If electric cars fail in the marketplace, smarter gas and diesel cars will be big one reason. Last week, I was testing the very nice Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel, which gets an impressive 46 mpg on the highway and 27 around town (33 combined. As tested (loaded), it was $25,795.
I know, you have reservations about the diesel thing, but a lot of the bad image is outdated. They're no longer dirty, smelly or particularly slow. This car can reach 60 mph in about 8.6 seconds, which is twice as fast as those nasty diesels of the 1980s — and it won't leave a black cloud in its wake.
One of the great things about diesels is range, a fact underscored when on my way to Woodstock II in a Mercedes diesel back in 1994. The fuel gauge looked broken because it didn't move! The Cruze, with a 15.6-gallon tank, can travel 717 miles. After running it around for a while, we took it up to the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a distance of 124 miles each way. We still had more than half a tank left when we got back.
The Cruze diesel is no luxury car, but it's certainly adequate for my needs — I don't need leather seats, rare African woods and 24 speakers (nine is more than enough!). The car to compare it to is the Cruze Eco, a conventional gas version with many of the fuel-saving features (active grille shutters) also found on this diesel. That car's a bit cheaper, starting at $19,680, but the fuel economy is a bit worse (28/42 mpg). But remember that diesel fuel is usually a little more expensive than gasoline, so it's probably a wash.
A bit on noise: Stand outside a running Cruze diesel and you know it what kind of engine it has — there's that truck-like rumble. But GM has done great work with sound insulation, and from the cockpit it's very quiet indeed.
Turbocharging has been part of the diesel story for a long time, and here it's key to banishing memories of yesterday's pokey cars. The 140-horsepower Chevy is faster off the line than the Jetta 2.0 TDI, in part because the 264 foot pounds of torque can jump to 280 foot pounds for about 10 seconds when the turbo is engaged. (The Jetta is 34 mpg combined, however.)
"Overboost provides increased performance when the driver demands it, like when passing on the highway," says Mike Siegrist, assistant chief engineer on the car.
Buying an electric car means you have to get used to plugging it in rather than gassing up. With a diesel, you also have to do some homework — finding the diesel stations. Yes, they're out on I-95, but many local stations in Connecticut have diesel, too.
Americans are still mostly opting out of diesels, but the take rate is ramping up. In one category, non-luxury compact cars, Polk data show that the diesel share has gone from just 2.1 percent in 2007 to 23.6 percent in 2011. Diesel repurchase rates — the percentage of buyers who'd buy another one — is also up. From 2008 to 2011, it grew from 19 percent to 28 percent. What happens next, well that's up to prices at the pump.