Diesels: Dirty and slow, right?

Only if you've never left the 1980s.

Diesel engine technology has come along in leaps and bounds over the past two decades and the best of today's diesel vehicles easily offer a compromise between performance and economy to best equivalent gasoline vehicles.

General Motors thinks that U.S. consumers want the extra performance that modern diesels provide as well as simply the economy, and is making the business case for bringing the turbo diesel Chevrolet Cruze, already on sale in Europe, to the United States. The decision was confirmed last month by GM CEO Dan Ackerson.

The performance benefits are necessary to draw in the customers as GM already sells a fuel efficient Cruze, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco. At 42mpg highway according to EPA figures, the Cruze Eco is already quite efficient, and its turbocharged gasoline 4-cylinder makes 138 horsepower with 148 lb ft of torque.

The European 2.0-liter turbodiesel Cruze makes 160 horsepower and 265 lb ft of torque by comparison, yet on the European extra-urban (highway) consumption cycle manages over 53mpg. Even with the 6-speed automatic transmission favored by American drivers, the diesel Cruze should do 45mpg highway - higher than the manual Cruze Eco can manage.

Economy is great then and maybe even enough to offset the $0.20 to $0.30 a gallon for diesel, given the benefits of an automatic transmission - but what about performance? The manual Cruze Eco can cover the arbitrary 0-60mph sprint in 10.2 seconds. The automatic diesel Cruze can reach the same speed in 9.4 seconds - making it more relaxing to drive, and still more accelerative.

Many drivers now familiar with diesels appreciate their driving characteristics too - highway cruising is relaxed and low revving, and strong low-down torque means fewer downchanges are needed for quick passing maneuvers.

Joseph Lescota, chair of the Automotive Marketing Management Dept. at Northwood University in Midland, Missouri, describes the diesel Cruze as "A win for Chevy and it’s a win for consumers wanting the best of both worlds, performance and reasonably good fuel economy without an unusually high penalty on the fuel budget", also praising it as a choice for anyone who wants to buy an American brand vehicle.

Europe has been partial to diesels for years now, for its economy benefits and reduced cost, with diesel being cheaper in many countries than gasoline. Carmakers such as Volkswagen have led the charge to increase performance and reduce consumption and emissions, their efforts evident in vehicles such as the Jetta TDI.

If diesel proves as popular in the Cruze as it is for Volkswagen with the Jetta TDI, sales could be impressive - 39 percent of Jettas sold in the U.S. are the diesel version. GM could get the jump on the rest of the market too, as J.D. Power forecasts diesel sales will increase from 3 percent of the passenger car market today to 7 percent by 2016.

For cost-conscious efficiency fans the benefits are clear, with the average diesel costing from $1,000 to $4,000 more than the equivalent gasoline vehicle, and hybrid vehicles a little more than that.

With performance, economy and potential long term reliability benefits, a diesel Cruze will make a lot of sense for a lot of drivers.

The diesel Cruze is expected to go on sale in 2013.

[Wards Auto]


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