere from 20 to 50 cents per gallon. And, also, diesel cars do have something of a diesel premium, like hybrid cars have a hybrid premium.

RYSSDAL: Is it as clean as regular gas?

NEIL: Yes, as clean as a regular gas-powered vehicle and, in some cases and in some measures, much cleaner.

RYSSDAL: What does it really mean, though? That there is this 37-mile-a-gallon, nice, clean diesel?

NEIL: Well, the big problem in the American market is that we like big cars. And big cars and high mileage are mutually exclusive. But when you use diesel you can get a big, heavy sedan like this to get 37 miles on the highway. This means a lot for the American marketplace. It means, to some extent, we don’t have to change the way we drive, and we can still do something about mileage.

RYSSDAL: What about the big bulldozers and all those other things that use diesel that you can see the clouds of stuff coming out of the smokestack when they step on the gas?

NEIL: Right. Well, one of the interesting things about BlueTec is that there’s a technology that’s coming out that will use urea injectors . . .

RYSSDAL: I’m sorry. What?

NEIL: It’s, uh, urea . . .

RYSSDAL: It’s pee.

NEIL: It’s an amonia-like fluid, let’s say, to treat — post-combustion — the emissions out of a diesel and that cuts Nox — oxides of nitrogen. This technology is already being used in big trucks and so that . . . It’s coming downstream to passenger cars now.

RYSSDAL: So how much business sense does this make? Mercedes-Benz now has to sell me a more-expensive car — granted, if I can afford a Mercedes, I can probably afford the premium. But also more expensive gas.

NEIL: Yeah, this is the issue that I think a lot of consumers deal with. You know, how much they want to be a part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem? Yes, you might not make your money back in purchasing a 2008 Mercedes BlueTec, as opposed to the gas-powered version. But you are cutting your greenhouse emissions by something like 30 percent. And so, in a sense, you are buying at a minimum peace of mind.

RYSSDAL: Right. Dan Neil writes on cars for the Los Angeles Times. Shows up now and then and takes us for a ride. Thanks, Dan.

NEIL: Glad to be here, Kai.

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