Toyota and Honda have taken the lead in gas-electric hybrid vehicles; while some manufacturers are scrambling to catch up, others are contemplating an alternative strategy for the U.S. market ... diesel powered vehicles.

Those manufacturers may not be too far off the mark. According to a new study by TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, a paradigm shift in consumer sentiment is underway that may make diesel vehicles as common in the U.S. as they are in Europe.

For starters, hybrids are not the only show in town — in fact, the vast majority of Americans are familiar with other methods of powering their vehicles, with diesel (80%) and natural gas (70%) taking the lead.

"Hybrid vehicles are gaining broader appeal among Americans," says Raghavan Mayur, president of AutoView, the automotive division of TechnoMetrica. "But a majority are also aware of the benefits of diesel powered vehicles, which presents a strategic conundrum for the auto industry."

What conundrum? According to Mayur, a key strategic decision facing auto manufacturers is which way to go: the diesel way or the hybrid way?

While the hybrid option is attractive, many Americans are still concerned that they lack power and performance and are difficult to service. On the other hand, diesels are seen as being reliable with few breakdowns (80%), performing as good as, or better than, traditional gasoline vehicles (51%), and sporting higher fuel efficiency (50%).

"Not only do diesels generally get good marks in important areas," says Mayur, "but most Americans also perceive diesel fuel as being conveniently available where they live. All in all, diesel vehicles present an attractive option for manufacturers to pursue — at least from the consumer standpoint."

The downside? Consumers continue to say that diesel vehicles are noisy, smelly and a worse source of pollution than traditional gasoline vehicles. However, today’s diesel vehicles are a far cry from their forebears, lacking the noise, smell and black smoke that made their predecessors the bane of drivers.

Some industry observers say that U.S. manufacturers cannot hope to compete with the Japanese on hybrid vehicles. However, according to TechnoMetrica, they may not have to if they tap into the diesel market.

"Our research shows that American consumers will likely accept diesels if more manufacturers follow Volkswagen’s lead and market diesels to Americans."

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