Are any of those knocks on diesel still valid today?
I'm not talking semis, which continue to annoy me when their operators for some reason almost never shut them down. At any busy truck stop, the air seems always filled with the sound – and sometimes smell – of dozens of big-rig diesels idling endlessly and mindlessly.
Or diesel heavy-duty pickups. Those muscular workhorses are far more refined than they once were and burn much less fuel than their gasoline counterparts. But good luck arriving home late at night, or departing early morning, without waking your housemates and neighbors with their clattery racket.
No, I'm talking diesel-powered passenger cars, which account for more than half the market in Europe (diesel fuel is cheaper there) yet still barely bump the sales charts in North America. Diesel fuel remains more expensive here, too few stations carry it, and too many Americans remember when diesel cars were noisy, smelly slugs. Also, US emissions requirements make them substantially more expensive to certify, and therefore to buy.
But put aside (if you can) higher vehicle purchase and fuel prices, and today's diesel cars can be delightful to drive while delivering much better fuel efficiency than gas-powered versions. So far in the US, all except Chevrolet's compact Cruze Diesel come from German brands, and all are amazingly quiet, visually clean (no smoke) and can be torquey-fun to drive.
When a GM Powertrain engineering team set out to modify a tried-and-true GM of Europe turbodiesel four for North American Chevy Cruze compacts, says assistant chief engineer Mike Siegrist, it had a clear target in mind: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI 2.0-liter diesel. And they'll tell you that they beat it in nearly every way. "I believe we have a superior product," he says. "It's powerful, efficient and clean, and it will change perceptions of what a diesel car can be."
The 2.0L Cruze turbodiesel pumps out 151 SAE certified horses and 264 pound-feet of torque (at just 2,000 rpm) vs. the Jetta's 150 ponies and 236 lb.-ft., and an overboost feature bumps its torque to 280 lb.-ft. for up to 10 seconds of grin-inducing (or two-lane passing) extra thrust. The Jetta TDI with its available automatic transmission beats the automatic Cruze Diesel in EPA city (30 miles per gallon vs. 27) and combined (34 vs. 33) efficiency ratings, and the Chevy 46 mpg is roughly equal to the Jetta's highway economy (46 mpg on the highway with the manual, 45 with the auto) for a claimed best-in-class 700-plus mile range.
So when my wife and I planned to travel some 700 miles to Charlotte, NC to see our college basketball team compete in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and (by lucky coincidence) had a borrowed Chevy Cruze Diesel available for the trip, our eyes lit up. Good road car, excellent fuel efficiency, bladder-busting range – the road-trip gods must be smiling.
We shoved off very early Thursday morning and drove straight through with a bag of road food and a cooler full of Diet Coke and water, and got there with just one fuel stop. That West Virginia Pilot station had multiple gas pumps but just one for car (as opposed to semi-truck) diesel. Good news: no-one was using it. Bad news: unlike the gas pumps, it had no credit card reader. I had to go inside, guess how much fuel I would need and pay in advance. My guess of $30 for about 10 gallons at just under $3/gallon very nearly filled the tank.
Heading home after the Sunday game (our team won both), we again drove straight through, stopping just once to fuel. This time we were not so lucky. The truck stop we found when we were beginning to run low on the West Virginia Turnpike had lots of gas and diesel pumps but (again) just one for the ultra-clean car blend we needed. And it was occupied by a guy filling his enormous motorhome.
With a semi truck idling (as always) noisily at the next pump, we couldn't hear to use the intercom, so my wife went in to ask there was another pump for us. No, we'd have to wait.
It takes some time to pump 100 gallons into a motorhome, but our only alternative was to take our chances at finding a better diesel opportunity down the road. When the guy finally finished, he took his time climbing back into his motorhome ... then climbed back out and started to lock it up. My patience exhausted, I got out and asked if he was done. He took offense at my impatience but agreed to move out of our way before going inside to pay (more than $300!).
This is the kind of delay you may encounter – not unlike waiting for an available charger for an EV – when you need something other than gas or big-rig diesel. Fortunately (unlike with an EV), it took just a few minutes to refill our 15.6-gal tank with 13 gallons at a surprisingly cheap $2.629/gallon, for a very affordable $34.20. The range gauge then told us 620 miles.
We arrived home late that night with about 5/16 of the tank remaining, or 220 more miles at our recent rate of usage. Our total trip fuel cost (not counting the full tank we started with) was $64.20. Our total average fuel economy for 1,357 (mostly highway) miles was 42.0 mpg, four short of the Cruze Diesel's 46 mpg highway rating but way over its 36 combined.
We found our well-equipped Cruze Diesel a thoroughly pleasant, crisp-handling, good performing and surprisingly quiet road-trip ride, and noted only a couple of minor complaints. It is certainly competitive in every way with the Jetta and other diesel-powered VW cars.