GM Picks up the Pieces … Maybe

Diesels are coming back.

Just not VW’s diesels.

The German automaker, if not kaput, has tapped out of that market to focus — mea culpa! — on electric cars (which will render the company kaput, if they’re serious).

Which means there are currently no affordable diesel-powered new cars available on the market, as VW was the only automaker selling them.

Now it looks like GM will be selling them.

Except maybe not.

The affordable part, I mean.

There are at least two on deck — a diesel powered version of the Chevy Cruze sedan (coming in 2017) and a diesel-powered version of the Chevy Equinox, which is a compact crossover SUV. It’s on deck for the 2018 model year and will probably debut sometime next summer.

These two pending join the already available diesel-powered Chevy Colorado and GMC Canyon pick-ups, which are the only pick-ups in their class available with diesel engines.

So, that’s three — with probably more on deck given that the 1.6 liter diesel engine slated for the Cruze and Equinox could be used in half a dozen other GM models, if the market shows interest.

But will it?

A lot depends on the price of gas when these diesels become available. If regular unleaded is still going for about $2 a gallon, making the case for buying a diesel engine for the sake of economy will be a hard case to make.

Consider the pending Equinox diesel.

It will probably be capable of 40 MPG on the highway and high 20s in city driving. This is definitely better than the current Equinox’s 20 city, 28 highway (with the 2.4 liter gas engine). But not spectacularly so.

Meanwhile, how much will you have to pay for the diesel?

GM — unlike VW — has (so far) only offered a diesel option in “loaded” versions of whatever the vehicle happens to be.

The Chevy Cruze, for instance. It offered a diesel through the 2015 model year. But you had to buy a loaded 2LT trim ($23,270) and then buy the diesel (a $2,390 option) which brought the sticker price to $25,660 vs. $16,170 for the base trim Cruze.

It’s the same story with the Colorado/Canyon pick-ups. Before you can buy the diesel engine, you have to buy the more expensive four-door (crew cab) version and the higher LT or Z71 trims — which start at $27,920 (LT) before adding the diesel engine — which adds another almost $5k to the vehicle’s price tag.

You’re now well into the $30k range.

Meanwhile, you can buy a base extended cab (and gas-engined) Colorado pick-up for $20,100. It hasn’t got the pulling power the diesel’s got (just 3,500 pounds vs. 7,000 for the diesel) but the mileage is dead heat: 20/27 for the gas four cylinder engine vs. 20 city, 29 highway for the turbo-diesel engine.

VW’s policy was to sell inexpensive (not “loaded” versions) of its diesel-powered cars. You could, for example, buy a diesel-engined Jetta sedan (a rival of the Cruze) for $21,640. It didn’t have all the bells and whistles, but it did make a lot of economic sense.

Just over $21k — and 46 MPG on the highway.

No one else — including GM — offered anything like it.

And now, of course, no one offers anything like it.

This includes GM.

Which will likely continue the practice of bundling the diesel engine with higher trims — in order to hide the higher cost of the Uncle-compliant diesel. To take people’s minds off that — to get them to not think too much about the economics — by getting them to think about the nice stereo, the seat heaters and maybe the leather seats, too.

Otherwise, diesels are a hard sell.

VW’s diesels sold well because they cost less overall. Their comparatively low sticker price and their high mileage made the case. But this was only achievable — apparently — by “cheating” on Uncle’s emissions tests. The additional gear (especially, urea injection) needed to pass the tests adds to the cost — and reduces efficiency.

This goes for the vehicles themselves as well as the fuel — which must be (per federal mandate) Ultra Low Sulfur diesel fuel. Which costs more to make than regular unleaded gas, which is why diesel costs more to buy than regular unleaded.

It sometimes costs more than premium unleaded.

Before federal ULS diesel requirements, diesel cost less than regular unleaded. It also took you farther. Diesel mileage — the new stuff — is not that great, in part because of the less-efficient fuel and in part because the Uncle-compliant engines aren’t as fuel-sippy as they could be.

Heck, they’re not even as fuel-sippy as they used to be.

Before ULS fuel and before Uncle’s various edicts, 50 MPG diesels were available (and still are, in Europe). Whether they were “clean” (or at least “clean” enough) is certainly debatable. But their economics were beyond reproach.

Maybe there ought to be a “conversation” — as it’s styled in these touch-feely times — about sensible policy with regard to diesel engines. How clean is clean enough? At what point does clean become too expensive for a diesel engine to make economic sense?

Very few people — certainly, even fewer in the media – understand or let alone can explain the EPA’s emissions rigmarole. Can you say Tier 2 Bin 3? Have any clue what that might mean? Does anyone know how much pollution, in real terms, was actually “emitted” by the “cheating” diesels and what, precisely, this means in terms of the meaningful effect — if any — on either air quality or people’s health?

These are questions that demand answers — and explanations. People have a right to know what they’re being forced to pay for — and why.

The why being more than “just because.”

There needs to be a better reason than that for EPA’s making diesels cost-prohibitive to buy and not particularly economical to drive.

GM’s strategy — discreetly bundling these higher-cost but Uncle-compliant diesels with other features and nicer trim packages — is understandable.

But it’d be better if we could have economically sensible diesels.

You know, like VW used to make.

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