Around the country, dealerships hawking "green" diesel cars are attracting middle-class drivers motivated by high gas prices and the threat of global warming. More than a dozen of these businesses are concentrated along the West Coast, where the biodiesel subculture is breaking into the mainstream.
Most of these clean-diesel entrepreneurs rely exclusively on the Internet for advertising, using their own Web sites and Craigslist classifieds to lure potential buyers, while a minority also showcase their wheels from streetside auto lots.
"In 2003, I came out of the closet and became a full-blown car dealer," said Steve Ahl, a former recycled-lumber salesman who is outfitting his used diesel car lot in Ukiah, Calif., with solar panels. "This isn't the typical suede shoe used car lot operation."
Ahl Motors TDI Cars has sold some 700 Volkswagen Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) diesels as well as Ford and Honda trucks, and currently stocks 25 models priced between $10,000 and $35,000. Ahl said most customers tell him they want to kick the fossil-fuel habit by using biodiesel.
After undergoing modifications that cost as little as $50 or as much as $2,000, diesel cars can chug either petroleum-based diesel, crop-based biodiesel, vegetable oil from the deep-fryers of fast-food kitchens, or even a combination of the three.
Ahl Motors' models can accept biodiesel after minimal modifications. When oil prices spiked more than two years ago, sales took off and have grown steadily since then, fluctuating with the rise and fall of the cost of diesel, according to Ahl. Although the Northern California lot attracts mostly politically progressive customers--including actor Peter Coyote, who bought a 2006 Volkswagen Jetta TDI last fall--Ahl also sees a fair share of shoppers who vote to the right.
"I have sold to conservative Republicans just because these cars make economical sense," he said. (Ahl Motors' only other salesman has a mobile phone ringtone that exclaims, "Democrats piss me off," whenever Ahl calls.)
Whatever the political motivation of buyers, the longevity and fuel-efficiency of diesel cars is a key selling point for Ahl's customers. An odometer clocking 100,000 miles may indicate old age for a gasoline engine, but that's a sign of youth for diesel cars like Volkswagen TDIs, which are built to last half a million miles.
"I have never seen such passion for an automobile that was not a limited edition sports car or a collector's edition," Ahl said. "They're sporty, economical and they go forever."
In tests by AutoWeek magazine last year, a Volkswagen Jetta TDI achieved 49.9 miles per gallon, besting the 42 miles per gallon of a Toyota Prius. With or without biodiesel, which hovers around $3.50 per gallon in California, such fuel economy can translate to savings at the pump. Some of Ahl's customers have come from as far as San Diego and Seattle intending to replace a hybrid Toyota or Honda with a Volkswagen TDI and run it on biodiesel.
"It's not an ivory-tower environmentalism; it's very real," Sienna Wildwind said of using biodiesel. In 2005 she launched Green Means Go, a one-woman brokerage that helps people in the Bay Area locate and purchase used diesel Volkswagens. She broke even last year with earnings from sales of cars as well as the tongue-and-cheek "Women of Biodiesel 2007" calendar she published.
"A lot of people find that driving in this culture is their only way of getting around, and using biodiesel or straight vegetable oil makes a big difference in our carbon dioxide output," she said. "It's a real solution that people can do without a big change in lifestyle."
Although diesel sedans and station wagons may be practical and fuel-efficient workhorses, other models attract a glitzier following. In Los Angeles, publicist Colette Brooks has built a business gussying up vintage diesel cars.
"I have a 1984, rare Lincoln Continental Bill Blass edition that is gold on gold, baby," she said. "This thing is so pimp; I feel like Barry White when I'm driving. There's an old-English-meets-gang typeface on the back that says 'ecology,' and tinted windows."
Brooks' company, BioBling, acquires rare Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen models from around the country, modifies each one for biodiesel and offers customizations such as fake fur interiors, glittery paint jobs and flat-screen televisions. She has sold 20 vehicles so far and receives about two calls or e-mails each day from potential customers--the same number of requests that trickled in monthly when BioBling launched in 2005.
Brooks, who can be found cruising Los Angeles in a 1979 Cadillac El Dorado Biarritz or one of her seven other biodiesel whips, noted that business grew after the release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth global warming film last year.