Europe’s love affair with diesel

Latest figures from Automotive Industry Data (AID) show that in 2003 diesel accounted for 44% of the West European car market, up from just over 20% ten years’ ago. In some markets, such as Austria, Belgium and France, diesel penetration is now 60% to 70%, while in Sweden it is under 8% and Greece only 1%. Might this have major implications for global politics?

Probably not, you might say, but in two areas it will have an effect, both because diesel cars are around 25% to 35% more fuel efficient than their petrol counterparts.

First, in terms of meeting Europe’s international environmental commitments, diesel reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons compared with petrol-engined cars roughly in proportion to the lower amounts of fuel burned. Conversely they increase emissions of soot, though new regulations and cleaner fuels should help here and these are a local, not international concern.

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Second, in burning far less fuel they reduce huge Europe’s reliance on imported oil (diesel cars are much more fuel-efficient), much of which comes from those political unstable middle-eastern countries we hear so much about.

Both factors should become increasingly important as the upward trend in diesel demand shows little sign of slowing, with traditionally apathetic diesel markets such as the UK seeing some of the fastest growth. Growth has been fuelled by Europe’s expensive fuel costs, which make more economic diesel engines substantially cheaper to run, and technological advances which have reduced the gap in performance between diesel and petrol-engined cars. For example, you can now get a Golf GTI diesel .

It’s also interesting in that it seems to me a rare example of technologies diverging across the globe. Diesel accounts for less than 1% of US car and light-truck sales, and only a little more of those in Japan and China. International environmental considerations matter less in the US (and soot emissions standards are tighter), but concerns over dependence on Middle Eastern oil might play better. A study by the Department of Energy noted that a 30% diesel share of new car sales would cut US oil imports by 350,000 barrels a day. Nevertheless I wouldn’t hold your breath.

10 thoughts on “Europe’s love affair with diesel

  1. I believe that in the US it is much harder to get low emission Diesel. Because of this the new high performance common rail diesels are not being introduced in the US.

  2. Matt – Thanks for posting up that illuminating piece on diesel penetration of the European car market. What I’ve never been altogether clear on is why diesel penetration is so much higher in countries like France than it is in Britain. Suggested explanations would be appreciated.

  3. Bob, I reckon it may have to do with the difficulty to start a diesel engine in low temperature weather. In as much I know, current diesel engine are a lot easier to start, but once the preference have been set, it is hard to sway the prejudice against diesel: y’know everyboby knows that diesel don’t start well.


  4. As far as I am aware it is mainly due to a larger differential (due to tax) on diesel and petrol fuel (the Netherlands has a small differential and has fewer diesel cars too), and that French car firms, which dominate the market, make make very good diesel cars (which obviously to some degree is a function of large diesel sales, but they probably boost each other).

  5. Historically, there are 2 different reasons why diesel has been popular in the past, and has revived and increased its popularity for the last decade or so:

    1) PAST: diesel fuel is cheaper, so many people bought diesels as family saloons, as a cheaper solution.

    2) PRESENT DAY: diesel engines has more than equalled its performance in comparison to regular gasoline engines, so any advantage the gasoline engines had in the past over diesels, i.e. more power, more sporty drive, has been eradicated by the new generation diesels. I would believe that is the main reason why diesel is gaining increasing popularity. The days that diesels were for only for dads with lots of kids and trucks are long gone.

  6. There’s a trade-off, even in countries like Germany where diesel is enormously popular. Unlike diesels, petrol-engined cars in Germany enjoy an exemption from vehicle tax for the first few years (supposedly because diesel emissions are more harmful). Caeteris paribus, a diesel makes economic sense only if one does a lot of driving (as the lower fuel costs then offset the higher tax burden). We recently bought a car and, because we don’t drive much, went for a Benziner.

  7. Another argument in favor of “dieselization” is the fact that many (if not all) diesel engines can run on non-petroleum fuel, such as vegetable oil, the fancy name for which is “biodiesel” (though used frituurolie works too).

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