DETROIT – Volkswagen Group continues its crusade to expand diesel-engine penetration in the North American market with plans to offer an oil-burner in the ’10 Volkswagen Rabbit and Audi A3.

The auto maker confirms the rollouts as Norbert Krause, general manager of Volkswagen of America Inc.’s engineering and environment office, accepts a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award for the 2.0L SOHC I-4 turbodiesel that made its debut in the ’09 VW Jetta sedan. The same engine now will migrate to the Rabbit and A3 with availability expected as early as the fourth-quarter.

The Volkswagen Group’s aggressive diesel-engine proliferation strategy flies in the face of market and regulatory pressures that have caused other auto makers to backtrack on their plans.

Like VW, the Mercedes-Benz and BMW brands are forging ahead with their respective diesel technologies because they comply with emissions standards in all 50 U.S. states. However, those same mandates have contributed to pullbacks by Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., as both have nixed plans to bring oil-burners to North America.

Meanwhile, the challenging economic climate has been fingered for delaying the introductions of diesel-powered Toyota Tundra and Ford F-150 pickups.

VW is undeterred. “Clean diesel is the right way for the future,” Krause says, adding the technology’s 30% fuel-efficiency advantage over gasoline engines makes for “an affordable solution.”

Such claims belie the 34% disparity in U.S. pump prices. While the national-average per-gallon price of diesel is $1 below 2008 levels, consumers are paying $0.62 less for gasoline today, according to the American Automobile Assn.

Audi of America Inc. says the key to spreading the diesel gospel in a skeptical U.S. market is determination. “You keep pushing despite the volumes,” says Audi spokesman Christian Bokich, noting the imminent rollout of an Audi Q7 cross/utility vehicle equipped with a 3.0L diesel.

That said, Audi does not consider diesel engines to be a singular solution to reduced dependence on gasoline.

“We’re also looking at hybrids,” Bokich says. “If you’re in stop-and-go, Los Angeles-type traffic, hybrids make sense.”

Audi is planning to launch a hybrid version of its new Q5 CUV in 2010 or 2011.

Brad Warner, marketing manager-North America diesel systems at Robert Bosch LLC, agrees the current demand is softening. “We’re adjusting to the market right now,” he tells Ward’s.

But expect “a wave” of new clean-diesel offerings in 2011 and 2012, Warner says, adding Bosch is sticking to its forecast of a 15% total-market penetration by 2015, which is more than triple the current level.

And the players won’t be limited to European auto makers. “It will be a diversified field,” Warner says.

The 2.0L I-4 turbodiesel in the Rabbit and A3 will produce 140 hp and generate 236 lb.-ft. (320 Nm) of torque – the same ratings associated with the Jetta application.

For packaging reasons, Bokich adds, the A3 will be available only with front-wheel drive.

emayne@wardsauto.com