U.S. Car Buyers Like Hybrids, Europeans Go For Diesels; Why?

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2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel, 2012 New York Auto Show

2013 Porsche Cayenne Diesel, 2012 New York Auto Show

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If you’re a car buyer in the U.S. looking for a high gas-mileage car, the chances are you’re going to choose a hybrid car for your next vehicle. 

In Europe, however, hybrid cars are generally shunned by car buyers in preference of  high gas-mileage diesel cars.  

But why do U.S. car buyers prefer hybrids when Europeans love oil-burning diesels?

In a recent post for The Detroit News, Neil Winton suggests that cost is the primary factor. Europeans, he proposes, are more cost-conscious than their American counterparts. 

Winton’s argument, however, is missing the subtleties of some key points-- ones we’ve made before, but think are worth stating again to provide a more contextual counterpoint so you can draw your own conclusions.

Fuel prices and availability

On average, U.S. consumers pay 20 to 30 cents more per gallon of diesel than they do for a gallon of regular gasoline. 

While a few European countries, like the U.K., have a similar difference between diesel and gasoline prices, many more European countries keep diesel taxes artificially low to encourage diesel car use.

In fact, in most of Europe, including Denmark, France, Spain, Sweden and Germany, diesel is cheaper to buy than gasoline

Unlike the U.S., diesel fuel is also readily available at every gas station,  with diesel pumps located right beside those for regular and premium. 

In the U.S., roughly one half of gas stations stock diesel-- and you have to fill up out the back with the semis at most of those that do.

Lifestyle differences

In Europe, where compact and subcompact hatchbacks are favored over larger vehicles and sedans, small capacity, high-torque diesel engines offer consumers a balance between high gas mileage and practicality. 

And because European cities tend to be smaller than their American counterparts, more Europeans drive between towns and cities on their daily commute, something ideally suited to diesel engines. 

Because hybrid drivetrains require somewhere to put the traction battery pack without compromising on load-carrying capabilities, hybrid drivetrains are generally better suited to larger cars. 

Emissions standards are different

Although both the U.S. and Europe have tough gas mileage targets and emissions standards, U.S., particulate matter standards require diesel cars are fitted with expensive after-treatment equipment that pushes up the car’s sticker price. 

Generous incentives kick-started hybrid sales

Historically, U.S. and state legislature has been kind to hybrid cars. 

In fact, until December 31, 2010, anyone buying a hybrid car in the U.S. was entitled to a maximum of  $3,400 in federal tax rebates under The Energy Policy Act of 2005.

Although that particular policy, along with other incentives like HOV lane access for hybrids in California, has ended, it helped encourage the adoption of hybrids and encouraged automakers to design and build more hybrid car models. 

Because many European countries lacked similar incentives, hybrid car prices have remained high, making many consumers buy cheaper diesel-engined cars instead.

Clean Air Sticker

Clean Air Sticker

Diesel has a bad reputation in the U.S.

Thanks to largely unsuccessful attempts to introduce diesel engines into the U.S. market in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the name of fuel saving, U.S. consumers view diesel engines as slow, noisy, and smelly. 

That impression isn’t helped by the fact that diesel is the fuel of choice for heavy-duty vehicles, including larger pickup trucks, farm machinery, and 18-wheelers.

Hopefully, however, that impression should change, with more and more U.S. automakers than ever before promising highly-efficient, cleaner diesel cars over the next few years.

Different requirements, different outcomes

Ultimately, lifestyle differences, fuel costs, and even legislature have all played a part in the current mix of diesel vs hybrid car sales in the U.S. and Europe. 

But what do you think? Why are diesels so loved by Europeans, and shunned by U.S. buyers? 

And why to hybrids have a similar problem in Europe? 

Let us know in the Comments below

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