Pulling Profits with Diesel Performance

Mar 8, 2011

The diesel market dances a fine line in the performance world. Sometimes it comes on strong like a smoke-belching diesel tractor puller, while other times it slides into the market quietly under the radar.

Diesel discussions range from the newest technologically advanced diesel engines to hot aftermarket products to emissions rules and other regulations that affect the market.

So, what’s up with diesel these days? That’s what we asked our sources.

Market Movement

Our first question centered on the market today.

Zack Hamilton of Hamilton Cams notes that last year’s tire-kickers are this year’s buyers.

“We are seeing an increase in our customers’ disposable income, which directly relates to the ticket size and the quantities of orders,” he says. “The tough economy has been good in weeding out companies with less-than-ideal business practices such as long lead times or less performance per dollar spent. People are looking for real value in what they buy. They want to see the best gains possible for the lowest price. This trend is allowing the cream to rise to the top.”

And speaking of rising, that’s exactly what he sees diesel doing in the eyes of many performance enthusiasts.

“Standalone ECMs are allowing higher rpms and unlocking a lot of horsepower potential,” Hamilton explains. “Companies traditionally associated with the gasoline world are seeing the higher profit margin potential of the diesel market. This is shifting the trend of modifying OE components to having a broad range of aftermarket hard parts available to us. This is an exciting time in diesel.”

A few years back, some predicted that diesel vehicles of all types would make huge market gains in the U.S. And while the recession may have restricted some of that anticipated growth, the potential of diesel is still high.

“Due to the recession and the government’s embrace of EVs and hybrids, the diesel market stands in a spot of uncertainty. (But) clearly there are OEMs who are pushing forward and bringing diesels to market,” says Kyle Snyder of turbo company Garrett by Honeywell. “The Detroit Three have their pickups embroiled in a horsepower and torque war the likes of which we’ve never seen, and we’re witnessing successes from VW and Audi as well as some newer models from BMW and Mercedes, among others.

“I do believe there is a lot of potential, given the inherent advantages of diesel engines in fuel economy and off-the-line power,” he adds. “On the whole, though, the economic downturn as well as differences in emissions regulations between the U.S. and Europe have stymied the progress that diesel engines were predicted to make in America.”

But overall diesel awareness seems to be increasing-even as its black smoke dissipates.

“Diesel is a strong market (that is) becoming much wiser when it comes to balancing raw horsepower versus the amount of smoke we pump out the exhaust,” says Brad Ekstam of FASS. “This may be an effect of the EPA coming down on those purely disrespecting others on the road by completely blackening out the vehicles behind them.”

According to Gale Banks of Gale Banks Engineering, it’s a market full of potential.

“The automotive market is filled with cautious OEs. All, for the most part, have wonderful power plants that are being sold overseas. These engines have the latest technology, run quiet and clean and are itching to make their way here,” he says. “Unfortunately, diesel still has a negative image to contend with in most folks’ minds here in the States. All the negatives are gone, though.

“Today diesel is a match for any gasoline engine, with added durability and mileage to boot. I see the market as something that’s going to grow, especially in the smaller vehicle segments.”

Performance Products

Many enthusiasts are attracted to diesel’s power potential, and aftermarket sales reports reflect their passion for performance.

“Power is the name of the game in diesel upgrades,” says Snyder. “Everything from intakes and exhaust to products like handheld tuners, re-flash boxes, larger injectors and turbochargers are the most common ways to increase horsepower and torque.

“In particular, customers who buy diesel trucks need the power to tow, haul or drag-race their pickup without it stumbling. There are plenty of opportunities for shops that know how to make big, reliable power. Make no mistake, diesel truck owners are serious about their pickups and are prepared to spend the money to get the power they want.”

An exciting benefit for diesel shops is that many tuning products also increase engine efficiency, effectively providing more with less.

“Products that increase the dependability, life of the truck and increase fuel mileage are hot products,” notes Ekstam. “Some products in the marketplace not only accomplish this, but also increase horsepower, (and) I have never seen anyone complain of this side effect!”

Tuning and bolt-on products make diesels a quick profit center. But now some owners are digging deeper.

“We are seeing a lot of money spent on programming of OE computers and aftermarket ECMs. Many of our customers will have three or more programmers that they switch between,” says Hamilton. “I am really excited (about the) release of ball-bearing turbos. In the past, the largest part of the diesel aftermarket has been bolt-ons. In the last three years, we are seeing major growth in hard parts and custom engine internals.”

It’s all about getting the most out of those powerful diesels.

“Probably the biggest thing now is electronics-”programmers and tuners to be specific,” says Banks. “We manufacture both. Modern diesel injection tuning is an art form. Almost anyone can effect a change, but doing it right and honoring the customer’s investment, well, that separates the men from the boys.”

Popular Platforms

While diesel-powered cars are slowing making inroads, when it comes to popular platforms, U.S. trucks lead the way by a wide margin.

“I don’t think there is not a hot diesel vehicle, as the Big Three have some good, close competition between them when it comes to performance off the showroom floor,” says Ekstam. “This is coming from a hardcore Dodge Cummins man.”

Hamilton, too, sees Cummins as a diesel leader.

“For years, the Dodge Cummins has been the king of the hill with the largest segment of the diesel aftermarket. This is still the case, but we are seeing a lot of growth in customers with GM Duramax trucks and a lot of interest in the TDI market. We are also seeing more people investing in their older Dodge trucks (1989-’98), opting to modify their current vehicle rather than buy a new truck.”

Snyder agrees.

“The obvious diesel vehicles that everyone thinks about are the pickups: the Ford Power Stroke, the GM Duramax and the Dodge Cummins. These owners are often heavily involved in modifying their trucks-sometimes particularly if it is a work truck. There are multiple Internet forums, diesel magazines and even television shows that focus on how to get the most out of your truck. The new diesels are monstrously powerful from the factory and it is going to be interesting to see what diesel shops can do to push them even further.”

And there’s still room for diesel cars.

“Truck offerings from Ford, GM and Dodge are powerful and dependable,” Banks notes. “The European auto companies are starting to make their diesel products available here as well. I drive a VW Jetta myself, and it’s a little rocket as well as a Clean Car of the Year recipient.”

Making it Work

From perception to customer identification, there are many challenges facing the diesel market.

“In the past, the average person that could afford to own a diesel truck and modify it was a middle-aged male. They were very brand loyal, were more likely to stick with a quality manufacturer regardless of price point and were conscientious of their emissions,” says Hamilton of Hamilton Cams. “Today, that demographic has shifted considerably to a younger generation, as the price of older diesel trucks has dropped. These customers have less disposable income to spend, which affects the kind of products they purchase.

“This creates a few challenges,” he continues. “First, marketing is affected as there is a much wider age group that you are trying to sell to. It can be a challenge to reach all groups with a single form of media. The second challenge is the negative press that this group brings to diesel performance. They are less concerned about oil leaks, excessive black smoke or their impact on the community. This, if not addressed, could have a major negative impact on the diesel aftermarket.”

Banks of Gale Banks Engineering notes that the entire market is becoming more intricate.

“Diesel management systems are getting more robust, and as a result more difficult to tune,” he says. “Emissions constraints on today’s diesels are pretty tough, too. Getting performance with economy while remaining clean and compliant is a chore, but we’ve always been up to the task.”

Garrett by Honeywell’s Snyder agrees that people’s attitudes about diesels are still changing.

“The market as a whole has two major challenges to overcome. First is the general public perception of diesels being loud, dirty and slow. This outdated idea finally seems to be giving way to the reality that diesels can be quiet, clean and powerful,” he says. “There was even a BMW commercial that ran during the Super Bowl this year that focused on this misperception.

“The second challenge is emissions regulations and definitions,” he adds. “About half of all passenger cars in Europe run on diesel fuel. The U.S. is nowhere near that because many of the popular diesel models cannot pass the emissions regulations of this country because the two continents define an ’emission’ slightly differently. Innovations like enhanced EGRs and DEF have allowed them to compete, but have also led to higher sticker prices. Diesel trucks are now outfitted with extremely complicated emissions equipment as well. Here in California, we have recently seen emissions testing of diesel vehicles for the first time, leading many to question whether they should upgrade their vehicle or not, (and) putting the performance aftermarket in a tight spot.”

When it comes to diesel competitions, FASS’ Ekstam notes that racers and suppliers must get on the same page as far as promoting the market.

“There seems to be a high demand regarding sponsorships. Some individuals have a good perspective of why manufacturers want to invest in such sponsorships, while others want us to give just to be giving so they can get something for free. Some of those requesting free product just don’t realize how much they are supposed to support the sponsoring manufacturer and what it takes to do so.

“Supporting a sponsor is not just slapping a sticker on and showing up at events,” he continues. “They need to present a professional appearance and conduct themselves in (a professional) manner. They need to have the ability to speak to potential customers about their sponsors’ product features and benefits while not cutting down their competition. In the past, I’ve even heard some (racers) discrediting their vehicle sponsors when something went wrong! Also supplying photos and videos to the manufacturers throughout the year can be huge for their advertising campaign.”

Coming Soon

So the question now becomes, where is the market headed, and what does it mean for aftermarket shops that deal in diesel performance.

“With professional race teams and higher-end automobiles entering the diesel marketplace, this market has unlimited potential,” notes Ekstam. “We must proceed with discipline, respect, morals and ethics as a guide. An example is in the professional circles of the NHRDA. They are hosting events that the whole family can enjoy. I see the NHRDA growing to a stature in the diesel market in which the NHRA stands in the gas market.”

On the home front, Snyder sees diesel pickups as always having a place.

“There will almost certainly always be a home for diesel trucks. The work of this country simply cannot be done without them,” he says. “With those trucks come the many owners who want to push them to their limits by modifying them for more power. The market could also expand for pickups if the rumors of smaller diesel trucks become a reality, but so far, nothing is concrete.”

And can cars really be far behind?

“Obviously, as a turbo manufacturer, I really want to believe that diesel passenger cars have a bright future. I’ve driven a number of them and they are easily the equal or better of their gasoline counterparts and are extremely fun to drive, given that they have such great torque,” he says. “It is difficult to predict their growth in this country, but I’m still bullish that we’ll see them become more common in the coming years.”

Hamilton adds that diesel’s future depends somewhat on economic and environmental factors.

“If emissions legislation doesn’t cripple the aftermarket and fuel prices don’t become excessive, the performance diesel aftermarket will continue to grow long into the future,” he says. “You will continue to see growth in hard parts and products that focus on airflow and overall engine efficiency. Better fuel economy and better power-there will always be a market for that!”

And Banks explains how the diesel market is playing its part in moving the entire automotive industry forward.

“I see diesel as a bridge technology. There are a lot of ideas out there for new technologies on how to power our vehicles with their roots based in fact, while some of them are purely political. Diesel, because of its technological maturity and flexibility, will offer the emerging solutions to gain time to come to fruition. More and more diesels are going to come to market, and we’ll all be able to enjoy their clean power and efficiency.”