For the past decade, automakers around the world have vowed to bring a fleet of new cars to America powered by the same diesel engines popular in Europe and other countries. And for a decade, most of those plans were cancelled in the face of a tough buying argument for diesels in this country. The revolution may finally kick off this year if this car succeeds: the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel.
The economics of diesel engines for cars in the United States don't pencil out as favorably as they do in Europe, where a supermajority of new vehicles come with oil burners under the hood. There, diesel fuel enjoys a tax break versus gasoline; in the United States, diesel fuel often costs 10 percent more than regular gas, with prices that fluctuate wildly. Tougher emissions rules mean diesels cost more here, and come with extra service costs; the urea tank used to treat exhaust gases in most models must be refilled every 10,000 to 15,000 miles or the car won't restart, a requirement of the Environmental Protection Agency.
As a result, diesel cars accounted for only 0.8 percent of U.S. vehicle sales in 2012. But with fuel economy rules pushing for ever-more efficient models between now and 2025, the industry expects diesels to finally catch on. This year, Jeep and Mazda will offer diesel variations of the Grand Cherokee SUV and the Mazda6 sedan, and more non-luxury diesels are expected in years to come.
Unveiled at today's Chicago Auto Show, Chevrolet says the new version of the Cruze powered by a 2-liter, four-cylinder turbo diesel will offer buyers 42 mpg on the highway and a range of 650 miles between fill-ups. With 148 hp and 258 ft-lb of torque, Chevy claims the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel — it's proper name, a bit of over-eager marketing — will outrun its major competitor, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, reaching 60 mph in 8.6 seconds.
The Jetta represents the best-case scenario for Chevy's offering of its first diesel passenger car since the 1986 Chevette. Older GM buyers still remember the debacle of GM's early 1980s diesels, renown for their unreliability. Younger buyers have shown a willingness to embrace diesels from other automakers; VW says its diesels account for 20 percent of its U.S. sales, and diesel variations of German luxury sedans also sell well.
With gas prices already rising well before the typical summer surge, the Cruze diesel may have arrived just in time. But Chevy will have to sell the Cruze diesel on its benefits, thanks to a starting sticker price of $25,695, about $2,600 more than a base Jetta TDI and $2,000 more than a top-line gas-powered Cruze. If Chevy can score with a diesel-powered version of its mainstream compact sedan, expect many others to follow close behind.