A story in Autocar India recently mentioned that Hyundai has decided to pull the plug on their diesel variant of the i20 hatchback. This a few months after they stopped selling diesel options on the i10 Nios hatchback and Aura sedan. This has been a gradual trend over the years not just for Hyundai. Maruti-Suzuki and Skoda Auto-Volkswagen have altogether stopped selling diesel engines.
In the early 2000s, when the first Suzuki Swift hatchback came out, it was an immensely popular car. It helped the Japanese manufacturer retain the top spot among India’s carmakers. But it was when Maruti licensed the 1.3 Fiat Multijet engine, called the 1.3 DDiS and gave the Swift a diesel option, that it really took off. Over half of the Swift’s sales in those days were of the diesel variant. Diesel was so popular that when Maruti brought the first-generation Brezza in the market, it was diesel-only. And other carmakers cottoned on this as well, small diesel engines such as a one-litre engine on the Chevrolet Beat came into being.
And it was the government that created this demand for diesels, thanks to the price difference between petrol and diesel at the pump, which back in the 2000s was close to Rs 10-15 a litre and petrol around Rs 50-60/litre, the good old days indeed. But that was not just it, diesel was also far more economical. On the Swift, for example, while the K12 petrol was extremely efficient and could easily deliver 13-15 km per litre in urban conditions, the DDiS could give 17-18 km per litre. Yes, the diesel motor cost more to buy, as carmakers pocketed a decent profit, but even if you were driving just 1000-1200 km per month, you’d make back the extra money on buying a diesel in three-four years, let alone the additional resale value.
Unfortunately, when things started doing well, carmakers began to believe the hype around ‘clean diesel’. After all, with such extreme efficiency, diesels were far more efficient per kilometer in terms of pure carbon emissions. This ignored the fact that diesel, by nature of being a heavier fraction of the crude oil refining process, emitted far more particulate matter, benzene as well as nitrogen and sulphur oxides. Examples were cited about how Europe had moved bag and baggage towards diesel motive power.
In the two largest automotive markets in the world, the United States and China, diesel never really took-off. In both countries, the governments never did really trust the carmakers’ claims that diesel engines had cleaned up their act. Of course, diesel was important for freight haulage where the better low-end grunt of a diesel motor came in handy, but the fuel was still dirty, right? In the US, carmakers, particularly Volkswagen, managed to convince authorities that ‘no, diesel was in fact cleaner than before.’ And thanks to better combustion and software, diesel motors met emission norms.
But it didn’t. When researchers put those diesel cars to the test, they found some clever bits of software. Basically, the car knew it was being tested for emissions and altered its fuel burn accordingly to be cleaner. Never had a clearer case of pulling the wool over the authorities’ eyes been made and Volkswagen, whose cars cheated, paid a heavy price in fines for this. This scandal took all the sheen off diesel. Diesel cars were not as ‘clean’ as they were hyped up to be, the medieval town squares of several European cities were filling up with soot thanks to diesel becoming so popular.
And in India, diesel cars had one big opponent, Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), who made the Supreme Court take suo moto notice of this issue at the time that Delhi was having a bout of unbreathable air. Long story short, the SC banned the sale of diesel cars with engines above two litres and did not permit diesel tractors over ten years old to be operated in the National Capital Region (NCR). While the former ban was lifted, the latter continues and has played a major role in making the car market change as the NCR remains India’s most important automotive market.
It was soon afterwards that Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to accelerate India’s emissions standards. Bharat Stage 5 norms would be skipped and India would go straight from Bharat Stage 4 to Bharat Stage 6 norms. And this is why small diesels are dying out today. While Bharat Stage 6 norms have been around for a couple of years, several carmakers did not think it was worthwhile to invest in new diesel engines. Others like Hyundai-Kia made do with adding new diesel particulate filters (DPF) in their engines.
But on 1 April 2023, things will change yet again when the ‘Real Driving Emissions’ (RDE) standard kicks in, the so-called Bharat Stage 6B. And while meeting these standards is not impossible, it is going to be expensive, very expensive for a small car with a small diesel motor. Cars will have to get a Selective Catalytic Reactor (SCR), which will mix a water-urea solution called ‘Ad-Blue’ into a catalytic reactor to clean up the emissions, making them almost as clean as a petrol car. Vehicles like the i20, which used a smaller 1.2-litre diesel engine, might not have made sense to shift over, but Hyundai-Kia’s portfolio has a significant amount of diesel power, especially the 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine and it is almost certain that this particular engine will be modified to meet the new norms.
But the question remains: at what cost and how much more are you, the consumer, willing to pay for the privilege of owning a diesel? A very clean diesel, but a much more expensive one. And here is another irony of the situation — these new norms will make diesel engines less efficient.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)