They may be pricier, but cheaper fuel has resulted in sales of diesel cars steadily outstripping their petrol counterparts ever since the price differential widened in May. With diesel cheaper by an average of 53% across the major metros, buyers are making a beeline for cars powered by these engines. Some 56% of all compacts sold in August were diesel cars. The figure has steadily risen from 39% in July 2010 to 45% in January to 51% in June. Compacts, which range from the Chevrolet Beat to the Maruti Swift, Volkswagen Polo and Ford Figo, account for 70% of all cars sold. It's a similar story in the sedan segment comprising models such as the Honda City, Volkswagen Vento, Maruti SX4, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Verna and Chevrolet Aveo. A year ago, diesel vehicles comprised just 28% of the car market. That figure would be as high as 64% now, according to estimates by industry insiders. "Nobody anticipated anything like this. How do you prepare for that kind of swing?" asks Mayank Pareek, marketing sales executive officer, Maruti Suzuki. But prepare they have to. When the price difference between diesel and petrol was 9 last year, 55% of Maruti's customers preferred the diesel option in the segments in which India's largest car maker offered that option. Today, when the difference between petrol and diesel prices is more than 20, 85% of them are opting for the diesel version. In the April to August period, Maruti sold about 4 lakh cars, with diesel models accounting for a little over a fifth of those sales. Maruti offers diesel variants in four of its 12 models - the Swift, SX4, Ritz and Swift DZire. As Suzuki isn't best known for diesel technology, it has partnered with Fiat for engine supply. In 2011 so far, three-fourths of the Swifts, three-fifths of the Swift DZires and two-thirds of the Ritz models sold have been diesel variants. In comparison just two-thirds of Swifts and under half of Ritz cars sold a year ago were diesel models. The shift has been more dramatic for Ford India. Till around December 2010, around 55% of the Figo's sales were of diesel versions. That figure has now shot up to 75%. VW, which bet on diesel early on in India, is reaping the benefits. All its cars in India are available in diesel, barring the Beetle. In fact, VW's sedan Passat is available only in diesel. At the other end of the spectrum, around 70% of VW Polo cars sold a year ago were petrol. Today the split is 50:50. "I see a slightly further skew towards diesel. Diesel technology has evolved so much that I see a preference for diesel even when the subsidy is reduced," says Neeraj Garg, director, Volkswagen (passenger cars) India. Toyota has just launched the diesel variants of the Etios sedan and small car Liva. "We have seen the market dynamics changing and the rapid shift toward diesel cars. Customers are gradually buying diesel despite the higher ticket price," says Sandeep Singh, deputy managing director (marketing), Toyota Kirloskar. The share of Toyota's diesel vehicles in its total sales in India has grown to over 70% in the past two months. For Hyundai India the swing has not been as dramatic. Before the price hike, the diesel to petrol ratio stood at 31:69; the diesel portion has now climbed up to 39%. This may partly have to do with the fact that some of the volume-led models such as the Santro and i10 are not available in diesel. (Hyundai offers diesel in the i20 and Verna). Hyundai so far has been importing diesel engines but that is set to change in two years. The company is building a diesel engine plant with a capacity of 200,000 units, which will be ready by 2013. General Motors recently launched a diesel variant of its small car Beat. The diesel engine was specially developed keeping India in mind. One of the companies badly affected by the diesel swing is Honda-SIEL, which does not have any diesel offering in its portfolio in India. Clearly, car makers have to take a call on whether an investment for manufacturing diesel engines is an imperative. A month ago, the finance minister quashed speculation about dual pricing of diesel to make it more expensive for car owners. Yet, manufacturers are not fully convinced. Maruti, for instance, needs to decide fast whether it needs to invest in another diesel plant. Its diesel engine plant in Manesar has an engine capacity of 2.9 lakh units, and there is the joint venture with Fiat. "Investing in a plant is a long-term decision. We need some sort of clarity on what our auto fuel policy road map will be like," says Pareek. The sharp difference in prices is resulting in two phenomena: juicy offers on petrol cars and long waiting periods for the diesel ones. Honda, for instance, has resorted to cutting prices - the new variant of the Jazz is priced lower by 1.62 lakh. Meantime, VW's diesel Vento has a six-eight week waiting period and for the Polo it is four-six weeks. For the Maruti Swift diesel, the waiting period has gone up to over six months. Manufacturers are doing what they can to cater to what the consumer wants. Ford's plant is built to have the flexibility to switch between petrol or diesel variants. "We are able to swing between the two in our plants. But our suppliers cannot do it that easily," says Michael Boneham, MD, Ford India.