Diesel cars make up a pretty small percentage of the American fleet. Until now, fans of these fuel-efficient engines have had their choices limited to a handful of German makes. The only non-luxury brand offering one in the U.S. has been Volkswagen and they have had good success, with nearly 20% of their sales of some models represented by the TDI. Unlike Diesels in heavy-duty trucks and commercial vehicles more familiar to American drivers, European car aficionados have benefited from a great deal of technology like direct common-rail fuel injection, urea injection (for reduced emissions), and improved electronic engine management systems. These have made modern Diesels quieter, smoother, cleaner and even more fuel efficient than ever.
General Motors has been selling Diesels for decades for their European subsidiaries Opel and Vauxhall. Now, with the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze, they are making this engine available here… the first passenger car Diesel option offered by the company since the mid 1980s.
For drivers who haven’t driven a Diesel car since the Reagan administration the Cruze will be a shock… in a good way. No longer clattering, smoking, slow, and noisy this is a fully modern clean Diesel engine. Diesels typically excel at a couple of things relative to gasoline engines; better fuel economy and better low-end torque. The 2.0L DOHC turbo Diesel in the Cruze is proof positive. This engine generates 151 hp at 4,000 rpm and 264 lb-ft of torque at 2,600 rpm. This is a whopping 78% more torque than the 1.4L Turbo previously the top-spec Cruze engine option. The Cruze Diesel is only available with a six-speed automatic transmission and only in front-wheel-drive.
What this means is that acceleration around town is more than adequate (0-60 in about 8.5 seconds) and relaxed because one doesn’t need to rev the engine much to get to speed. This engine really excels on the open road where it’s lazily turning over at 2,000 rpm at 70 mph with almost no noise and only a slight low-frequency thrum felt through the controls. This is now the most fuel-efficient (based on freeway mileage estimates) non-hybrid car available in the U.S. It has EPA ratings of 27 city and 46 highway or a combined average of 33 mpg. Around town mileage won’t compete with a Prius but if one tends to commute on the open road and freeways, he or she will really experience a boost in efficiency vs. a hybrid which does better in stop and go.
Without trying hard and without any fuel-efficiency tricks, we topped 50 mpg during one particular 50 mile freeway stretch. Over a week of driving on mixed roads including stop and go, some relaxed freeway cruising, some mountain roads and nearly always with the air conditioning blowing due to a triple-digit heat wave we averaged just over 37 mpg.
The Driving Experience
And that mileage was accomplished in great comfort rather than in a fuel-efficiency focused tin box. The Cruze proved to be a roomy and extremely quiet companion for the week. There is a bit of extra sound-insulation added to the Diesel but even with the windows open engine noise was muted. We have recently spent time in some luxury cars, which could learn a few lessons from the Cruze Diesel in terms of freeway comfort and noise suppression.
Off the straight and wide expressways, the Cruze Diesel also handled well. There are a couple of hundred extra pounds over the front end but this FWD car still handled commendably. The low rpm and mid-range torque from the engine pulled us through corners with a satisfying rush from the turbocharger. There is no point in revving this engine as it runs out of breath. As such, after a few tries we put the manual-selection shifter back into “drive” and the 6-speed automatic did a better job of smoothly picking the correct gears than we did.
The Diesel also represents the new top-spec option so the engine can only be had in a full-
luxury Cruze. This includes leather, touch-screen MyLink infotainment system, remote vehicle start, power driver seat, and unique 17” alloy wheels. Our test car included only two options, a power sunroof which cost $900 and a heated oil pan at $100. Total MSRP was $26,695 including destination charges. Compared to an Cruze LTZ automatic with the same luxury trim, this is a an $1,180 premium.
The leather front seats, in particular, were extremely comfortable for our test driver. This is particularly important given the car’s ability to swallow over 700 miles of freeway on a single tank of fuel. Your bladder may not hold out that long but you won’t be screaming to get out the car because it’s uncomfortable. Rear seat room was also usable by real adults and the 16 cu. ft. trunk with split folding rear seats loses no capacity to the gasoline Cruze. One difference is the lack of a spare tire now replaced by an inflation kit as a tank for the emissions reducing liquid occupies the former spare tire well.
Currently, the only other compact non-luxury Diesel option available in the U.S is the VW Jetta TDI. Price is relatively similar… varying by a few hundred dollars in the Cruze’s favor given the level of standard equipment and automatic transmission. The VW is rated a bit better in city fuel economy but not as well on the freeway at 30/42 mpg vs. 27/46 for the Cruze. Combined average is only 1 mpg apart, with the VW rated at 34 vs. 33 for the Chevy. Basically, it’s a draw unless you plan to focus entirely on freeway driving. The Chevrolet is quieter and a bit more luxurious while the VW is more of a known quantity. For those focused on the VW’s European cred, note that Cruze engines are built by GM in Germany by their Opel division. On the flip side, the VW offers a manual transmission option as well as a wagon variant, which Chevrolet offers in Europe but not here in the States.
We enjoyed our time in the Cruze Diesel. For those looking for a car capable of cross- country road trips this is definitely worth a serious look. The around town torque is satisfying and gives the car a relaxed and effortless feel. The suspension really does strike a fantastic balance between ride and handling and delivers a superb and quiet freeway ride. The excellent fuel economy really feels like a fantastic bonus on top of what is already the top-spec compact Chevrolet.