Consumer demands for better fuel economy, pressure on carmakers to reduce CO2 emissions and the introduction by manufacturers of more advanced diesel engine technology are key factors helping to fuel the continued rise in diesel passenger car sales across Europe, according to a report by independent technology provider Ricardo Consulting Engineers.

The company says diesel engine vehicle market penetration increased by almost another four percentage points last year, with record sales for the first time exceeding 5 million vehicles.

In 2000, diesel car sales across Europe reached 4.76 million vehicles, a market penetration of around 32 percent.

In 2001, sales increased by a further 12.1 percent, passing the five million threshold, to reach 5.33 million, with market penetration rising to almost 36 percent.

At this rate, Ricardo estimates that diesel car sales will reach a market penetration in excess of 40 percent in 2002 and 50 percent, potentially, by 2005.

The major markets of France and Germany continue to enjoy rapid growth with Italy experiencing more modest increases. Sales of diesel cars in France, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg already exceed those for petrol-powered cars.

The UK, which for six years has experienced a steady decline, saw a significant turnaround last year with a sharp rise in diesel sales of 39 percent.

Ricardo says that improvements in diesel engine performance, driving characteristics and refinement are helping to drive the rapid growth of diesel engine sales across Europe.

"In order to meet consumer demands for better fuel economy and to meet EU CO2 emission targets of 140g/km by 2008, car makers are directing a lot of effort towards diesel engine technology," said Ricardo diesel engineering director Ian Penny.

"We have now reached a stage where the technological development of the diesel engine has caught up with petrol. A new generation of high-pressure fuel injection systems, variable geometry turbochargers coupled with improvements in cooling techniques have all helped to eradicate traditional disadvantages associated with diesel engines.

“In addition to the lower fuel consumption cost incentive, I am not surprised that many potential car buyers today actually prefer the performance and refinement of modern diesel engines.”

"Manufacturers are also making the diesel option more attractive by increasing the number of diesel models in their ranges. In view of all this, we expect diesel to match petrol car sales throughout Europe by 2005 or 2006."