General Motors Company (GM), Ford Motor Company (F): Will We Want a Diesel-Chevy Cruze?

The 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel – that’s the official name – may not look exciting, but it’s GM’s new attempt to introduce Americans to the advantages of high-tech diesel engines. Photo credit: General Motors Company (NYSE:GM)

General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) recently announced that it would begin offering its popular Chevy Cruze compact with an option rarely seen in cars outside of Europe – a diesel engine.

The Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, as it’s officially called, will go on sale in a few American cities this spring, ahead of a nationwide rollout in the fall.

Why would you want one? For starters, great mileage: It’s EPA-rated for 46 miles per gallon on the highway, which General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) says is better than any non-hybrid passenger car sold in America.

That’s an eye-catching statement. But for those of a certain age, who remember the smoky and slow diesel cars sold here in the 1970s and 1980s, it might take more than a little persuading to put the new diesel Cruze on shopping lists.

General Motors (GM)Diesel cars are common in Europe, but still unusual here
Nearly everybody offers a big range of diesel car engines in Europe, where taxes on gasoline are high and diesel is a widely accepted alternative. Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F)‘s “Econetic” diesel Focus, which is said to have CO2 output comparable to a hybrid, is just one of a range of diesel cars offered by the Blue Oval in Europe – but not sold here.

Most of Ford’s European competitors offer advanced diesel powertrains, and they sell well on the continent. They’re good cars: Regulatory pressure and advances in technology mean that today’s diesel engines have come a long way. Today’s best diesel cars are strong and responsive – and most importantly, clean.

The oil-burning Cruze’s engine is a 2.0-liter unit that uses the so-called “clean diesel” technology that has become ubiquitous in Europe. Clean diesel – essentially, advanced fuel injection coupled with turbocharging – eliminates much of the soot and smell that was associated with older diesel engines.

The Cruze’s engine was developed in Europe (naturally), where about 40% of the Cruzes sold are equipped with diesel engines, and modified to meet U.S. regulations, which differ from the European Union’s somewhat.

Despite the emphasis on “clean,” performance doesn’t suffer. General Motors Company (NYSE:GM) says that the diesel Cruze will go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 8.6 seconds. That’s hardly sports-car territory, but it beats Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM)‘s hybrid Prius, which takes 9.8 seconds to hit 60, Toyota Motor Corporation (ADR) (NYSE:TM) says.

Diesel engines cost more to build than gas engines, and that means that the diesel Cruze isn’t cheap at $25,695. But it’s not bad given the mileage and performance. For someone with a long-haul highway commute, it might make a lot of sense.