SEATTLE -- Are eco-diesels an oxy-moron? Volkswagen, after already having conquered the diesel-friendly European market, is determined to do the same in the U.S. But the company faces an uphill battle convincing Americans that today's Golf TDI is not like the noisy, smelly and polluting diesel your pipe-smoking uncle drove. The truth is that the U.S. has the cleanest low-sulfur diesel fuel in the world, and the numbers on the most economical diesels compare favorably to gas-electric hybrids such as the Toyota Prius.

One way VW is getting the word out is through sports marketing. At the Major League Soccer (MLS) playoffs in Seattle on Sunday, the company set up a major “activation” display. Activation is the new buzzword in sports marketing. Gone are the little booths handing out brochures. In Seattle, VW drivers wearing team colors could park free at the stadium (a $25 value), practice their aim by dunking a basketball into the panoramic sunroof of the Tiguan SUV (showing how big the opening is), paint their name on a New Beetle (and get the kids’ faces painted), and more.

The company is also pushing the soccer mom connection in videos like this one:

The company is the auto sponsor of MLS, and flashed its logo (and commercials) as the well-paid David Beckham and his Los Angeles teammates pranced around on the field (Salt Lake took home the cup in overtime penalty kicks). VW marketing guru Tim Ellis is a get-the-e-mails type who insists on seeing metrics that prove his sports spending is producing results for the brand.

“Brands choose sports to sponsor based on passion points,” Ellis told me, adding that if a CEO is into NASCAR, well, that’s what the company might sponsor. “But we can’t afford to spend money on what doesn’t work,” he said. “If we over-index in a sport, we’ll cut back in it. In this environment, we have to justify everything. Even the big-boy brands can’t get away with spending without strong metrics.”

It’s unclear that marketing has yet to change hearts and minds about diesels, but the Golf TDI does have a story to tell. The TDI, new for 2010, starts at $17,490, and with either a double-clutch six-speed Tiptronic semi-automatic (with hand paddles) or a five-speed manual, is quite fun to drive. I steered one down the Kitsap Peninsula (getting stuck on the 104 bridge from Port Gamble as a nuclear-enabled Trident submarine came through). When we got going again, I found the TDI responsive, quiet and (with variable-assist power steering and a well-balanced chassis) a handling marvel.

The two-liter direct-injection four-cylinder diesel is turbocharged to produce 140 horsepower (compared to the available gas engine’s 170). But the diesel cuts greenhouse emissions 25 percent, and improves fuel economy by 30 percent. Few hybrids, especially those based on SUVs, can offer 30 mpg in the city and 41 on the highway (it’s slightly better with the Tiptronic), plus vastly expanded range. The Golf, of course, is the entry-level option. A four-door version starts at $19,190.

Electronic stability control is a really useful safety device, and the TDI offers it as standard — ahead of a federal 2012 Department of Transportation mandate.

Despite the attractive package offered by German diesels such as the Golf TDI, they’re still not on most Americans’ radar. And greens are right to be skeptical of the diesel’s polluting record, particularly when it comes to emissions of cancer-causing particulate matter. But the diesel really has cleaned up its act, and VW is trying to get the message out, one soccer stadium sunroof free throw at a time.

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