No use pouring diesel on troubled waters

When car manufacturers Ford and Peugeot bosses recently condemned the bias and stupidity of the Congestion Charge tariff, it was hard not to feel sympathy.

Both manufacturers are key proponents of the diesel motor solution to a cleaner climate. Their grievance is that, while the mayor of London is prepared to favour one clean-air strategy – the hybrid (electrically assisted) car – with a zero-rated tariff, no such privilege is extended to another – high-efficiency diesel vehicles, whose drivers must continue to pay the same heavy daily dues as the most flagrant, gas-guzzling polluters. The manufacturers’ implied accusation – that Mayor Livingstone is playing to the gallery of faddist political correctness, in a markedly similar way to his unrelenting campaign against “Chelsea tractors” – is seemingly supported by two important pieces of evidence. First, that sales of hybrid cars are tiny compared with clean-diesel equivalents. And second – even more crucially – no hybrid car on the road can yet match the low carbon dioxide emission levels of the current generation of common-rail diesel engines.

Even so, it should not be assumed the diesel strategy is necessarily the best way forward for the motor industry. An alternative view of the mayor’s behaviour (which in this, if not in all other areas, chimes with Government thinking) is that the exemption for hybrids puts down a sensible marker for the future, even if it does so at the expense of being severe on the present.

So where does this leave diesel? Certainly, there is no use denying the popularity of today’s diesel engines with the motoring public. Some 16 per cent of all cars on the road are now diesel-powered, and since almost 36 per cent of new car registrations in the year to September 30 were also diesel, this can be seen as an accelerating trend.

Ah, not quite the full picture, you might object. This undoubted progress has been achieved at the expense of the soft-target, increasingly uneconomic petrol engine. Car makers have simply put their resources behind the refinement of a promising existing technology, leaving the more risky but inspiring alternatives, such as electric cell and hydrogen engines, cash-starved on the sidelines until they are finally goaded into action by legislation.

In fact, the manufacturers seem to be treating the issue as a careful each-way bet. Some, principally Toyota, have put enormous investment behind the hybrid (while naturally signing up to the diesel orthodoxy at the same time). And it is paying off. The Mark 2 Prius doubled its sales over the past year (though admittedly from a low base) against a backdrop of overall market decline.

Nor is it a case of Toyota ploughing a lonely furrow. Support for the greener-striped alternatives sometimes comes from unusual quarters. Take Honda, which last year enhanced its corporate reputation around the award- winning, diesel-eulogising, ‘Grrr’ ad campaign. Honda marketing director Simon Thompson is worth quoting at some length: “The rise of diesel is a misnomer. It is two years off its peak. It is the current solution, but hydrogen-powered and hybrid cars – both of which Honda make – are the way forward.”

Stuart Smith, Editor

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