Figures collated by Automotive Industry Data Limited (AID) for a recent report show that diesel car penetration in Europe is now at an all-time high of 19.6 per cent, against 17.3 per cent at the same time last year.
'Like manna from heaven,' says the report, 'diesels this year helped cushion the severe body blow for a deeply suffering industry which is either putting most of its dispirited workforce on short time or axing thousands of jobs in a last ditch effort to cut costs.'
There has certainly been impressive growth in diesel car sales in the UK in recent years. A decade ago they accounted for one per cent of new car sales; today it's close to 20 per cent. And yet there are no immediate financial incentives to switching to diesel; successive Chancellors have ensured diesel fuel prices remain close to those of petrol. In every other European country there is a significant price difference between diesel and petrol. In France, for example, unleaded petrol is as much as 18p a litre more expensive than diesel, while leaded fuel can be 21p a litre dearer. Even in Ireland, one of the few European countries where diesel is more expensive than in the UK, there is still an incentive to run a diesel car in the form of a differential of up to 9p per litre between diesel and petrol prices at the pumps.
So what exactly is driving British motorists in their thousands to diesel? First, the availability of modern engines that are quiet, smooth, clean and provide performance which is often virtually indistinguishable from petrol-engined counterparts. Second is a change in perception from the old 'slow, foul-smelling and noisy' concept. Third is a growing realisation that, on balance, diesel engines probably offer a better environmental package than petrol engines. Fourth - and perhaps most important - is the understanding that diesels are cheaper to run and maintain than petrol-engined equivalents.
Gone are the days when diesel cars cost considerably more than petrol- engined models to buy up-front; many manufacturers now actually make a point of pricing both diesel and petrol versions of a particular model at exactly the same level.
In general, diesels require less maintenance than petrol engines and are less likely to go wrong. Furthermore, residual values of diesel cars is still generally higher than those for equivalent petrol models.
And the final advantage is that despite the lack of a clear differential between petrol and diesel prices at the pumps, diesels have the undoubted built-in advantage of inherently superior fuel consumption - so less has to be spent at the filling station for a given mileage.
The message is getting across to increasing numbers of people, but perhaps most crucial of all to the inexorable rise in diesel sales is the rapidly growing acceptance of diesels in the all-important fleet sector. A survey of 190 fleet managers with an average fleet size of 380 vehicles was carried out at Diesel Drive '93 in May. It revealed that 61 per cent of medium and large fleet operators expect to have more diesel cars than petrol in their fleet, and that no less than 85 per cent were intending to increase the number of diesel cars in their fleets over the next 12 months. Nearly all - 98 per cent - believed that fleet operators would generally increase the number of diesel cars in their fleets.
The major factor the fleet operators quoted was the change in company car taxation, which comes in next April and which bases personal tax scales on the list price of the vehicle rather than on engine size as now.
Increasing numbers of companies are signing important diesel fleet deals. In recent months, for example, Wimpey, Mercury Communications and Olivetti have all bought significant numbers of Vauxhall diesels. Peugeot, Citroen and Rover are also seeing their fleet sales increase mainly as a result of switching to diesel.
According to the recent Lex Report on Motoring 1993, more than one in 10 company cars are now diesel. It is interesting to see that this increase in fleet activity in the diesel sector is stimulating yet another sector - the daily rental companies - to look harder at the diesel option.
Kenning Car and Van Rental recently signed a deal with Volkswagen and Audi to buy 505 diesel cars in 1993 for its daily rental fleets. The order marks the start of a major diesel evaluation programme as a combined demand for diesel cars from fleet operators and an increased acceptance of diesel product by drivers has meant a change of focus.
For the immediate future, diesel sales are expected to remain buoyant both in the UK and throughout Europe as both private and corporate buyers seek to cut costs in a harsh economic climate. The world's motor manufacturer, meanwhile, are meeting this challenge with new generations of ultra-economical, environmentally friendly and extremely quiet diesels which are not only technically more advanced, but which are priced close to or equal to equivalent petrol-engined alternatives.
The combination of factors - cheaper fuel in most markets, and cleaner more economical and more refined diesel cars in all of them - are likely to spur demand for the latest generation of diesel-powered cars.