Mountain Wheels: Diesel drama for Chrysler prompts soul searching (review)
January 14, 2017
There's a certain sense of déjà vu this week with word that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — makers of Jeep, Ram Trucks and those increasingly volatile Hellcat variations — has been questioned by the federal Environmental Protection Agency about the legitimacy of its diesel engine emissions data.
Earlier this week, the EPA suggested that Fiat Chrysler had used duplicitous means to allow its light-duty 3.0-liter diesel engines, found on 2014-16 vehicles such as the Ram 1500 and the Grand Cherokee, to pass the increasingly stringent emissions testing required for passenger diesels in the United States.
Allegations were made that software cheats — not unlike the manipulated sensors in Volkswagen's diesel engines — were installed to allow the engines to meet the clean-air standards.
Volkswagen, as you remember, went through the wringer having been discovered to have used software manipulation to actively lie about its diesel emissions. This week saw a federal grand jury indicting six VW executives and the company agreeing to pay a penalty of $4.3 billion for criminal wrongdoing, relating to the case.
For Chrysler, the timing couldn't be worse. The company immediately went on the defensive route, issuing a statement denying the EPA's claims and restating that the carmaker has done everything required to meet EPA regs, though the company promises to fully cooperate with the federal agency in an investigation to prove its innocence.
"FCA U.S. looks forward to the opportunity to meet with the EPA's enforcement division and representatives of the new administration to demonstrate that FCA U.S.'s emissions control strategies are properly justified and thus are not 'defeat devices' under applicable regulations and to resolve this matter expeditiously," the company said in a prepared statement.
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Chrysler's diesel quandary poses a number of questions, especially on the cusp of that aforementioned new and very different federal administration which seems especially anxious to potentially reel back the regulatory powers of organizations such as the EPA. At the same time, we have also seen the proto-Trump administration becoming very heavy-handed about encouraging made-in-America products, automobiles being a big component of those emerging trade disputes.
Personally, I hope that Chrysler is able to make peace with the EPA, and not go through the painful and complicated process that followed the VW diesel scandal — with all of the car buy-backs and cloud of doubt hanging over owners' heads.
The Ram 1500 with the 3.0-liter diesel engine in question is, by the way, a nice setup, as is the Jeep Grand Cherokee with the same engine. Under regular driving conditions, mileage is indeed considerably greater than what you'll find in the gasoline engine variations of both vehicles, and the extra torque makes them better pass-busting uphill machines.
The 3.0-liter diesel also made up a little more than 10 percent of the Ram 1500's total sales, so there are certainly a few truck buyers out there who've figured out that diesel makes sense, provided software and scandal do not get in the way.
It's also part of the slightly cynical way that American industry and government regulations don't always go hand in hand. As I like to say, every consumer product you come in contact with, every day, was brought to you by a diesel-powered freighter, train or one of those 18-wheeler rigs out on Interstate 70. Tractor-trailers get about 8 MPG in the process; the economy of scale makes that more efficient than hundreds of smaller trucks carrying the same payload, but there's still a hell of a lot of big rigs out doing America's business, using diesel, versus the very tiny percentage of passenger diesel devotees on the roads.
Same goes for full-sized passenger trucks and their V-8 diesel engines, which are exempt from EPA MPG numbers but have increasingly adopted the clean diesel technologies required on passenger diesel. American passenger diesel regulations are very stringent, so much so that only the Germans and the Italian-Americans (Chrysler) have adapted their products for the U.S. market. The short-lived Chevy Cruze diesel was a solitary unicorn for General Motors' passenger diesel; Mazda tried ambitiously to get its diesel engine certified for the Mazda6 a few years back and is still in the development stage, though the company claimed last year that a diesel option was still in the works for its entire family of vehicles.
If the new kids in Washington also decide to strip the EPA and other agencies of their powers, could that mean a clawback of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards and regulations, which ambitiously aim to have vehicles sold in the United States averaging 54.5 MPG by 2025?
Those standards have already prompted the new wave of higher-efficiency 2.0-liter (and smaller) engines you're seeing in new vehicles, and vastly improved fuel efficiency in everything except super-exotics or gigantic trucks.
A brave new world, indeed. We wish Chrysler the best (my dad likes his diesel Grand Cherokee, and only filling up once a month); I see things only getting weirder in the car business as 2017 goes on.
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