Saturday, February 23, 2013

Can Chevy’s new diesel break through negative perceptions?


LARRY PRINTZ / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

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The 2014 Chevy Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is GM’s first diesel passenger car in almost 30 years. -Photo courtesy of GM

Chevrolet announced last week 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 — the car may have some difficulty battling the specter of General Motors’ last diesel engine.

The diesel Cruze will use a turbocharged 2.0-liter diesel engine that originated in Europe, where approximately 40 percent 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 power plant is rated at 148 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque and is B20-compatible, meaning it can burn fuel made up of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent 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 percent 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 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.

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-liter 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 2-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.

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