My plan to someday drive off into the sunset in a diesel-powered car at the conclusion of my career as a motoring journalist may no longer be realistic. Why? Because by 2030 diesels are forecast to account for just 9 percent of new-car sales in Europe, according to a recent study by AlixPartners, compared with about 50 percent today.
The cause of the massive shift is the expectation that automakers will be forced to rely on electrified powertrains to meet tougher emissions rules in the future. Therefore, if I remain faithful to my beloved diesel, I will be a niche motorist.
Automotive News Europe was probably the first publication to report the forthcoming demise of the diesel in Europe. That was more than a decade ago when diesel's rise seemed unstoppable. We were told then, however, that the introduction of stricter European emission standards would require automakers to add costly after-treatment systems to make diesels clean enough to meet new pollution regulations.
That cost would need to be passed on to car buyers, making the diesels uncompetitive against alternatives such as gasoline-powered cars and models with electrified powertrains. This regulatory-driven change would make the gasoline king of Europe again when it came to the top-selling fuel for internal combustion engines.
The power shift, predicted during my interview in 2005 with former Fiat powertrain guru Rinaldo Rinolfi, who is one of the fathers of the common-rail diesel, was set to happen last year. Rinolfi was off by just one year as gasoline engines are poised to take the lead again in 2016.
I recently spoke to Rinolfi to get his next prediction for diesels, which he said would stabilize at about 40 percent of total European vehicle sales in 2020. That sounded reasonable. Then came AlixPartners' head-turning forecast that diesels would have a single-digit share of the European vehicle market 14 years from now. AlixPartners, which is a very respected U.S. consulting firm, says that diesels are on track to lose 2.7 points of market share a year starting now.
Will this happen? I fear it will. Euro 6 emissions standards, particularly for nitrogen oxide (NOx), already have made diesel minicars a rarity because the powertrain fixes are just too costly for most customers. This trend will spread to subcompacts and could extend to compacts.
Europe accounts for about 85 percent of global diesel demand. The powertrain is nonexistent in China and any dreams that U.S. customers would embrace diesels are probably dead because of Volkswagen Group's image-shattering emissions-cheating scandal. Diesels might have had a chance if a fast-growing, densely populated, relatively wealthy country decided to embrace the technology. But why would an emerging market want to welcome the NOx and particulate matter that the EU was willing to allow to help reduce CO2 emissions?
As a diesel addict, I will be very sorry to see my favorite powertrain become a novelty, perhaps like the VHS tape or rotary dial telephone. Fortunately, I have a collection of fond memories from driving diesels for 40 years. During these four decades I have witnessed some gigantic leaps forward for oil burners.
My Opel Rekord D (also known as a Rekord II) had a 2.0-liter diesel that was strong on vibrations and weak on power. The normally aspirated engine offered just 58.5 hp. It barely reached 130kph and to keep fuel consumption at about 10 liters per 100km I had to slowdown to 110kph on the highway.
Fast forward to 2016 for a comparison with a similar-sized car I drove last month. The Renault Talisman sedan I tested had a 1.6-liter diesel that, despite being 20 percent smaller than the engine in my Opel, offered 160hp, a top speed of 215kph and real world fuel consumption of 7 liters per 100km. The improvements made to diesels because of direct injection and turbocharging are phenomenal. So much so that I will refuse to give up my oil burner even when diesel becomes a fraction of the market. Once a diesel junkie, always a diesel junkie.