This diesel Chevy doesn’t poke along, so why does GM?


The Chevrolet Cruze station wagon is not yet available in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Chevrolet)
Warren Brown
Columnist March 10, 2012

Louis-Joseph Chevrolet, founder of the Chevrolet Motor Car Co., now the largest division of the world’s largest automobile manufacturer, General Motors, was a local boy.

That is a point of celebration in this proud industrial town, located high in the Jura Mountains along the western border of France.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

Public officials and civic groups here are working with Chevrolet Motor Division executives to build a monument in Louis-Joseph’s honor, “an artistic expression” linking this Swiss enclave, also the home of many of the world’s greatest watchmaking companies, to Detroit, according to project spokeswoman Friederike Schmid.

The project — initiated at the behest of, and with partial funding from, Chevrolet — will mark the centennial of the company (which occurred Nov. 3, 2011). It will “bridge time and space” linking Switzerland to Detroit and La Chaux-de-Fonds to Chevrolet’s future, Schmid said.

That’s all very ambitious and impressive. But GM and Chevrolet already have something in play that could do an even better job of connecting Europe and the United States while saving fuel and reducing tailpipe pollution in the process.

It is the twin-turbocharged, 2-liter in-line four-cylinder VCDi diesel engine — already installed in more than 500,000 GM cars, including 33,000 Chevrolet Cruze models, sold last year in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.

GM, convinced that Americans would not respond to diesel technology as favorably as Europeans and Asians, especially in small and midsize automobiles, has delayed bringing those models to the United States.

It is a delay that has never made much sense to me.

Diesel engines are at least 30 percent more fuel-efficient than their gasoline counterparts. Direct common-rail injection and other advanced diesel technologies have taken the noise and soot out of modern diesel engines. In test drives here and environs in various Chevrolet products — including a Cruze station wagon and hatchback not yet offered in the United States — my driving partner, Lou Ann Hammond, and I climbed mountains, maneuvered through narrow passageways and ran at top legal speeds along Swiss and French auto routes with absolutely no problems.

The diesel-powered cars were fast. They climbed high roads without wheezing or whining largely thanks to an ample production of torque. They ran smoothly, quietly. We averaged nearly 40 miles per gallon in highway travel in midsize diesel sedans and wagons.

In terms of a U.S. introduction, what are GM and Chevrolet executives waiting for?

The answers given to us here by company people amounted to sacrificing the very good in pursuit of the perfect. GM executives are so worried about federal emissions rules and what they perceive as U.S. consumer antipathy toward diesels, they are tiptoeing into the U.S. market with a proven technology that could put and keep Chevrolet on top.

Would Louis-Joseph have done that?

I doubt it.

If GM and Chevrolet really want to honor him, they would do so by firming up and accelerating their now-tentative plans to introduce diesel-powered Cruze models by 2013. They would go big with advanced diesels. There is no need to wait until gasoline costs $8 a gallon, the equivalent of what motorists are paying here.

Americans cry over gasoline costing half that much. Some of their politicians pander to that whining by promising to deliver gasoline at $2.50 a gallon . . . if elected.

Exactly how dirt-cheap gasoline will wean America from foreign oil imports end encourage fuel conservation remains a mystery. But it is certain that diesel technology conserves fuel without demanding much consumer sacrifice in terms of vehicle performance. It is a demonstrated fact that, with advanced diesel technology, diesel power can be delivered efficiently and cleanly.

I wish Chevrolet and the local people here every success in establishing their tribute to Louis-Joseph in the city’s popular West Park. But I prefer that GM and Chevrolet executives hurry up and offer U.S. buyers diesel engines that work as well as the ones sold here. That truly would be something to celebrate.

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