General Motors Co. is hoping to attract disaffected Volkswagen AG diesel customers with a new turbodiesel version of its 2018 Chevrolet Equinox crossover and diesel versions of its Chevrolet Cruze and new Cruze Hatchback.
The Detroit automaker’s bet on diesel comes, though, as sales have slowed in the U.S. due to Volkswagen’s costly exhaust emissions cheating scandal, now one year old.
GM announced Tuesday that the redesigned Cruze Hatchback would be available with diesel power for the 2018 model year. It should hit showrooms sometime around the third quarter of next year, and a diesel variant of the Cruze sedan will be re-introduced early next year. Miles-per-gallon estimates haven’t been released for either car.
And last month, executives said a powertrain option for the redesigned compact Equinox SUV will be a 1.6-liter turbodiesel that could turn an estimated 40 mpg on the highway.
“Clearly, what’s happened at VW creates an opportunity for us,” GM North America President Alan Batey told reporters recently in Detroit. “So we’ll do everything we can to seize the opportunity.”
Volkswagen and Audi have been prohibited from selling diesels in the U.S. since revelations a year ago that VW had doctored software to turn off pollution-control devices whenever the cars weren’t being tested for harmful emissions. Volkswagen Group North America CEO Hinrich Woebcken told The Detroit News last month that the company will “transition” from diesels in the U.S. in favor of electric cars.
The Environmental Protection Agency last fall also ramped up more spot-checks and evaluations of diesels in real-world driving conditions. The increased testing led to some delays for manufacturers in getting EPA certifications.
U.S. diesel sales are down more than 37 percent through September this year compared to the same months in 2015, according to Hybridcars.com. It says the Ram 1500 EcoDiesel pickup is the No. 1 diesel in the U.S. through September with an estimated 39,997 sold; that’s followed closely by the Ford Transit diesel van.
Registrations of diesel cars and light trucks in the U.S. through the first seven months of 2016 totaled 246,256 — just 2.4 percent of the market, according to IHS Markit. That’s down 40,116 from the same period in 2015.
Despite that sales plunge, the number of available diesel models in the U.S. is expected to grow. The Diesel Technology Forum, an industry organization, says 49 diesel-powered cars, SUVs, truck and vans are available today; that will grow to 61 by the end of 2017, it believes.
Chevrolet marketing director Steve Majoros, speaking on the sidelines of the Equinox premiere last month, said there are buyers who want diesels and like the plentiful torque and good fuel efficiency they offer. “We’re going to see how the demand shakes out,” he said. “We’re going to provide another alternative for somebody that’s looking for that.”
Batey said diesel powertrains are important to have in the event that gas prices shoot skyward: “We know these types of vehicles will be very popular.”
Autotrader.com senior analyst Michelle Krebs said auto industry globalization has made it easier for automakers to add niche products without a lot of extra costs. The diesel Equinox and Cruze versions likely were planned before the VW scandal hit and should help GM meet tougher fuel efficiency standards, she said.
“I think it’s purely a fuel economy play, as we move closer to fuel economy standards,” Krebs said, referring to increasing mpg mileposts that automakers must meet. “I suspect the take-rate will be very low after the whole Volkswagen situation.”
GM in December rolled out diesel versions of its midsize pickups, the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon. Batey told The Detroit News last month that the diesel version of the Colorado is the “fastest-turning Colorado we have.”
“It represents about 12 percent of our sales. Frankly, we could sell more but we just can’t build more at the moment and it’s turning so quickly,” he said.
Chevy and GMC also sell diesel versions of the Silverado and Sierra heavy-duty pickups, as well as diesel vans.
It’s not just Chevy that is adding diesels. Jaguar has introduced a diesel version of the XE compact sports sedan and a diesel version of the 2017 F-PACE SUV.
Analysts are forecasting that Ford Motor Co. will offer a diesel F-150 pickup for the 2018 model year; at least one says Ford may consider a diesel for the upcoming Ranger midsize pickup. Ford declined to comment, saying it doesn’t speculate on future products.
Some observers also predict Toyota may add a diesel variant of the Tundra pickup late next year, but Toyota is not confirming it. Other forecasts expect the next-generation Jeep Wrangler to have a diesel option; a Jeep spokesman wouldn’t comment.
Chevy’s Majoros would not say if the brand is considering offering any other diesels.
“There’s a subset of the market that enjoys the performance it offers,” Majoros said. “We can deliver something that they’re looking for: high torque, high range, and we’ll see what happens.”