General Motors has unveiled its first diesel-powered car for North America since 1986.
It's the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze, with a 2.0-litre diesel four-cylinder from Opel with additional exhaust-treatment gear to meet U.S. emissions standards.
I'm a big diesel fan and have driven one for years, but I'm afraid the diesel Cruze may be a flop.
Yes, diesels get better fuel economy than similar-sized gasoline engines, but buying one will not save you money. We'll get to the numbers that show that a little later. But the real issue is that diesels are an enthusiast's engine and the Cruze is not an enthusiast's car.
It's a great little car and has been a huge success for GM since its launch in 2008 with more than two million sold around the world. But it's as mainstream as a car can be and I wonder if mainstream buyers will be interested in paying extra for a quirky engine.
Diesels are a huge hit in Europe, where fuel costs twice as much as in North America. Diesel also costs significantly less than gasoline in Europe, so if you pay a premium for the diesel engine, you will likely make that money back on fuel costs in the long run. That's why more than 50 per cent of the cars and SUVs over there are diesel compared to North America, where it's around 3 per cent.
The Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel that made its debut at the Chicago Auto Show has 148 horsepower and an impressive 258 lb-ft of torque.
All that torque makes for a nice driving experience, especially on the highway. The Cruze is quiet for a small car and the diesel is only being offered in the more expensive versions of the car. The only transmission available is a six-speed automatic. As a highway cruiser, you're getting a comfortable car.
But GM has stated that it wants to sell about 10 per cent of Cruzes in North America with the diesel engine and I don't think there's a chance. First of all, there's no persuasive economic reason to buy one. We have to work off the U.S. prices and fuel economy numbers because that's all that's been announced so far.
The diesel Cruze starts at $25,695 (U.S.), which is $4,010 more than the gas-engine Cruze Eco automatic and $5,205 more than the gas-engine Cruze Eco manual. The Eco Cruze manual and the diesel Cruze get precisely the same fuel economy. So you're paying $4,000 or $5,000 more to burn fuel that costs more with no fuel-saving benefit.
Let's go back to the idea of diesels being the enthusiast's engine. German luxury cars and SUVs have been successful in attracting customers to pay more for diesel performance. If you're driving your smooth, torquey, $60,000 whatever down the highway, you can feel superior to the gasoline burners around you. Heavy vehicles like SUVs are especially well-suited to diesels. Volkswagen has ridden the coat-tails of the luxury brands by introducing diesels in lower-priced cars while still pushing TDI performance.
Chevy has dressed up the diesel versions with 17-inch aluminum wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires. There's lots of sound-deadening gear, standard leather seating and an aerodynamics package borrowed from the Cruze Eco. However, the diesel engine is heavier and there's more added weight from the addition of the exhaust-recirculation gear and the 4.5-gallon urea tank for the exhaust after-treatment fluid. It's a weight penalty that takes away from performance, and also takes away from trunk space.
I assume the diesel Cruze will come to Canada and, for people who do a lot of highway driving, it might be worth paying the premium for the diesel "driving experience." But I'm not sure that selling it as an economy measure in an economy car is going to fly.
I like diesels but I think they're destined to sell as premium options in premium cars.