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One automaker is still working on its diesel technology

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Don’t Drink And Write

When the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer officially classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic — or cancer-causing, to put it bluntly — back in June 2012, you would have assumed that the entire car industry was suddenly consumed by an overwhelming desire to banish compression-ignition power plants from the face of the earth.

As it turned out, that assumption was too naive. Not only would car companies stubbornly refuse to surrender their diesel business, they would actually even devise ways to circumvent government regulations so that their otherwise dirty oil-burners could pass emission tests (looking at you, Volkswagen). And now, it’s taking courts of law around the world to force auto manufacturers to stop producing and selling diesel cars.

Two weeks ago, for instance, a German federal administrative court ruled that cities in Germany were legally entitled to ban diesel vehicles if these cities had already exceeded acceptable levels of air pollution. This should significantly dim the prospects of diesel engines in the near future. To think they had already been reeling from increasingly more stringent emission standards in the first place. For manufacturers with robust sales in Europe — where diesel cars are responsible for a huge chunk of their profit — this signals a dire need to look for alternatives. Which could explain the recent rash of electric prototypes from car firms.

But perhaps the biggest nail in diesel’s coffin is last week’s declaration by Japanese industry juggernaut Toyota that it would now phase out diesel models from European markets. Its termination of diesel offerings will reportedly commence as soon as this year. Now, if a car company as large as Toyota is no longer inclined to develop its diesel technology, it’s safe to say other brands have no choice but to follow suit.

Maybe there’s no more point in pouring in millions of dollars into research-and-development efforts just to make diesel engines meet impossibly high emission standards. Quit while they’re ahead and avert the losses, why don’t they?

But then, I also sat through a rather lengthy technical presentation by Mazda engineers in Hokkaido, Japan, last week, and they professed an unwavering faith in diesel engines. Well, at least in their diesel engines.

As you read this, the brand’s so-called Skyactiv-D clean diesel engine is already better than comparable oil-burners, according to Mazda’s technical boffins. Consider: The current 2.2-liter Skyactiv-D now has the industry’s lowest compression ratio (14:1), delivers a 40% improvement in fuel efficiency, and with 420 Nm offers the kind of driving performance commonly associated with 4.0-liter petrol V8 units. Perhaps best of all, it is said to be able to comply with strict emission standards even without the use of expensive after-treatment systems for nitrogen oxides. No need to cheat, in other words.

But we’re only talking here of the first-generation Skyactiv diesel engine. In Hokkaido, we were told that Mazda was already working on (and presumably perfecting) the second generation of its Skyactiv compression-ignition motor, which it plans to roll out in 2020.

So let’s get this straight: While First World countries and other automotive manufacturers are now slowly moving away from diesel propulsion, here’s Mazda still going at it. I can only surmise that it has found a way to build diesel engines whose emissions will not give its customers fatal respiratory diseases. I would hate to suspect that all of the technical lecture was just PR fluff. With all the media mileage the brand stands to get from that press event, someone is bound to test the company’s present and upcoming diesel power plants just to verify Mazda’s claims.

It the exhaust ends up killing a monkey, there’s hell to pay here, as Volkswagen most unfortunately discovered. I don’t think Mazda can survive the same fate.