It's official: The Chevrolet Cruze will offer a diesel option for the 2013 calendar year (likely for the 2014 model year), adding yet another player to bolster Chevy's suddenly strong position as a purveyor of fuel-efficient cars.
The Cruze Eco already has the highest highway fuel efficiency of any gas-only vehicle in the U.S., with an overall EPA line of 28 mpg city/42 mpg highway/33 mpg combined and a Krome-certified 36.4 mpg in my own recent testing. The Chevy Volt will soon be available nationally, with customers routinely covering more than 1,000 miles between fill ups. The soon-to-debut Chevrolet Sonic will certainly be able to put up a 40 mpg EPA score on the highway, while the next-gen Chevy Malibu will offer the General's eAssist setup and is expected to post EPA marks of 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway in the mid-size segment. Heck, the 2012 Chevrolet Impala will deliver both 30 mpg and +300 horsepower.
You could even throw the Chevrolet Equinox into the mix here, since its ability to reach 32 mpg highway remains the benchmark in the smallish crossover category. I'm too lazy to attempt the math, but I'm thinking that if Chevy sold the same mix of products as Hyundai (roughly 77 percent cars/23 percent crossovers/0 percent body-on-frame trucks) the Bowtie brand might be giving Hyundai a run for its money when it comes to the sales-weighted fleet fuel-efficiency numbers that the latter likes to throw around. That's a story for another time; today, let's see how the diesel Cruze is likely to affect the marketplace when it makes its debut in the U.S.
Although the premium mainstream German brands—i.e., Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz—do sell the occasional diesel product, the only oil burner currently on the market here that is even remotely relevant to buyers is the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. In June, per the HybridCars.com monthly dashboard, VW sold 4,850 diesel Jettas (including SportWagens), which is more units than all other diesels combined. The VW Golf TDI managed to attract 977 sales last month, but no other diesel model even reached the 600-unit mark—the Audi A3 rang up all of 197 diesel sales last month.
Some of the problem has to do with the added cost of a diesel engine. For example, the base Jetta showcases an MSRP of $16,495, but the price of admission to a TDI version is a hefty $22,995. And while that, in turn, reflects the fact that the Jetta is in transition from being a relatively premium vehicle to one that sells on affordability, even the Golf TDI requires an additional $5,230 over the cost of a base model. And remember, this is at a time when other automakers have begun massaging their lineups to minimize/eliminate powertrain premiums, as Ford has done by offering a hybrid setup as a no-charge option for the Lincoln MKZ, and Buick has done by making its eAssist powertrain standard on the 2012 Buick LaCrosse.
On the other hand, if any popular brand were in a good position to risk adding a few grand to the bottom line of its most popular car, it would be Chevy.
Yep, it's the Cruze, albeit by just a few hundred dollars over the Ford Focus or Hyundai Elantra. Now, as I mentioned above, I recently drove a Cruze for a week—technically, a Cruze Eco—and I can tell you that the car certainly seems to warrant its position on the pricing ladder. I did have a few nits to pick with the vehicle, especially as regards its relatively unimpressive rear-seat accommodations, but overall, the Cruze Eco was a sophisticated piece of machinery with evident attention to detail and craftsmanship. In fact, I think Buick is going to have its work cut out for itself in trying to ensure the coming Verano can outclass the Cruze.
As much as I think this is poor strategy for GM in general, Chevy's relentless drive up-market is eliminating the brand as a choice for drivers seeking affordable, basic transportation. In the Cruze, the diesel will become just one more European design cue in a car that already has plenty of them—and is priced both accordingly and successfully.
After all, regardless of my worries that it's too expensive for some folks, the Cruze was the best-selling car in America last month. Adding a more efficient diesel model, even if it is more expensive, should only lift Cruze sales even further.