With the Volkswagen diesel buyback now in full-force here in the United States, up to half a million drivers will be looking for new cars in the coming months. A significant chunk of that group has declared that they want to keep their cars despite the emissions cheating while others including at least one friend of mine are lining up to buy the leftover unsold 2015 models now that a fix has been approved by the EPA. There is clearly still some demand for affordable diesel cars in America and Chevrolet wants a piece of it with the new 2017 Cruze diesel.
I had a chance to spend several days driving the second-generation Cruze diesel and it is absolutely a much better car than the first edition offered from 2013 to 2015. But is that enough to convert some or all of those Volkswagen customers?
When GM launched the original Cruze diesel four years ago, it was largely seen inside the company as an experiment. GM hadn’t offered a passenger car diesel in America since the disastrous Oldsmobile V8 of the 1980s. The Cruze was developed at a time when oil prices were above $100/barrel and small car sales in America were on a growth trajectory. Cruze engineers installed an older design 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel and experimented with a VW-style lean NOx trap before abandoning that in favor of a urea-injection system for emissions management.
When I drove the Cruze diesel two years ago, it certainly delivered on the fuel economy promise with 32 mpg around town and hitting 50 mpg on the highway. The new edition did even better, returning 35 mpg in town and a combined 45 mpg overall. As efficient as the older engine was, it fell a bit short of the refinement offered by new VW diesels. GM only offered the diesel with a six-speed automatic transmission on well-equipped models that were fairly pricey, starting at $26,485.
A couple months after driving that car, Chevrolet unveiled the second-generation Cruze along with a brand new engine lineup including a clean-sheet 1.6-liter diesel. That new diesel had recently gone on sale in Europe branded as the “Whisper Diesel” and powertrain chief Dan Nicholson declared that he wanted GM to be the North American leader in light duty diesels. He was clearly taking aim at Volkswagen and it seemed at the time that GM would have quite a battle on its hands if it wanted to overtake the Germans. Well we now know how that turned out as Volkswagen is essentially out of the diesel business in America aside from selling off the 2015 left-overs.
It took more than a year after the launch of gasoline-fueled models and they are still in extremely short supply but Chevrolet dealers are now receiving 2017 Cruze diesels. Unlike the previous Cruze that was only offered with a six-speed automatic, the new model is now available with a choice of six-speed manual or GM’s new nine-speed automatic. For now, the compression ignition engine is only offered in four-door sedans but refugees from the Golf and the Sportwagen will be able to get it in the Cruze hatchback this fall as a 2018 model. The new Cruze diesel is significantly more affordable with the manual version starting at $24,675, $1,800 less than before.
At 136-horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque, the smaller 1.6-liter diesel is not quite as beefy as the prior 2.0-liter but the new Cruze is also nearly 300-pounds lighter so performance is not at all an issue. I drove the three pedal version and the classic diesel torque characteristics make this a very easy to drive machine.
While the limited rev range of a diesel engine tends to mean more shifting is required, the flat torque curve means you can lug it pretty low so you aren’t constantly rowing the shifter. Shift effort was light enough but the linkage doesn’t feel quite as precise as some of the best from VW or Honda. Similarly, the steering effort was a bit lighter than I prefer and the suspension doesn’t feel quite as tied down as some of the competition. Nonetheless, the ride quality is excellent and the Cruze goes where you point it.
Regardless of powertrain choice, the Cruze offers a very well laid out cabin with a 7-inch touchscreen display for the MyLink infotainment system. The screen offers excellent visibility even in direct sunlight or with polarized sunglasses and MyLink includes support for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The diesel is based on the mid-level LT trim and comes standard with heated, cloth-covered seats and eight-way power adjustment for the driver. Adding the optional leather package includes a heating element in the steering wheel for those cold mornings.
My test unit was the base diesel with no additional options and the seats felt comfortable and supportive. If you’re looking for an affordable diesel and don’t mind shifting for yourself, the fabric upholstery should do fine and hold up well.
The second-generation Cruze is an excellent competitor in the compact car segment. The only problem is that the segment as a whole is rapidly being abandoned by American consumers. Interestingly, when Hyundai recently launched the 2018 Elantra GT hatchback, they claimed their research showed that the younger buyers with active lifestyles actually preferred compact hatchbacks over comparable crossover utilities. Apparently they like the combination of car driving dynamics and the utility of the large rear opening and fold down seats.
The addition of a Cruze hatchback with the diesel will give GM a unique offering in the American market, but only time will tell if it’s one that Americans are still interested in. While recording an upcoming episode of Autoline This Week with Nicholson, he projected that overall diesel penetration in the U.S. market would eventually double to about six percent including trucks and utilities but GM still has confidence that there is enough demand for diesel cars to justify the investment.
It remains to be seen if GM can revive the fortunes of diesel cars in America or win over VW refugees with the Cruze. The launch this year of the same powertrain in the new Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain along with Mazda’s new diesel CX-5 this summer will probably provide a clearer indication of whether this well has been permanently poisoned for all but a few diehards. But for those of you returning your TDI’s in the coming months, this one is definitely worth a look and don’t forget the hatchback is coming in the fall.