Text: Tito F. Hermoso / Photos: Russell Co | posted September 03, 2012 11:33
Diesel Dilemma Part Two
Focus on the future
Ford relentlessly continues to introduce premium brand features on its mainstream models. At the recent launch of their latest Focus, Ford added torque vectoring for improved cornering, park assist and auto stop, features hitherto found only in premium brands. With the new Focus, the ASEAN compact class is now also getting gasoline direct injection. But it wasn't all good news. Our favorite, the pocket rocket TDCi sedan powered by the Duratorq diesel, a model we personally lobbied former Ford Group Philippines Marketing honcho Steven Tan, will no longer be available for ASEAN.
Not big enough
In ASEAN, the TDCi didn't sell in big numbers. Only the Philippine and Indonesian market, ironically markets that still use Euro II diesel fuel, paid attention to the Focus TDCi. Changing trends and incentives meant that the ASEAN motoring generation of the 50s and 60s, the generation who bought diesel Mercedes 180D, 190D and 200D as family sedans is forever lost. Moreover, despite the funk in the Eurozone market, Duratorq engine factories still have their order books full. Marketing minds shrug and say, the local compact car segment, just like the sub-compact, micro-compact and executive class is predominantly gasoline powered as car owners in this class are not high mileage drivers and are not willing to pay a premium for the diesel variant.
In truth, a large proportion of our nation's motor vehicle fleet runs on diesel. LCVs, AUVs, SUVs trucks and public utility vehicles, except most taxis, tricycles and multi-cabs, run on diesel. Government justifies keeping to Euro II as the highly subsidized and vociferous public transport lobby claim that they can only afford reconditioned engines, engines that can only run on high sulfur diesel fuel. And therein lies our self-inflicted ecological tragedy; try as we might, with proper maintenance and all, the diesel engine exhaust in this country will stay dirty at 500ppm. Whether it is due to a high sulfur content or not, diesels are just perceived to be not as clean as gasoline.
Attempts to clean up
There were attempts to clean this all up once and for all. There was a brilliant government sponsored public utility engine replacement program some time in the previous administration, but nothing came of it. The new engines were not only ready to take in diesel fuel better than Euro II, but can also be converted to run dual fuel with LPG or CNG.
Euro II problems
Sticking to Euro II diesel has its problems. The parts supply for reconditioning Euro II based engines is drying up as these dated engines demand from many countries, even poorer than ours, are shifting away from Euro II diesel. Refineries that can only make Euro II diesel are turning obsolete as parts for keeping them running disappear. The high sulfur crude used as feedstock for these obsolete refineries is being taken out of the export market as oil producing countries opt to burn dirty fuel locally for power generation.
That's not all folks
Despite a broad selection of diesel powered vehicles in our market today, our dirty fuel prevents us from benefitting from the full range of light, powerful, economical, efficient and clean high tech engines available today. Besides the Navara pick up, the Patrol and the Urvan - genetically as old as the Mitsubishi L300 - Nissan does not sell a diesel version of its Livina, X-trail and even the upcoming Juke. One can imagine how competitive the Livina, X-trail and Juke can be if each had a diesel variant. Reason for this is that Renault, Nissan's supplier for small displacement compact diesels, makes only engines that can use Euro IV diesel at a minimum. This also prevents Nissan from introducing its NV200 van as that too uses the Renault sourced diesel engines.
Even Toyota does not sell its entire range of variable nozzle diesel engines in the country because of our dirty diesel. Mercedes-Benz, arguably the brand that made diesel cars popular in Asia, keeps it stock of diesel engined variants mainly for its Viano and Sprinter commercial vehicle lines. Their engineers have issues with injector longevity because of the corrosive effects of high particulates under high injection pressures. Paradoxically, Chrysler sell a diesel Town & Country, while the Jeep Commander diesel and Chrysler 300C use a Mercedes diesel V-6. The Korean brands don't seem to have much a problem though as their engineers chose to lower compression ratios and regain power by bumping up the turbocharging.
Some brave ones?
Niche players MINI, Subaru and Honda sell excellently engineered diesel engined versions of their model line up in the Eurozone market but not here. Again blame specter of consumer dissatisfaction due to dirty fuel although MINI can always lean on BMW's local diesel experience if it really wanted to justify diesel sales here. Conversely, Audi and BMW, unlike Porsche and Lexus, have a near complete selection of diesel options for their executive class and SUV offerings right up to the top of the heap limousines. Volvo and Jaguar-Land Rover, have made it a point to join the diesel bandwagon across its entire model line up.
Diesel fans all
Even with such constraints, the market can't get enough of them. Diesel versions of Kia Sportage, Kia Sorento, Hyundai Tucson, Santa Fe, Veracruz are not always on ready stock because diesel engine demand in the Eurozone deprives our market of a larger allocation. This shortage also cramps sales of other diesel fed Hyundai LCVs. Just think of the larger market penetration of diesels if only Kia and Hyundai decide, some day, to offer a pick-up/LCV to compete with Thailand's main vehicle export. Kudos to Chevrolet for keeping the Cruze diesel in stock as the exit of the Ford Focus TDCi means it has the segment all to itself, especially when the stock of Kia Carens diesel runs out. Perhaps the Orlando can benefit from a diesel engine version? It remains to be seen if Mazda will introduce its SkyActiv diesel as it boasts of the lowest compression ratio diesel engine. Peugeot sells a very convincing diesel-electric hybrid exec limousine but its availability here depends on the engine digesting the local fuel.
Hands are tied
Both Petron and Shell have recognized the need for premium diesel and have responded nicely with their Turbo and V-Power respectively. For a bit more than the regular Diesel Max or Diesoline, your BMW320d, Audi Q7, LR3 or Jaguar XF would run cleaner and the fuel won't sully your engine's expensive all synthetic diesel engine oil as much as regular diesel would. But with all their expensive proprietary cleansers and additives, these diesel fuels are not rated as Euro III or Euro IV.
Ball in government's court
Then there is the issue of whether or when the government will give local oil refiners the incentive to install billion dollar Euro IV [why go Euro III when you go Euro IV right away for the same investment?] super refineries here or just allow the oil companies to close local refining in preference to importing Euro IV diesel refined in Singapore?
At street level, the main hurdles to our peaceful diesel powered daily lives, besides the choking harm to our health and the soot stained scenery, are the LTO required annual emissions test prior to annual registration and the local government's ASBU or anti-smoke belching units' road side check points.
Depending on how rich the LGU is, most ASBU teams use simple smoke detectors. It certainly will catch particulate emissions as all diesels, no matter how clean, emit some amount. It all depends on what the threshold limit it set, if such a standard is at all mandated by LTO or DENR. But these simple smoke detectors are not designed to check for the more toxic and dangerous largely invisible pollutants that LTO accredited emissions test centers can determine. Which is why an LTO approved emissions certificate should be sufficient to legally deny any ASBU's insistence to 'test' one's vehicle. In addition, many of the ASBU technicians, as opposed to the hand waving arrest-aides, are trained to rev an engine to force it to smoke to guarantee a failure, a shakedown or a traffic ticket.
Ironically, the currently available cleaner premium diesels are alleged to dramatically clean older engines so this should prove an advantage for the ASBU's favorite 'profile' pick which is usually an old L300, Elf, NKR, AUV or anything that resembles a Jeep. They're the most common victims pulled over for a smoke test wherever the ASBU's of Makati, Pasig and QC lie in ambush on C5. Other fleets have taken to increasing the dosage of additives of Chemrez Bio Activ to their garage fuel depot as such additives do help reduce particulates.
But one can still get a clean bill of exhaust health from these marauding ASBUs. Apart from the alleged discreet flash of cash or some fancy I.D., one can decarbonize the exhaust, pre encounter. Some shops and service stations discreetly offer this service; they run up a water hose into the tail pipe, straight into the muffler then fill the muffler with water. When the water overflows and soot starts pouring out, the engine is started and revved to force out all the carbon bits. Stick a smoke detector within the day, and you will likely pass the ASBU test.
Clean fuel for all
Ultimately, the solution to our diesel dilemma lies with the government convincing the transport sector to adopt cleaner engines and cleaner though pricier fuels so that the oil companies can sell us fuel we deserve. We can't blame the gas stations or the oil companies for our harmful fuel because the government chooses to keep the transport lobby quiet and pliant with cheap but dirty fuel at the expense of our health. But since all gas stations dispense the damned dirty fuel, maybe gas stations should offer the muffler decarbonizing service for a fee. And designate an area where all the carbon particulates and dirty wash water is accumulated to be disposed off properly, lest we shift the concentration of pollution from the ASBU check points to the station forecourt.