Monday, June 4, 2007

Diesel Efficiency With an American Twist [averaging 41-MPG]

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007; Page G01

VANCOUVER, B.C. DaimlerChrysler introduced advanced diesel technology in Canada in the seemingly most sensible way. It started small, very small, bringing forth its Smart ForTwo car in 2004 with a 40-horsepower, 0.8-liter, three-cylinder, direct-injection diesel engine.

The thing got the U.S. equivalent of 65 miles per gallon on the highway. It sipped less fuel than anybody's gas-electric hybrid car in city traffic. You could park it in a third of the space required by a full-size family sedan. And if you could live with a top cruising speed slightly north of 60 miles per hour, you were golden -- quite literally, considering the money you saved at the gas pump.

Marketing the tiny diesel two-seater through its Mercedes-Benz car division, DaimlerChrysler initially planned to sell only 900 of those models annually in Canada. But it wound up selling more than 4,000 in its first year at base prices ranging from about $15,000 (U.S.) for a hardtop coupe to $19,000 for a convertible.

The company is exhibiting similar caution in its introduction of diesel technology in the United States. But it's doing it with a twist that reflects the European auto industry's belief that U.S. drivers are more interested in heavyweight power than they are in petite fuel efficiency.

That does not mean DaimlerChrysler will cancel its plans to bring the Smart ForTwo to the United States this fall. It will stick to that product-introduction timetable. But it first will bring in the less fuel-efficient, gasoline-powered ForTwo cars.

In matters diesel, DaimlerChrysler believes that the best way to impress U.S. consumers is to introduce models such as the mid-size Mercedes-Benz 320 CDI and 320 CDI Bluetec luxury cars, as well as the full-size 2007 Chrysler 300 V-6 CRD sedan I drove in Virginia before coming here.

The Chrysler 300 V-6 CRD is equipped with a three-liter, 215-horsepower, direct-injection diesel engine developed by the Robert Bosch GmbH, the same Stuttgart-based automotive supplier that developed diesel technology for the Smart ForTwo.

A word of caution: Don't go running to your Chrysler dealer just yet in pursuit of the Chrysler 300 V-6 CRD. At this writing, the car remains experimental -- a test bed for Bosch and DaimlerChrysler to demonstrate the efficiency and feasibility of advanced diesel technology in a U.S. market that has long frowned on things diesel.

It remains to be seen if Cerberus Capital Management, the private equity firm buying the Chrysler Group from DaimlerChrysler, will move forward with a retail-ready version of the 300 V-6 CRD after the buyout is completed later this year. But here's hoping that Cerberus will work with Bosch and produce the car. If nothing else, it will prove that Cerberus is committed to giving consumers cars that matter -- automobiles that get great fuel-efficiency without attendant penalties in performance, comfort or styling.

The 300 V-6 CRD works exceptionally well.

I drove it 325 miles from my home in Northern Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley into the central parts of Virginia and back. I averaged 41 miles per gallon on the highway driving at speeds ranging from 60 to 70 miles per hour. (Yes, I know Virginia's speed limits are 55 miles per hour on urban/controlled access interstates and 65 miles per hour on most rural highways. But try remaining at those statutory speeds with 18-wheelers rumbling on your tail. Good luck!) I had no problems accelerating in the 300 V-6 CRD. Gear changes via the five-speed automatic transmission were flawless -- absent any discernible downshifting or hesitation. The diesel engine was quieter than most gasoline models, emitting only a minute burbling sound at idle. And there was no diesel smell or particulate-laden diesel smoke characteristic of old, traditional diesel technology.

The 300 V-6 CRD runs only on ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel -- diesel with sulfur at 15 parts per million. Thanks to recent revisions in federal fuel-quality standards, ultra-low-sulfur diesel now is widely available in the United States. But prices vary crazily. I paid $3.35 a gallon to refill the 300 V-6 CRD's 18.7-gallon tank at a station near my home in Northern Virginia. Had I driven a mile farther, I could have paid $2.79 a gallon for exactly the same fuel.

Still, the point is made: The 300 V-6 CRD works. I suspect that the diesel-powered Smart ForTwo would work equally well. DaimlerChrysler, which soon will change its name to Daimler AG, should abandon its crippling caution and bring the diesel ForTwo to the United States this year. Cerberus should move to change its unflattering image as a strip-and-flip corporate raider by committing itself to building and selling the 300 V-6 CRD.

Technical Information

Chrysler 300C SR8

Chrysler 300C SR8 (Daimlerchrysler - DaimlerChrysler)

Nuts & Bolts

Chrysler 300 V-6 CRD

Complaints: The 300 V-6 CRD is a weighty beast at 4,210 pounds. Although it feels quite agile on the highway, it is borderline clumsy in the city.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Excellent in all three categories at highway speeds. Handling is marginal to decent in congested urban traffic.

Head-turning quotient: It has all of the lines and the same bold, in-your-face grille that made the Chrysler 300 a styling hit.

Body style/layout: The Chrysler 300 V-6 CRD is a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, full-size, entry-level luxury sedan with a traditional notchback trunk.

Engine/transmission: The engine is a Bosch-developed three-liter, direct-injection diesel V-6 that gets 215 horsepower at 4,000 revolutions per minute and 376 foot-pounds of torque at 2,800 rpm. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission that also can be shifted manually.

Capacities: There is seating for five. Cargo capacity is 15.6 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 18.7 gallons of required ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. Do not even think about using high-sulfur diesel fuel in this one. Doing so could destroy the car's emission-control technology.

Mileage: I averaged 41 miles per gallon in highway driving.

Safety: Electronic stability and traction control, along with antilock brakes, are standard. Head air bags are optional.

Price: No price available at this writing. The 300 V-6 CRD is imported from Europe by Bosch to demonstrate diesel fuel-injection technology. "Future availability of this vehicle in the U.S. market is not implied," Bosch says.

Purse-strings note: Here's hoping that Cerberus and Bosch hook up to make this car.

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