Sunday, March 17, 2013

Diesel Cruze: A Great Engine in the Wrong Car

2013 Cruze, photo Copyright General Motors
By Cliff Strong of "Cliff's Corner"

It has been several months since I felt sufficiently motivated to guest write for my favorite auto blog. Leave it to my former employer, General Motors to supply the motivation for my latest contribution. I hope you enjoy.

In case you missed it, GM is touting their new Cruze diesel which appeared at the Chicago Car Show. Seems GM missed the deadline to introduce the new Cruze diesel at the Detroit Car Show. Had GM been in charge of NASA, we still wouldn’t have made it to the Moon yet. GM has yet to find a deadline they couldn’t miss. I guess consistency CAN have a downside.

But, there it was in Chicago. And to give credit where credit is due, the GM propaganda machine was functioning on all cylinders, doing what it does better than any PR organization in the industry, if not, the planet. Proclaiming that the new Cruze diesel will be a tremendous hit and an instant competitor to the only other family of popularly priced diesel cars sold here in the US; the Volkswagen Golf, Beetle and Jetta. Talking endlessly how Diesels are more popular in Europe than gasoline engines (the Europeans call gasoline “Petrol”). However, what any good PR wouldn’t mention is the fact that Diesel is heavily subsidized in Europe and costs on average 40 cents a gallon LESS than Petrol. Unlike the States where Diesel fuel costs on average 65 cents per gallon MORE than gasoline. Maybe it was in the fine print and I missed it. I hear once you get over 50, your eyes start to go. Or so my children have told me.

However, being over 50 and a former GM’er, I couldn’t help hearing in the distance the echoes of GM’s PR machine proclaiming at the introduction of the now but all forgotten J-Cars back in the 80’s (i.e. Chevy Cavalier and Cadillac Cimarron) “would blow the Japanese back across the Pacific”. Or, so we were told. Only to be topped by the introduction of the Saturn Car Company that again, quoting the PR machine, “will have the Japanese car companies packing their bags for Japan”. 0 for 2.

Truth be told, sadly Saturn’s fate was probably sealed the very first day the first Saturn was “driven” off the line in Spring Hill, Tennessee. The first car that Rodger Smith ( the then President of GM) was supposed to drive off the line wouldn’t start. So, car #1 was hastily pushed off the line and car #2 tested to make sure it started before the Press was allowed in to set up their cameras and lights to record this “Historic Moment in American Automotive History ”. So with cameras rolling, Rodger and the Plant Manager jumped into car #2 and Rodger proceeded to kill the engine not once, not twice, but 3 times.

GM’s PR then demanded that the cameras be turned off immediately and all but the start of the “Drive off” be edited before any press was allowed to leave the building. You see car #1 had been an automatic. But, car #2 was a manual. And Rodger had never driven a manual before. I had this confirmed by a GM Engineer who was present at the event which proved the rampant rumors to be true. What the hell do you expect from an accountant?
But, you don’t need to have worked for GM if you are over 50 to remember the last time GM introduced Diesel powered automobiles here in the States. And If you were one of the unfortunate few to have actually bought one, I probably have just sent your blood pressure to dangerous levels.

For those that didn’t live through it, I will explain. As a reaction to the 2nd gas shortage caused by the Iranian Hostage Crisis so well documented in the movie “Argo”, gas prices shot up to an unheard of 90 cents per gallon and GM panicked. The behemoth “Boat Cars” that they were making in the States needed equally behemoth engines to power their massive girth down the road. And not only didn’t GM have any big diesel engines, neither did anyone else. So, GM did in fact create a 350 cubic inch block designed to be a diesel engine, but then took most of the parts from the existing Oldsmobile 350 V8 gasoline engines and with only minor modifications and proclaimed them diesels. GM starting sticking them first in Oldsmobile’s, then Chevrolets, Buick’s and yes, even the top of the line, Cadillac’s. But suffice to say, anyone over 50 who hears GM touting a Diesel Car will undoubtedly undergo an involuntary desire to projectile vomit. Many of the cars didn’t make the week out in the hands of owners. Some cars didn’t make it home to start the week. These engines resulted in massive class action suits against GM and spawned the creation of the Lemon Laws as we know them today. Yeah, they really were THAT bad.

Other, equally superbly stupid product decisions in the GM Hall of Shame that come to mind is the GOD forsaken Pontiac Aztec during the 90’s and the current Chevy Volt. In the case of the Aztek, I’ll bet it was hell trying to find that many volunteers that were sight impaired to constitute a proper “focus” group. And the Volt is undeniable proof of why no government should ever try to run a car company, or any other company for that matter. My major beef with the Volt is it is nothing more than a practice piece being sold to the public at a massive financial loss. Electric cars have proven they are not ready for prime time. And to be blunt, I , along with many million other taxpayers in this country resent that my tax dollars are being used to bankroll such folly for purely political purposes. If GM really wanted to thank President Obama for bailing their ass out, they should have sent a really sincere Thank you note and a box of his favorite chocolates. Not produced and sold a half baked piece of practice technology that should still be running around GM’s proving grounds somewhere.

But, I digress. So, you can just about imagine my genuine disappointment tracking down the GM Marketing Reps. responsible for the new Cruze Diesel at the Detroit Auto show only to find out the car wasn’t there. Undaunted as usual, I struck up a conversation with the 2 Reps on hand who’s extreme misfortune it was to find themselves that morning the focus of my questions about the marketing plan behind the new car. So, standing next to the Cruze Eco, which is rated at 42 mpg on the highway, I asked about the mpg rating of the new Diesel Cruze. They said they expected it to be about the same as the Eco in the city, but a little higher on the highway as one might expect for a diesel. How much more they were not willing to say. OK, how much more would it cost than the Eco? Again, no answer. But after a bit of fishing and cajoling, I got a general agreement of somewhere between $2-3,000 more than the Eco. So, at that point my curiosity got the better of me. I said I know you guys had to have done a TON of marketing research on the Cruze Diesel. I have to ask, how many people indicated that they would be willing to pay and addition $2-3K to maybe get a little better highway mileage and pay an additional $.65 per gallon for diesel over regular for the privilege? At that moment, at least one of the Reps lost all color in his face. The other, who I am guessing may have been the boss of the 2, stiffened his spine, and announced with typical GM certainty, “thousands”. When I asked him if he could possibly be a bit more specific, he repeated the “thousands” comment. I guess he assumed that I must had just lost my hearing. Nice fellow to show such concern by repeating himself I thought. However, when I tried for a third time to get some semblance of an answer, he untypically lost his GM cool and with a dagger like look, asked ME how many I THOUGHT THEY would SELL? Wow, just a few seconds ago, I was just a car show visitor in blue jeans and tennis shoes with a hearing problem and now I find myself head to the GM Marketing department. So, not as to disappoint my newly found underling in his quest for an answer to his question, I said, “well, you said thousands”, the number that comes immediately to mind is 2. Two thousand would be thousands, and it is a nice round number, don’t you think? That is when he joined his partner in his attempt to mimic an albino. Realizing I had probably lost all of hope of any civil discourse with the white knights, I decided to take pity on them and venture elsewhere.

So, what is the payback on the Cruze diesel over the Cruze Eco? Is there a payback? Late news indicates that the price premium will be more like $3500 and get this, NO MILEAGE ADVANTAGE for the diesel over the Cruze Eco. Yes, you read that right. NO MILEAGE ADVANTAGE. So, payback? Huh? As they said in the movie, “Gone in 60 seconds”, “Do you need a calculator”? And GM’s latest spin on why in the world ANYONE would buy a $26K Diesel Cruze with no mileage advantage over the Eco gas engine? Ready for this one? Customers “who demand a lot of torque” from their engines. Seriously? Really? I don’t EVEN want to know how deep in their collective posteriors they had to go to pull that little jewel from. No wonder the knights turned white. Jesus. Never mind the fact that customers that demand a lot of torque from their engines are usually called “pickup owners”.

More on that shortly.

So, my sales prediction on the new Cruze diesel? Three little letters . . . .DOA. And after a year or so sitting around the dealer’s lot with the stickers starting to turn yellow and fading from being in the sun too long, GM will do 1 of 2 things. It will either drastically increase the rebates on them and give them away. Or, donate them to a bunch of tech schools for training purposes and enjoy the publicity and take the write off. I vote for the latter. But, rest assured, it won’t be anyone’s fault at GM and no one will lose their job. No one ever does.

So now that we have that nonsense out of the way, the fact of the matter is that the diesel engine in the new Cruze is a great engine. It is from Opel. It was designed in Italy and is built in Germany. So, rest assured, it is the real deal with all the papers to prove it. It is just being put into the wrong vehicle. What GM SHOULD be doing with it is putting it in the Colorado pickup truck, where, it can not only generate much better comparative miles per gallon vs. the crap gasoline engines GM currently put in the Colorado, it’s superior torque would be a GOD send to any real truck owner that doesn’t want or need a full size pickup. And, this point is no small one, GM would have NO COMPETITION here in the US as no other small pickup maker currently offers a diesel engine option. NOBODY. Ford stopped producing the Ranger small pickup at the end of 2011. Toyota installs a diesel in the Tacoma small pickup in virtually every market it serves, except the US and appears to have no plans to do so anytime in the near future. So instead of trying to go head to head against the established market leader in diesel cars, VW, with the Cruze, with a diesel engined Colorado, GM would have the field to themselves.
But, like so many unanswered mysteries surrounding the bad decisions made by GM down through the years, I guess this will one have get in line. Once again, GM snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Like I said, consistency CAN have it’s downside.

Hell, so far, no one has been able to tell me why on the brand new Corvette Stingray GM decided to raid the parts bin and install those GOD-awful Camaro rear taillights, instead of spending a few more bucks to install the storied round rear lamps so prized by generations of Corvette owners, like me. I mean, come on, seriously guys? How stupid can you get?  

1 comment:

  1. I respectfully disagree.

    I pose this question to you:
    Who buys VW TDIs in the US?

    If the market didn't exist, the answer would be "no one at all"

    Your analysis of the fuel cost is shoddy, at best. Also, Diesel has 15% more energy per unit volume than Gasoline does. You do know why E85 is cheaper than gasoline, right?

    High torque is great if you occasionally want to pull a trailer. Some people don't like the look of a pickup truck if they only need to haul something occasionally. Some people live under the malevolent rule of HOAs that prohibit the parking of pickup trucks in the open air on their land.

    There are use cases for such a vehicle that are independent of pickup trucks that would be of value to some people, such as only needing to do a fillup every ~800 miles. But then, perhaps I'm just rolling coal.


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