General Motors Doubles Down on Diesels

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 29, 2017

TEANECK, NEW JERSEY—“General Motors’ diesel strategy is to give customers choice,” said Dan Nicholson, a vice president for global propulsion systems. “We now have the broadest range of diesel vehicles in the U.S. market.”

The Cruze diesel will do 52 mpg on the highway with the six-speed manual--the best internal-combustion fuel economy in the U.S. But will Americans buy diesels? (Jim Motavalli photo)

The occasion was the introduction of Chevrolet Equinox and Cruze models with the three-year-old, Euro-derived 1.6-liter Ecotec engine—known as the “Whisper” diesel because it’s, well, quiet. In the Equinox compact SUV it means 39 mpg on the highway (in the FWD version), and in the Cruze compact sedan, up to an estimated 52.

Still, GM’s strategy might seem questionable in the wake of the VW emissions scandal and subsequent stonewalling, which has given consumers globally a bad taste for diesels, and led (perhaps indirectly) to announcements like Volvo’s that it would be producing only electrified drivetrains (hybrids and battery cars) starting in 2019. VW itself is phasing out of selling diesels in the U.S. market.  

The diesel Equinox offers 38/39 mpg on the highway, stump-pulling low-end torque, and up to 577 miles of range.  That's nice and all, but will Americans buy diesels? (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a pre-drive interview, Nicholson said that the VW scandal “hasn’t polluted the waters” for diesel sales. “It would be a pity if good diesel technology were cast aside because of the acts of a few individuals,” he said, noting that the Equinox gets better highway fuel economy than the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid. And it’s 65 percent quieter at 4,000 rpm than the Jaguar F-Pace diesel.

The Ecotec 1.6-liter engine was developed in Italy and is built in Hungary. Sure. But are Americans hungry for diesels? (We'll show ourselves out.) (GM photo)

Nicholson declined to predict how many Equinox and Cruze customers would chose diesel, and indeed it’s a bit of a gamble these days. But the Equinox slots into a segment that will reach three million annually by 2020, he said, and “some of those customers will want diesels.” Wards reports that sales of the powertrain were up 16.5 percent in the first half of 2016, compared to 2015.

GM's Michael Siegrist explains the benefits of diesel. The advantages are pretty clear, but as the saying goes, you can lead an American to diesel but you can't make him drink. Or something like that. We're actually not sure how the saying goes. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The diesel engine, the most efficient internal-combustion power plant, got started with Rudolf Diesel in 1893, and GM has been in the space since the 1930s. There are 11 diesels currently available from the company, and all are capable of running on B20 biodiesel. GM has 34 diesels in markets around the world, where the fuel still has a big following for passenger vehicles.

There was one red Cruze diesel available in Teaneck, with not only the 52 mpg on the highway (better than any non-hybrid/EV available in the U.S.) but a cruising range of 702 miles. Buyers can get it with either a nine-speed Hydra-Matic or, get this, a six-speed manual. Pricing starts at $24,670 (including a $875 destination charge).

It's not all that hard to fill up with urea, or DEF as it's called, every couple of months. Two quarts is $8 at Walmart. But did we mention that we're not sure that Americans will buy diesels? (Jim Motavalli photo)

No Cruze is a fireball, but the 137-horsepower diesel version was surprisingly sprightly off the line. It wasn’t as quiet as the Equinox—let’s say it whispered loudly—but it didn’t make any standard diesel noises. I defy anyone to jump into this car and know it’s a diesel right off.

The Equinox is a pricier proposition at $31,435 in “well equipped” form, and GM really worked on both the aluminum-block engine (noisy timing chains are at the back!) and the insulation to make it Cadillac quiet. There’s 240-pound-feet of torque available between 1,500 and 3,250 rpm, so this Equinox has plenty of low-end grunt. On the road, there were no obvious demerits—most Americans could live with this diesel version, though they’d be unhappy if they needed to haul a big boat (towing capacity is only 1,500 pounds).

Inside the diesel Equinox. Which runs on diesel. Did we ask if Americans will buy diesels yet? (Jim Motavalli photo)

VW was trying to avoid the expense of adding emissions-cutting urea systems to its diesels, claiming it could meet pollution targets without them. It couldn’t, not without cheating at least. The GM diesels have urea fillers under the fuel flap, and topping off means an extra to do at the dealer or a visit to Walmart every couple of months. It’s not a big deal, but it might be a deal breaker for people who don’t like change.

It’s interesting—you can make a lot of arguments for why people should buy diesels. A University of Michigan study found that the total cost of ownership of a diesel over three to five years is $2,000 to $7,000 less than a comparable gas car but old habits die hard. The U.S. is traditionally not a diesel market. Different but related arguments are made for hybrids and battery electrics, but that doesn’t always translate into buying decisions, either. As I’ve said many times, car purchases are made with the heart, not the head.

According to a survey cited by Nicholson, 16 percent of vehicle buyers today would consider a diesel. But it’s a long way from consideration to purchase. Thirty percent of Americans say they would consider an electrified car, but only three percent actually buy them.

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