Volvo brings diesel to meet US mileage rules

Volvo, Sweden's largest vehiclemaker, expects to sell some 5,800 diesel-engine-equipped cars in the United States this year. It shouldn't be too hard to do.

The in-line 6-cylinders is the result of a collaborative effort between Volkswagenwerk AG and Volvo and is built in a VW plant in West Germany. The deal calls for Volvo to use the engine in automobiles alone -- a 4-dollar sedan and wagong -- while VW will use it in trucks.

The base price of the Volvo diesel sedan is $12,200; the wagon, $12,700. The cheapest Mercedes costs a few thousand dollars more.

The new car has the same exterior trim as the top-of-the-line Volvo GLE. What's the difference? The gas-engine GLE has cast spoke wheels, while the diesel uses steel.

The new model, which has been sold in Europe for the last 18 months, is highly important to Volvo if it hopes to meet US mileage standards in mid-decade. Without it, Volvo would fall far short of the 27 1/2-mile-a-gallon requirement for 1985.

Indicating its importance in the future, Bjorn Ahlstrom, president of Volvo of America Inc., asserts: "The diesel will represent 35 to 40 percent of our car volume in the US.'

The diesel is nothing new to the Swedish car and truck manufacturer. Volvo has been involved in diesel technology since the 1930s, but only in trucks engine as far back as 1950. As for a turbocharged auto diesel, "It's still a few years away," the Volvo executive says.

Does the new Volvo diesel perform up to the manufacturer's claims for it?

In a 1,600-mile, four-day trip, the car did exactly what the manufacturer said it would do -- provide a solid, quiet ride, give respectable mileage, and cradle the occupants in about as safe an environment as one can find in automobiles today.

Admittedly, Swedish car designers may not be as inspired as some of the other Europeans and the Japanese; nonetheless, Volvo has an overall reputation that is as solid as the car itself.

Unfortunately, cars are not always prepared as well as they should be for such early testing in a new-car market. The air conditioner had the habit of spilling water into the front compartment on the passenger side, and the automatic-shift mechanism was out of whack.

Even so, the trip provided a hearty 28-mile-per-gallon average -- about half of what a well-running 4-cylinder Volkswagen diesel Rabbit can be expected to give on the road. But there is a big difference in weight between the two vehicles. The Volvo -- 6 cylinders instead of 4 -- weighs some 1,300 pounds more than the Rabbit.

"We first began to think about the diesel in the early 1970s," Mr. Ahlstrom reports."At that time diesels were not a very large part of the passenger-car market, but we realized there would be a big demand for the diesel in the 1980 s."

Then General Motors came along with an 8-cylinder diesel, followed by a "6", and West Germany's Mercedes-Benz expanded its diesel market in the US till today it's about 75 percent of all Mercedes automobiles sold here. Peugeot also pushed forward its 504 -- and now the 505 -- diesel, and International began selling a Nissan-built diesel in its Scout.

If not stamped "in violation" by the federal government because of emissions, GM expected that at least 15 percent of all its cars sold by 1985 would be diesels.

Thus, looking around for a partner, Volvo turned to VW, which had already developed both 4- and 5-cylinders passenger-car diesels.

"VW told us it was thinking about a '6' as well, but it didn't have a car in which to use it, although it could be put in a truck," the Swedish auto executive notes. "The company said it couldn't justify the cost of developing the '6' because of its limited use in commercial vehicles."

Volvo and VW teamed up to come forth with a "6".

"While the diesel is based on a VW engine, a lot of Volvo engineering went into it so as to meet the emissions standards in the US," Mr. Ahlstrom reports. The transmission is built by Volvo.

The new Volvo diesel -- new to the US, that is -- was introduced at the Paris Auto Show in the fall of 1978 and was dubbed the "whispering diesel" by a contingent of automotive journalists. Compression ratio is 23 1/2 to 1.

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