In the early-1980s, General Motors almost single-handedly poisoned the American market for diesel-engined passenger cars for more than a generation. Aside from the most hardcore Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz fans, most American drivers were so put off by the failures of the Oldsmobile diesel V8 that they wouldn’t even consider a diesel in anything but a heavy-duty truck for nearly three decades. Thus it was fitting that GM should be the first Detroit-based automaker to reintroduce a diesel-powered car with the 2013 debut of the Chevrolet Cruze diesel.
Throughout that same era where the American diesel car was lost in the wilderness, Chevrolet and the other domestic brands also built a well-earned reputation for producing terrible small cars. They were cheap (as opposed to inexpensive), dull to drive and often of mediocre quality because they frequently sold as entry-level loss-leaders to keep average fuel economy numbers up. However, in the past decade as fuel prices rose and many consumers moved to smaller cars, a few brands demonstrated that consumers would be willing to actually pay more for smaller cars if they were well built and offered the amenities available in larger cars. Thus in 2010, as GM was going through bankruptcy, the Chevrolet Cruze was born to replace the unloved Cobalt.
Engineered for global markets, the Cruze was a solid compact sedan with cabin fit-and-finish levels never before seen in a small GM car sold in North America. The materials were dramatically upgraded with soft-touch finishes and everything looked commensurate with the new higher price points. At launch, American customers could choose between two gasoline four cylinder engines, a normally aspirated 1.8-liter and a more efficient turbocharged 1.4-liter. Cruze quickly became a success, selling upwards of a quarter million units annually.
Seeing the popularity of Volkswagen’s diesel-powered Jetta and Golf in the same compact segment, in 2013, Chevrolet added a third engine option, a 2.0-liter turbodiesel. However, while upwards of one in five Golf and Jetta customers opted for the compression-ignition engine, the Cruze diesel has been somewhat less popular. In 2014, Chevrolet sold just shy of 6,000 diesel-powered cars, barely 2.2 percent of all Cruzes. That relatively low take rate doesn’t necessarily make the Cruze diesel a failure according to Chevrolet.
“We continue to see new buyers into the brand thanks to the Cruze diesel – particularly with those who are trading in diesel Jettas or Passats,” said Chevrolet spokeswoman Annalisa Bluhm. “Some of that comes from owners who already have a GM diesel truck in the household/business, but we are seeing traffic from owners who would have never considered Chevrolet before – and that’s really the reason why we’re offering the Cruze Diesel.”
The diesel is only available in a trim level equivalent to the 2LT for the gas-engined models which puts it at the upper end of the price spectrum for the Cruze. The diesel starts at $26,485, a $2,400 premium over a gas-engined 2LT automatic. Considering that Chevrolet has spent virtually nothing promoting the Cruze diesel in the two years it has been available, it’s actually a bit surprising that it has done as well as it has. Even incentives on the diesel have been kept to a minimum so its clear that a certain portion of the car buying public wants such a car.
The current Cruze is nearing the end of its lifecycle with an all-new model due to hit the streets later this year and it’s not clear if Chevrolet will continue to offer a diesel model in North America. However, GM has indicated ongoing interest in diesel in addition to electrified models so its entirely possible that the new Cruze will feature an updated version of the diesel engine.
I spent a bit more than a week driving a 2015 Cruze diesel and came away generally very impressed with the car. Before I get into the powertrain, let’s just review the base car a bit. The car I drove was pretty much loaded with the MyLink infotainment system including navigation, heated leather seats and blind spot warning with cross traffic alert. The MyLink system generally worked well and was fairly responsive but it did seem to take a while to reconnect a phone paired over bluetooth.
The MyLink used in the Cruze was the first-generation of this system that launched in 2011. It has support for controlling Pandora and Stitcher smartphone apps through the touchscreen as well as controlling any audio that is streaming over bluetooth. Unfortunately, the screen itself is sunk back into the surrounding dashboard making it somewhat awkward to tap some of the controls near the edge of the screen. Like the 2016 Volt and Malibu, the new Cruze will almost certainly adopt the next-generation MyLink which will likely have support of additional apps as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The front seats are well shaped and supportive, making them much superior to the units in the Dodge Dart. However, despite most interior dimensions being nominally the same as competitors, the Cruze cabin felt somewhat more cramped, especially in the back seat where legroom was decidedly tight. Visibility out of the cabin was good in all directions.
For anyone that hasn’t driven a diesel in the past decade, the modern compression ignition engine is a revelation. Once warmed up, the best contemporary engines are virtually as quiet as gasoline engines. From a cold start, all diesel engines still make a bit of the traditional clatter for the first couple of minutes but as they warm, the high-pressure direct fuel injection strategy is adjusted and the noise dies down. The Cruze engine is based on an older GM diesel engine and even when warm, it’s not quite as refined as the best Volkswagen engines. That said, it’s in no way objectionable and under acceleration, it exhibits a pleasant growl.
With 151-horsepower and 264 lb.-ft. of torque, the Cruze diesel has plenty of grunt and has no problem getting out of its own way despite the ample 3,475-pound girth of the diesel. For the most part, drivability was very good although occasionally while decelerating at around town speeds, there was a perceptible stumble that felt almost like a misfire, although watching the tachometer it seemed like something related to transmission downshifts.
Of course the primary reason for buying a diesel car like this is fuel economy. The EPA fuel economy estimates for the Cruze diesel are 27 mpg city, 33 mpg combined and 46 mpg on the highway. The nature of the drive test cycles used for measuring those estimates are such that gasoline-fueled cars frequently fall short of those ratings in real world driving. Conversely, diesels frequently beat the estimates under the same conditions and such was the case for the Cruze.
Gasoline cars regularly fall short of EPA mileage estimates while diesels tend to overperform the label
For the past six months, fuel prices in the United States have declined precipitously with the current national average for regular gasoline at $2.41 per gallon. In real terms adjusted for inflation, those prices remain about as low as gasoline has ever been. That means that consumers have been migrating away from fuel efficient models including smaller, gas-fueled small cars, hybrids and battery electrics back to crossovers and SUVs. Just this week, Ford announced that it would eliminate the third shift at its Wayne, Mich. assembly plant where the Focus and C-MAX are built.
However, if you want to disregard the straight up economics and just get a more efficient car that is pleasant to drive, the Cruze diesel is definitely worthy of consideration. This car offers among the best real world fuel efficiency of any car I’ve ever driven and offers an array of amenities and comfort features. Plus if you’re old enough to remember the Oldsmobile diesel, this car will help you forget all about that disaster.