American consumers are, by a wide margin, more interested in hybrid-electric powertrains than clean diesel engines, according to a J.D. Power and Associates survey on emerging technologies.

Of 20 safety, comfort, infotainment and powertrain technologies reviewed in the annual study released today, clean diesel engines finished dead last in terms of consumer interest. Just 6% of respondents were “definitely interested,” despite the fuel savings and performance benefits delivered by the technology.

Clean diesels were bested by features such as remote-vehicle diagnostics, heated/cooled seating and hybrid powertrains, which ranked fifth at 72%.

Blind-spot detection finished first, capturing prime attention from 76% of those surveyed.

Hybrids bested diesels even after respondents were advised of their respective market prices. Interest in the former fell to 8th place when the technology’s $5,000 price tag was revealed, while interest in diesel technology, priced at $1,800, rose only to 14th.

Mike Marshall, JDPA’s director of emerging automotive technologies, expresses shock.

“I didn’t think (diesel) would fare as poorly as it did,” Marshall tells Ward’s. “I thought that we were slowly getting away from these latent misconceptions of diesel technology. And what these results tell me is that we’re not.”

The misconceptions, he says, suggest diesel engines are like their noisy, sooty predecessors of three decades ago.

Ward’s engine installation data belies the disparity between hybrids and diesels. For model-year ’07, hybrids accounted for 2.3% of U.S. light-vehicle powertrains, compared with 2.4% penetration for diesels.

“With VW coming back online this year and Mercedes bringing Bluetec, it’s going to raise the awareness,” Marshall says.

After a 1-year regulation-induced hiatus from the U.S. diesel-powered light-vehicle market, Volkswagen AG returns this year with a re-engineered 4-cyl. oil-burner in its ’09 Jetta. The new engine will comply with stringent California LEV II and federal Tier II, bin 5 emissions standards, allowing the vehicle to be sold in all 50 states.

Next year, the auto maker will launch a 3.0L V-6 clean diesel engine in its ’10 Touareg cross/utility vehicle. The same engine also will be available in the ’10 Q7, the Touareg’s Audi platform-mate.

The auto maker launched a public relations campaign last year to educate American consumers. Diesels represent 5% of VW’s U.S. sales, but the company expects 18% penetration by 2014.

Meanwhile, Daimler AG’s Mercedes brand will mark 2008 by rolling out M-Class, R-Class and GL-Class CUVs powered by its trademark Bluetec diesels. But like the larger VW mill, these engines will benefit from AdBlue urea injection technology, which will make the vehicles saleable in 50 states.

And BMW AG is planning to market its 3-Series midsize car and X5 CUV with clean diesel technology.

Marshall notes this year’s survey suggests consumer interest is skewing away from safety features.

“Last year, we saw premium surround-sound, a non-safety feature in our study, break the top-5 rankings in terms of initial interest,” Marshall says. “And that trend really accelerated this year.”

Initial interest is an indicator of consumer attitudes before a feature’s market price is made known. Using this yardstick, navigation systems ranked third, after backup assist.

Surround-sound ranked sixth, followed by heated/cooled front seats.

“We don’t see it turning upside-down,” Marshall says of the safety-vs.-infotainment dynamic. “But the way they’re mingling together in terms of relative interest, entertainment of infotainment is really starting to compete with these safety features.”

This year marked the first time hybrids and clean diesels were included in the initial-interest top-20. The other newcomers were portable navigation devices and collision mitigation systems.

– with James M. Amend in Wolfsburg, Germany