Ask Not For Whom The Internet Buzzes; It Buzzes For Diesel

If Internet buzz has legitimacy as a bellwether for market trends, Mercedes-Benz has reason to be sanguine. So do Volkswagen, Audi, Honda and BMW, which are also either rolling out diesel or dabbling in it. Mercedes is prepping a big rollout next year of its BlueTec clean-diesel engines in the U.S., with diesel-powered SUV and crossovers rolling into showrooms in 50 states in the fall next year.

In its newest automotive report, which analyzes consumer discussion share and sentiment for alternative, clean diesel and hybrid engine technologies against that of traditional gasoline engines, BrandIntel says consumers are interested.

The report, "Shaping the Future of Automotive Engine Technology," draws a skein through an online sea of consumer-generated content about automobiles in blogs, discussion groups, forums and other public sites from Jan. 1, 2006, to Oct. 31, 2007. It found that U.S. consumers now see diesel as a legitimate contender in an emerging, comparable alternative to hybrid and gasoline engines.



Discussion share for diesel engines increased by 75% this year versus 2006, while hybrid discussion increased by just over 16%. Over the course of 2007, Mercedes-Benz gained momentum relative to diesel engine market leader Volkswagen. Discussion share for Mercedes-Benz diesel technology increased over 106%, while discussion volumes for Volkswagen experienced a 46% decrease.

Although consumers expressed high sentiment around hybrid technology's reliability as opposed to clean engine diesel technology (partially due to the perceived quality associated with top hybrid manufacturers such as Toyota and Lexus), the top three attributes consumers discussed around each technology were fuel economy, engine appeal and environmental impact. Diesel engines received more positive consumer sentiment around these three attributes than hybrid technology.

Despite high gasoline technology discussion levels, this type of engine experienced a significant drop in discussion share in Q3 2007, as consumer content shifted toward more efficient clean-engine alternatives like hybrid and diesel technology, which have both seen an increase in discussion volume since the latter part of 2007. The firm sees a two-horse race online between VW and Mercedes when it comes to diesel, and a one-horse race with hybrid, with Toyota and Lexus garnering over 60% of online chatter about hybrid vehicles.

Vince Bucciachio, BrandIntel auto analyst says the seed of doubt was sown by the late 2006 EPA report that adjusted the miles-per-gallon ratings downward. "That had an effect on the market," he says. "Hybrid technology, in terms of miles per gallon, took the biggest blow along with gasoline. But diesel has been under the radar. Now we are seeing new diesel technology, including clean diesel, the fact that consumers can use bio-diesel, and new players coming into the space, all of it is creating a bit of buzz and excitement."

The report notes that between 2006 and 2007, positive sentiment around diesel went from 50% for VW and 15% favoring Mercedes to 31% for VW and 27% favoring Mercedes.

Still, and even though interest in gasoline technology dropped by 10% in online discussions between 2006 and 2007, diesel discussion has increased from 8% to 14%, with gasoline at 57% and hybrid garnering 35% of online talk. While diesel is very big in Europe because of the historically high price of gasoline there, it has not caught on the United States, partly because the technology in the 1980s got a reputation for causing obstreperous and flatulent performance in cars unfortunate enough to have diesel engines.

Volkswagen began offering its common-rail diesel engines in U.S.-bound versions of Golf, Passat and Jetta early in the millennium, but sales have been limited because of the unfavorable gasoline/diesel price ratio ... until now. With crude at $100 a barrel, diesel, which boasts far better mileage and has the added benefit of low-end torque, is looking good. Mercedes is pitching BlueTec both for fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness.

"When we capture this data, we do consumer profiling: we look at contributors of conversation and track, when we can, gender, age, and location," says Bucciachio. "So when we looked at age groups we saw that sentiment was not as positive with older generations, who remembered older diesels. But younger age groups don't have that negative.

"News is going to stimulate and generate consumer discussion; so Mercedes is driving discussion because of BlueTec, and VW is naturally going to lose some of that share."

Alan Dean, vice president/business innovation at BrandIntel, says the tenor of online chatter is a good prediction of market direction. "We will see more next year, with automakers introducing new technologies, including diesel. So we will see substantial gains for both diesel and hybrid," he says. "But the one that will look more surprising to some people is diesel."

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