(Photo: Sean Klingelhoefer/GM)
CHICAGO - In another sign that diesel power is starting to make inroads with American drivers, General Motors today is taking the wraps off its first diesel-powered car for the U.S. since 1986.
It's the diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze compact, and the sheet is coming off here at the Chicago Auto Show.
On the outside, other motorists will barely notice anything is different, except for maybe the "2.0 TD" badge on the outside. (TD is for Turbo Diesel.)
But under the hood there will beat a 148-horsepower diesel engine that is expected to get 42 miles a gallon on the highway, although GM officials underscore that testing is still underway. Since the car carries more than 15 gallons, that's more than 600 miles of range, a key selling point. Plus, it is expected to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 8.6 seconds.
That's faster than its chief competitor, GM says. And what is that? GM executives don't hold back: The diesel Cruze is aimed straight at the oil-burning version of the Volkswagen Jetta, one of several diesel models that VW has shown are popular with buyers.
Cruze diesel will start at $25,695. Jetta diesel starts at $23,785 with manual transmission, $24,885 with automatic. The Jetta diesel is rated 30 mpg in the city, 42 mpg highway, 34 mpg in city/highway mix.
Mazda's also planning a diesel the second half this year for its redesigned Mazda6 midsize sedan. Honda and Nissan had said they'd have U.S. diesels by now, but backed off several years ago and stuck with hybrids as their mileage champs.
GM, in the manner of other diesel sellers, emphasizes that the Cruze diesel will be clean and quiet, unlike those of the past.
"Cruze turbo diesel is the cleanest operating diesel engine ever produced by General Motors," said Gary Altman, chief engineer for GM's small cars, in a conference call with reporters earlier this week. "We leveraged our global engineering expertise to take a great diesel engine from Europe and improve it to meet the stringent U.S. standards"
Even though GM sells 40% of the Cruzes it delivers in Europe with diesel engines, it chose a larger diesel, from an Opel Astra, as the engine for the U.S.
In modifying it for the U.S. market, engineers tried to make it more fun: it holds the maximum turbo boost for 10 seconds to increase the torque during acceleration to about 280 foot-pounds of torque, more than a good-size gasoline V-6.
GM hasn't sold a diesel car in the U.S. since the subcompact 1986 Chevrolet Chevette. Yet GM has sold more than 500,000 diesel cars globally in the past year alone, including 33,000 Cruzes.
The car will be made in the U.S., but the engine will come from Germany.
As good as it sounds, GM isn't expecting it to be a huge seller. Diesel fuel costs more than gasoline in the U.S., eating into the fuel savings. Nationwide average price for diesel is $4 today, according to AAA, while regular gasoline averages $3.56.
Cristi Landy, a GM marketing executive, says that issue would be addressed directly in pitching the car to consumers.
Instead, GM is expecting that the car will be popular with families that already have a GM diesel-powered pickup truck in the house, those who know and appreciate the benefits of diesels.
"We're going to describe the vehicle as having great performance," Landy says. "Once you test drive it, there is no question that there is a tremendous difference."
(Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY)