Hubert Burda Media

More diesel cars in the market. Why?

Sales of diesel-powered cars are on the rise in Asia and carmakers are latching onto this recently emerging trend.

The proliferation of diesel cars is an emerging phenomenon in this part of the world, with an increasing number being sold in the past few years. According to statistics from Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA), there are now nearly 6,000 diesel-powered passenger cars on Singapore’s roads, a near tenfold increase from the numbers just four years ago.

It’s not just in Singapore. Elsewhere in Asia, diesel cars are also finding favour among buyers in Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, thanks in large part to relaxed legislation and taxation that have encouraged the adoption of these cars. As a result, carmakers are now offering a greater variety of diesel-powered models for consumers in the region.

Once thought of as a dirty, utilitarian fuel meant for heavy-duty use in commercial vehicles, diesels are now gaining greater acceptance as an alternative to traditional petrol, for their lower emissions output and markedly better  all-round fuel economy. Allied to the numerous tax rebates offered for “cleaner” cars, diesels now also offer an attractive package for those looking for lower taxation and consumption costs.

But while logically that means the most cost-effective diesel car would be a mainstream family model, there is also a growing trend of premium carmakers offering diesel options. The likes of BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati, to name but a few, have embraced the diesel movement, launching numerous models in recent times, with some garnering great popularity.

BMW, notably, has seen success from its recent diesel models, with the likes of the 116d and 216d Grand Tourer fast becoming its bestsellers in Singapore since their introduction in 2015. Part of that lies with the nation’s unique Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system, where cars are divided by engine capacity and power output. The delineation point is 1,600cc and 130bhp respectively, and anything above that is classified as a “big” car, typically incurring higher premiums that are added on to the selling price. BMW’s workaround in offering an “affordable” car to help boost sales is to introduce diesel models that come under that threshold, thereby enhancing the brand’s competitiveness in Singapore’s cutthroat automotive market.

But more than just selling price, diesel-powered cars also have the edge when it comes to running costs. For instance, prices of diesel fuel is significantly lower than that of petrol in Singapore, and when combined with the fact that diesels typically offer far better fuel economy, it can add up to significant savings in the long run. In addition, Singapore offers tax rebates or penalties on car purchases based on CO2 emissions and diesel cars typically benefit, thanks to their cleaner output. They do get a mark-up on road tax however, but typically the overall savings are enough to offset the taxation increase.

There is more to diesels than merely savings and environmentally friendliness. Diesel engines generally offer more torque, which suits those seeking added performance and pulling power. As such, they also appeal to drivers looking for a car that offers impressive acceleration and the ability to lug heavy loads. Which is why diesel engines are increasingly being found in a number of high-end performance brands and large sports-utility vehicles (SUVs).

Maserati, for one, introduced its first-ever diesel engine in its Quattroporte luxury sedan back in 2013 and quickly followed up with the Ghibli diesel sports sedan a year later. Porsche, too, offers diesel versions of its Macan and Cayenne SUVs, as well as its Panamera luxury sports tourer. Land Rover and Jaguar especially are huge proponents of diesels, with the majority of their line-up consisting of diesel models, a clear indication as to the brands’ trust in the formula.

Fans of diesels typically cite the extra torque as a pull factor. The extra boost gives the perception of improved performance, as more torque allows for better acceleration, and for large SUVs, a higher torque figure means that it can also pull a greater load — appealing for those who travel with plenty of passengers and baggage on board, en route to their weekend activities.

It is these qualities that have seen diesel-powered passenger cars garner increased acceptance and the relaxation in regulations governing them only serve to help their cause further. In Thailand, for instance, premium carmakers such as BMW have seen diesel sales go on the up and up since 2008 and a recent move towards CO2-based road taxation from the start of 2016 has only added to their appeal.

In South Korea too, BMW’s 520d has become the top-selling import model in the country over the past couple of years, with buyers drawn to its impressive acceleration and greater fuel efficiency, especially against the backdrop of rising gasoline prices. In response, domestic carmakers such as Hyundai and Kia have moved towards developing their own diesel models in an attempt to grab a slice of this pie.

However, diesel cars are not without their drawbacks. While much improved from the engines of yesteryear, critics still cite the characteristically noisy clatter as a major turn-off for some. Notably for buyers of premium cars, it is reminiscent of more utilitarian vehicles, including taxis and commercial vehicles, providing an image seemingly unfitting for a luxury car.

The green credentials of diesels have been called into question as well, notably in the wake of Volkswagen’s Dieselgate in 2015. In effect, the scandal revealed that Volkswagen inflated claims of its diesel cars’ emissions output, with a sophisticated system designed to reflect differing figures between official testing and actual on-road usage. The company is still in the throes of the fallout from the scandal and its impact could have lasting ramifications for the future of diesel power in the years ahead.

But there’s still no denying the benefits — in the current climate anyway. Their sales are expected to continue growing, as buyers seek to reduce their motoring costs and keep an eye out for the environment, without sacrificing too much on performance. Whatever the outcome of Dieselgate, it’s safe to say that diesel cars are here to stay for the foreseeable future, as their benefits certainly outweigh the drawbacks many times over.