Volkswagen has gotten pretty comfortable hogging the – admittedly small – non-premium diesel car market in the US. With Golf and Jetta, the German automaker has been the one and only choice for those interested in the torquey, high-mpg merits of turbocharged diesel power.
However, US customers seem to be growing more interested in the technology that has been the primary mode of propulsion in most of Europe for many years now. Mazda is quite close to bringing its Skyactiv-D diesel engines to our shores, and Chevrolet has finally maneuvered to repurpose its European 2.0-liter turbo-diesel engine for US specification, which means it’s cleaner here than overseas.
The first application of this rather impressive diesel engine is in the compact Chevy Cruze, which I spent a recent morning testing out. General Motors as a whole has high expectations for its new TDI-buster. Here’s why:
- Since the Cruze Diesel has the Jetta TDI squarely in its targeting computer, allow me to start off with a tale of the tape for the two engines. Chevy’s diesel displaces 2.0-liters, makes 151 horsepower and 264 pound-feet of torque (with an overboost mode that allows for brief moments of 280 lb-ft), consumes an EPA-estimated 46 miles per gallon on the highway and 27 in the city, and launches the Cruze from 0-60 miles per hour in 8.6 seconds. The Jetta TDI has a similar 2.0T diesel, with 140 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque, is rated at 42 mpg highway and 30 mpg city, and will ‘sprint’ to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds (with DSG transmission). Chevy only offers a six-speed automatic with the Cruze Diesel, while VW will sell you a six-speed manual or a six-speed dual clutch gearbox.
- Turn the key on the Cruze Diesel and, if the windows are down, you’ll hear a rather loud, clattering noise from the engine bay, at idle. The sound isn’t worse than other small diesels we’ve heard, but it is surprising since the sealed-cabin quiet of the Cruze is remarkably high. With loads of attention paid to refinement at speed, the Cruze is all but silent on the highway (there’s some wind noise), and the exhaust note only intrudes when approaching the 5,000-rpm redline.
- Power from the diesel engine feels super strong from even very low revs, as is expected, I guess. Peak torque is available at just 2,600 rpm, and a full 250 lb-ft can be had over the broad expanse between 1,750 and 3,000 rpm. Much like the Jetta, the Cruze isn’t fast from a dead stop, but the acceleration from middle to high highway speeds (60 to 80 mph, let’s say), is fantastic.
- I drove or rode for about 90 miles in total over this very short preview program, but early returns on the fuel economy are good. Cruising at around 75 mph on the highway saw the fuel econ meter settle at around 44 mpg after just 15 miles, so my guess would be that the estimated 46 mpg or better is easily within reach. (We know from experience that more than 50 mpg is was possible with our long-term Jetta TDI.) On the second leg of our trip, which started on country roads and headed back to the highway, I saw roughly 30 mpg after starting really aggressively and then settling into speed-limit driving around 40 mph. Again, with an EPA City rating of 27 mpg, I’d guess that the Cruze is set to have better real-world numbers than its window sticker would suggest.
- The overall ride characteristic of the Cruze matches its noiseless cabin, insofar as the car really smoothed out the road underneath me. I drove over some pretty broken down Michigan backroads in the car, and found that only the worst potholes and pavement breaks filtered through the softish suspension setup.
- That softness in the suspension, combined with low rolling resistance tires, meant that when I did try to corner aggressively in the Cruze I was met with a lot of vertical motion from the corners and loss of grip. The small Chevy does have a nicely balanced front-wheel-drive chassis for the most part, but handling is only satisfying up to a warmed-up point.
- In all, I think that the new Cruze Diesel presents an interesting counterpoint and alternative to the Jetta TDI, without being dramatically better or worse than the default diesel standard bearer. You can buy the Jetta for a cheaper starting price at $23,055 with no options, but Chevy has, for better or worse, piled on a good amount of kit to its $24,885 basic Cruze Diesel. That sum (plus another $810 for destination) will get you remote keyless entry and start, heated front leather seating, MyLink with Bluetooth connectivity and a touchscreen interface, 17-inch aluminum wheels and more. I think that the 2LT package ($380 for power, heated mirrors, rearview camera, etc), the $795 navigation option and the $100 option for a heated oil pan (great for cold starts) are really good values, too.
- What you get with the Jetta is an ever-so-slightly sportier package (thanks mostly to the better manual/DSG transmission options) and a little bit more brand prestige in the minds of most buyers. This diesel Cruze will need some time to penetrate the land of enthusiasts and diesel geeks, I’m guessing, but it’s a fine sedan in its own right, and worth at least a look from even the most ardent TDI supporter.