Unveiling new Cruze

Beginning in April, the Lordstown General Motors complex will make a car with the cleanest operating diesel engine the company has ever produced, corporate officials said this week in advance of today’s unveiling of that car.

The local plant – which already manufactured more than 279,000 gasoline-powered Chevy Cruze small cars last year – was an easy choice for assembly of the Chevy Cruze Turbo Diesel set to hit showrooms in May, the company said. Despite Lordstown’s consistent high production numbers, company officials said there is enough flexibility at the local plant to add the new diesel line.

The car is set to be unveiled this morning at the Chicago Auto Show.

Corporate officials in Detroit this week were mum on early volume predictions, but during a monthly sales conference call last week, GM’s U.S. vice president of Chevrolet sales and service Don Johnson predicted the car could reach up to 10 percent of total Cruze volume, which hit 237,758 in 2012.

By comparison, the Cruze Eco has been selling at about 15 percent of total Cruze volume.

But with high costs of diesel fuel at the pumps and early indications of a highway mpg around that of the Cruze Eco, marketing the vehicle may be a challenge. The U.S. Department of Energy this week listed average Midwest diesel fuel price at $3.978 per gallon, compared to the Midwest average for regular unleaded gasoline at $3.513.

Still, Chevrolet marketers and engineers believe power, range and performance will move the new small car off dealer lots.

”We will have very clear communications on those benefits and draw customers in from people who appreciate those benefits,” said Cristi Landi, Chevrolet’s small car and electrified vehicle marketing director.

”We are going to emphasize the technology. We are also going to emphasize the performance that you get, the torque, quiet driving at highway speeds,” Landi said.

With existing Cruze owners already accustomed to driving one of the most quiet vehicles on the road, diesel engine noise may be another obstacle to overcome.

But company officials were insistent that once inside the passenger cabin, turbo diesel Cruze drivers will be impressed with the lack of engine noise, particularly on the highway.

Going head-to-head with the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the only other diesel passenger car available in the U.S. small car segment, GM officials believe they can compete.

Both small cars are 2.0 liter, four-cylinder, six-speed transmissions. The Jetta, however, lists highway miles per gallon at 42 for the manual transmission. Early indications are that the Cruze turbo diesel will list mpg of at least 42 for an automatic transmission. The Cruze Eco, a green, gasoline-powered Cruze, also reports 42 highway mpg for a manual transmission.

”The compact car market is huge,” Landi said. ”We think there is some room here for some opportunity.”

Landi described test marketing that had drivers describing the highway acceleration that resembled a V-6.

Globally GM has sold nearly 2 million Chevrolet Cruzes since its 2010 launch.

GM has produced more than a half-million small diesel cars across Europe, Asia, Africa and South America last year, including Cruze. In Europe, approximately 40 percent of Cruze models are diesel-powered.