Automotive Analysis: In Spite of Past Failures, Diesel Chevrolet Cruze Holds Promise for GM

By Jacob Brown | July 12, 2011
With word leaking from General Motors insiders that Chevrolet will have a diesel Cruze on sale in the U.S. within two years, it will mark the first time in more than a quarter of a century that the company will sell an oil burner in a passenger car in the U.S. The company has continued to make and sell diesel engines—you just might not know it if you live on this side of the pond. The last diesel engines GM sold here  in passenger cars during the 1980s, we're certain, were an attempt to make buyers absolutely abhor the engine type as a smoky, wheezy, unreliable, and underpowered lump of iron. Commonly referred to simply as the Oldsmobile 350, the diesel V-8 engine based on the same block as Oldsmobile's gas-powered V-8 engine, yielded disastrous results from water seeping into the fuel to blown headgaskets, and even a class action lawsuit stemming from its tendency toward premature failure. It was an engine that epitomized old GM in every sense.
In GM's smaller offerings and trucks, the company had traditionally contracted Isuzu to supply or co-engineer the diesel engines. When it didn’t, GM chose a contract with heavy vehicles subsidiary Detroit Diesel (of which GM had divested most of its involvement of after 1988) to supply engines for its pickup trucks and SUVs through the 1990s. Later, Chevrolet and GMC switched back to Isuzu with the Duramax engine it co-developed with them.
The takeaway from all of this is that GM management has trusted itself less to oversee the sale of diesel engines here than it trusts consumers in the U.S. to buy them. And who can blame them? Straying from the shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality that brought forth the Oldsmobile 350 diesel as well as the missteps that eventually led to the company’s 2009 bankruptcy, GM has been a bit trigger-shy lately to introduce audacious, segment-busting vehicles in the mainstream market. We say this with the disclaimer that the Chevrolet Volt is still very much a niche vehicle, a technological forerunner, with a less-than-mainstream starting price of $39,995.
But look at the Cruze above. It’s not radical. It doesn’t have the pizzazz of the 2012 Ford Focus or the swoopy lines of the 2012 Hyundai Elantra. It’s handsome, but a bit staid in terms of design. Out two years on the market in Europe and Asia before bringing it to the U.S., Chevrolet made a very calculated move by debuting its small car first in places where Chevrolets weren’t traditionally heavy sellers to make sure the company had built the car right for its biggest market. Where the high-performance version of its predecessor, the Cobalt (pictured), was developed on the Nurburgring in Germany to be taut and sporty, the Cruze was developed in the hands of thousands of guinea pigs we otherwise call car buyers. And it seems to have paid off.
Last month, the Cruze’s sales figures hit 24,896—about 3500 more than the next-closest car in its class, the Ford Focus, and third overall in the industry behind the Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado fullsize pickup trucks.
Now we know that Chevrolet is planning on branching out with the Cruze to sell a diesel model here to target the Starbucks-sipping, Mac-using set that lust after the diesel Volkswagen Golfs and Jettas in the U.S. Where the German automaker has become synonymous with using diesels in its small and midsize offerings throughout the years, Chevrolet has no recent history of a compact car with a diesel engine unless you think the Chevette is recent.
What Chevrolet does have, though, is the potential to boast its car as getting about 50 mpg on the highway—8 mpg more than a comparable Jetta—while packing enough punch to handily keep pace with the best in its class in acceleration with its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that puts out 163 horsepower and a whopping 265 lb-ft of torque in U.K spec. It’s an engine that should prove to be much cleaner and more reliable than the smoggy clunkers of yore.
Sure, Chevrolet isn’t known for selling diesel cars, but with a strong product and a knockout marketing campaign, the bowtie brand could be giving the market just what it wants just as federal fuel economy standards start getting more difficult to meet. It could be the car that finally dethrowns Volkswagen as the mainstream diesel champ, perhaps helping usher in more Cruze choices like alternative fuel engines and the overseas five-door hatchback model. It may even help convince other companies to launch diesel models already sold abroad from 40 and 50 mpg Ford Focus diesels to BMWs that achieve the same kinds of numbers.
There’s a lot of promise to be found in the Cruze diesel and just as much risk riding on the chance that GM may miss the mark as it has so often done in the past. Our bet is on the former thought, though, because the brand has shown that it is starting to focus on the models that matter instead of cars that, while cool-looking, were utterly pointless like the SSR sports car pickup truck from just under a decade ago. Thinking about the company’s diesel follies or half-hearted attempts of the past at making economy cars like the forgettable Cobalt or its predecessor, the Cavalier (pictured), and comparing them to the Cruze today, it’s clear that GM is done messing around with its small car offerings.
More than anything, it seems, after battling uphill in the small car segment for decades, for once this is GM's battle to lose. This opinion piece is part of a new weekly series from called Automotive Analysis.