Will your car make this lonely diesel pump feel better?(Photo: Jens Lucking, Stone+, Getty Images)

I've been hearing about the imminent breakthrough of diesel since I began writing about cars in the late 1980s.

Just around the corner, people said. Look at all the good diesel cars and people movers available in Europe. Wait until the price of gasoline tops a buck a litre, they said, and then people will wake up to diesel's fuel economy benefits. Just wait.

I'm still waiting, and judging from what people in the car and oil business tell me, I'm going to be waiting for some time.

Diesel has no stronger constituency than auto journalists like me. The Germans have been exporting excellent diesel cars, SUVs and crossovers into North America for years. We drive them, praise them and ... nothing.

Even believers doubt North American will embrace diesel like in Europe, where they make up more than half the passenger vehicles sold. But given the bountiful torque and vastly better fuel economy of modern turbo-diesels without the old-school diesel drawbacks of sluggish performance, smell and noise, you'd think they'd be doing better.

2012 Volkswagen Beetle TDI badge(Photo: Volkswagen)

VW is synonymous with diesel power.

Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have seen growth in diesel sales volumes but the overall expansion of the diesel segment has been incremental at best, which jibes with a slight rise in diesel fuel sales.

"Retail diesel sales [as a percentage of the overall retail sales pie] seem to be increasing ever so slightly," says Jason Parent, a senior analyst at MJ Ervin and Associates, which watches the petroleum-products industry, but he adds further growth will depend on consumer acceptance of diesel.

Diesel accounted for just three per cent of all passenger car and light truck retail sales in Canada last year, according to J.D. Power and Associates' Power Information Network sample data (other sources put it at four per cent). Out of about 1.59 million vehicles, that's roughly 48,000 oil burners.

A good percentage were pickup trucks with a diesel-engine option, which make up 11 per cent of non-fleet pickup sales. As senior Canadian manager Brian Murphy notes, sizable commercial fleet purchases have the potential to skew the figures.

Read diesel car reviews:
2012 VW Passat TDI Clean Diesel
2012 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD LTZ

By comparison, hybrids made up one per cent of retail vehicle sales, equivalent to less than 16,000 units. Remember that percentage for later.

The Germans are the biggest players in the non-pickup passenger diesel market and Volkswagen is the volume seller, with versions of its TDI Clean Diesel power train available on the Golf line, Jetta and Passat sedans and Touareg midsize SUV (which just won the title of Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year). It will be offered on the redesigned Beetle in the 2013 model year.

2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI(Photo: Volkswagen)

Cute meets frugal with the next-gen VW Beetle TDI, on sale later this year.

VW has put marketing muscle behind its diesel models, including TV ads featuring drivers taking bladder-busting trips to illustrate TDI's thousand-kilometre range.

"Although we do not publish sales figures for our engines on a model-by-model basis, TDI Clean Diesels currently account for almost one third of all Volkswagens sold in Canada," Thomas Tetzlaff, VW Canada's media relations manager says.

Volkwagen sold about 52,600 vehicles last year, so that's about 17,500 diesels, or more than a third of all the passenger diesels sold in Canada.

Mercedes-Benz sold almost 33,000 vehicles, including Smart, of which diesel models made up just over 17 per cent or about 5,600 units — mostly E-Class sedans, and M-Class SUVs. BMW, which has two diesel models in its lineup — an X5 SUV and a 335 sedan — sold about 1,500 diesels in 2011, most of them the sport-ute.