The diesel dilemma

Diesel sales tumbled by over 25 per cent in 2019 – which makes them a hard sell for dealers. But there are many reasons why diesel cars still make sense. The key is making customers understand.

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The last couple of years haven’t been kind to diesel cars, with plenty of ill-informed media rhetoric causing a knee-jerk reaction from the car buying public who have voted with their wallets – a move that saw a 27% decline in new diesel registrations in 2019.

For those whose job it is to sell cars, either new or used, this is not good news. For years, diesels have been generally more expensive to buy than their petrol equivalents, with a higher profit margin – and as used or nearly new cars, they’ve been fairly effortless to sell. The promise of lower running costs, better fuel economy and a long-held belief from some consumers that diesels “last longer” than petrol engines (not strictly true…) meant strong residual values and no difficulty at all in finding a buyer.

The challenge is to get customers on-board, and to listen to the facts around diesel technology rather than hyperbole in the media.

Indeed, for years the most searched-for used car in the UK was the Volkswagen Golf TDI. But then, in 2015, along came ‘Dieselgate’ – a move that led to a Pandora’s Box for other manufacturers, all of whom came under scrutiny.

Meantime, legislators and commentators were changing their view of diesel. Despite modern diesels having lower CO2 emissions and greater efficiency than the low capacity turbocharged petrol engines that have been eroding their market share of late, diesel was painted as a ‘Frankenstein fuel’. To admit to liking it, or to wanting a diesel car, suggested an anti-environmentalist mindset. Today, diesel car sales to private customers – for new cars at least – are a fraction of the total. They still have a decent presence in the fleet market (and, by default, as second-hand cars) but eco-conscious buyers are turning to electric cars, hybrids and plug-in hybrids in their droves, while others are buying petrol engines thinking they’re better for the environment.

So how do you sell a diesel car in today’s market? The Chief Executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, Mike Hawes, believes that diesel certainly still has its place and has acknowledged that confusion over the government’s policy towards diesel engines had resulted in potential customers ‘sitting on their hands’, unsure of what engine to choose in their next car.

“This is not because the industry has stopped progressing – the average new car on sale last year produced 13 per cent less CO2,” said Hawes. “Industry investment in technology is delivering results, but the market is shifting.

“But consumers should be encouraged to buy the right fuel for their driving needs and pockets. For some, especially those who do higher mileage, diesel still remains the right choice.

“Last year the Government said it would end the sale of conventional petrol and diesel engined cars by 2040 – that is still 22 years away, and most new car buyers will probably go through seven changes of vehicle before then. We need to make sure the consumer buys – now – the right type of car that they need.”

Despite the rhetoric, there are still many advantages to buying diesel. Road tax, for example, is often as little as £30 a year as the Vehicle Excise Duty system in the UK is still based on CO2 emissions. The latest Euro 6 diesels, found in almost all new cars and light commercials, are more efficient, cleaner and more economical than ever before, and until diesel became a political football, the pace of development meant that engineers were creating cars that could easily do 70mpg.

The challenge is to get customers on-board, and to listen to the facts around diesel technology rather than hyperbole in the media. At present, residual values of diesel cars are lower than those of petrol cars for the first time since diesel cars became mainstream in the 1980s. Back then, they were crude, slow and unrefined – something that can’t be said of any of today’s generation of diesel cars.

The gap between average CO2 emissions from diesel and petrol cars is narrowing, and in the short term, low CO2 emissions from diesels still have a role in helping manufacturers meet reduction targets. As Eric Jonnaert, Secretary General of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) commented last year: “Amidst the strong push for alternatively-powered vehicles, we should not write off the latest generation of diesel cars, which not only emit less CO2 than their petrol counterparts, but also deliver low on-road pollutant emissions in practice.”

So right now, it’s a buyer’s market and the conundrum lies in changing perceptions, which sadly won’t happen overnight …

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