Americans have some bad diesel memories, but is it time to get past that and embrace a technology that offers both stellar fuel economy (up to 50 mpg) and incredible range (650 miles) with relatively clean emissions as a bonus?
In the 1970s and '80s, when they were touted as a response to the energy crisis (and tougher fuel economy standards), they were noisy, smelly, polluting — and slow. We can forgive just about anything, but a car that makes a lot of noise and can’t get out of its own way, that’s beyond the pale.
General Motors dipped a toe in the diesel waters in the 1978 model year, with an engine option on Oldsmobiles. If you wanted your Cutlass with a diesel, it cost $850 (the 88) or $740 (the 98). Rather than actually engineer a ground-up diesel, GM’s bean counters chose to save money by using many parts from the company’s tried-and-true 350 cubic-inch Rocket V-8. This eventually proved disastrous, though the 30 mpg on the highway was enough to entice 33,841 Olds buyers in 1978. By 1980, when diesels were available company-wide, 126,885 found homes.
Boy, were they dogs. A 1980 Chevy Caprice wagon with a diesel took more than 19 seconds to reach 60 mph, compared to its gasoline-powered compatriot’s 13.9. And those engineering shortcuts came back to bite ‘em. Diesels use higher compression ratios, which should mean more and stronger head bolts, but GM stuck with the set-up from the Rocket gas engine. As Popular Mechanics reports, “The insufficient head bolts stretched or broke and led to head gasket problems.” What’s more water got into the injection pumps, fuel lines and injectors, wreaking more havoc.
The Auto Savant says these diesels were among “the cars that killed GM.” James Bell, GM’s head of consumer affairs, calls it a “sad, bad story.” It’s why GM didn’t build a diesel car for more than 30 years. But now the company is entering the fray again with the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 2.0 TD turbo diesel. I’m reasonably sure that the new car, available this summer, has strong head bolts. The engine, which produces a modest 148 horsepower, was developed with Italian and German engineering teams (the folks who know diesels) and reduces nitrogen and carcinogenic particulate matter by at least 90 percent from bad old GM diesels.
“The poor quality diesels in the 1980s caused a lot of problems,” Bell admits. “There were legitimate concerns, but now we have a new opportunity—the Cruze diesel is fast, quiet, and doesn’t put out any more smoke or pollutants than its gasoline equivalent. It’s a new diesel day!” Here's the car on video, with possibly unfamiliar fueling footage:
The diesel Cruze, already available ‘round the world in strong-selling Opel or Vauxhall versions (it’s 40 percent of Cruze sales in Europe), will sell for $25,695, with an EPA rating around 42 mpg on the highway. With a six-speed automatic, some testers have seen 50 mpg, and when you multiply that by the 13 gallon tank you get 650 miles of range. If driving past gas stations is your thing, this is the car. One caveat, though, known to truckers nationwide: Diesel fuel is more expensive than gasoline. This week, the national average for gasoline is $3.60, but diesel is $4.02.
Diesels are 50 percent of the cars on the road in Europe, where there are large subsides for it. The high rate of diesel take-up is one reason electric cars have been slow to win acceptance in Europe—they’re already driving clean cars. GM itself sells 500,000 diesels a year, just not here. Mercedes, Audi and BMW, as well as the French and Italian automakers, all produce very credible small diesels, a small fraction of which are available in the U.S.
Mercedes, which has been producing diesels since 1936, claims that its new U.S.-market BlueTEC diesels reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to gas versions. American ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, the only kind available since 2010, is among the cleanest in the world. Below is the S300 BlueTEC hybrid.
GM is being cautious with diesel passenger cars. Bell said it will initially produce only about 10,000 to 12,000 per year. That’s probably wise, since diesels are only about three percent of U.S. auto sales today. But Baum and Associates expect that to grow to six or 6.5 percent of the market by 2015, and J.D. Power envisions a 7.4 percent share by 2017.
If was buying a new car today, I’d consider a diesel. I don’t think I’d buy a ’78 Cutlass, though, even if it was a great deal.
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