Chevrolet has announced that in June it will begin selling the 2014 Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, the first diesel passenger car offered by a Detroit automaker since the 1986 Chevrolet Chevette.
And even with the car's cutting-edge technology and fuel economy -- the company estimates 42 mpg (5.6 litres per 100 kilometres) -- the car may have some difficulty battling the spectre of General Motors' last diesel engine.
The diesel Cruze will use a turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel engine that originated in Europe, where approximately 40 per cent of all Cruze buyers choose a diesel engine. For the United States, GM engineers adapted the German-built power plant to accommodate America's colder climates, higher altitudes and the EPA's more stringent emission standards.
The new engine is rated at 148 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and is B20-compatible, meaning it can burn fuel made up of 20-per-cent biodiesel and 80-per-cent petroleum diesel. The car offers an overboost feature, which allows the car's torque to rise to 280 pound-feet for up to 10 seconds when extra performance is needed.
Like other new diesel-powered vehicles, the Cruze meets tougher emission standards through the use of urea injection. Urea, a chemical compound found in urine, is part of a solution that's injected into the exhaust gases, converting up to 90 per cent of the nitrogen oxides into harmless nitrogen and water.
The solution is held in a 4.5-gallon tank in the trunk area. Chevrolet says it will last a minimum of 10,000 miles (roughly 16,000 km) before needing to be refilled. As the tank nears empty, the car alerts the driver; if it runs dry, the car's speed is limited to 4 mph. (6.4 km/h)
Despite the new engine's state-of-the-art technology, Chevrolet may have a hard time convincing some buyers to consider a diesel-powered passenger car, given GM's diesel fumbles.
In response to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law in 1975, GM downsized its fleet and developed a diesel V-8 engine for its large cars to improve their fuel economy. A V-6 engine, based on the V-8, followed. Even the Chevette got a diesel engine.
But rather than design the V-8 from scratch, GM engineers modified an existing 5.7-litre V-8 gas engine. A diesel engine's fuel-air mixture is ignited by high compression, not by spark, as in a gas engine.
So a diesel engine must be built stronger than its gas counterparts. Unfortunately, engineers used too many parts from the gas engine, and it wasn't long before the new diesel engine started failing at an alarming rate.
To make matters worse, the power plant was noisy and produced just 105 horsepower -- not much when placed in a two-ton automobile.
The resulting class-action lawsuits led to a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission. GM repaid owners for most of the cost of replacing the diesel engines with conventional gas engines. But it cost more than the money. It damaged GM's reputation, while stigmatizing diesels to a generation of Americans.
And Chevrolet's new diesel engine may face other obstacles to widespread buyer acceptance.
Unlike in Europe, where diesel fuel is often less expensive than gasoline, it's pricier in the U.S. and its availability is spottier.
Yet diesel's greater fuel efficiency makes up for its difference in price. According to the EPA, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI turbo-diesel, the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel's closest competitor, costs US$1,700 a year to fuel. Among Jetta models, only the hybrid model costs less to fuel at US$1,200; all others cost more.
There's also a perception that diesel cars are slow, smoky and noisy. Thanks to turbochargers and modern emission systems, that's no longer true. But such perceptions die hard.
While Chevrolet officials say the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel will initially see limited production, the company hopes to tap the renewed interest in diesel cars without history repeating itself.
-- The Virginian-Pilot