Chevrolet brings the Cruze Diesel stateside

LOCAL DIESEL: The Cruze features Chevrolet’s signature two-bar grille with a gold bowtie, sloping windshield, and rear window at either end of the arched roofline.
LOCAL DIESEL: The Cruze features Chevrolet’s signature two-bar grille with a gold bowtie, sloping windshield, and rear window at either end of the arched roofline.
BILL GRIFFITH

The numbers don’t lie when it comes to computing miles per gallon. You divide the miles driven since your last fill-up by the number of gallons it takes to fill the tank. The result sometimes can be a surprise.

Take today’s test car as an example. It’s a 2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel. The key word here is diesel because the Cruze is the only domestic, diesel-powered passenger car, one aimed directly at Volkswagen’s Jetta TDI.

The numbers question is vital to the Cruze’s success because we wanted to know if the increased fuel economy was enough to offset the approximately $6,000 additional original cost for the diesel version and the extra cost of fuel. Diesel fuel generally runs 18 to 20 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded fuel.

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EPA estimates for the Cruze are 27 miles per gallon in city driving, 46 on the highway, and 33 in combined driving. A gas-powered version is rated at 25 city, 36 highway, and 29 combined while the frugal Eco model is rated at 26/39/31.

We drove around town for a few days and made a 40-mile round trip to Exeter, New Hampshire, over secondary roads, thinking our driving would fall into the “combined” category. The result: 118 miles, 4.1 gallons of diesel fuel, and a somewhat disappointing 28.8 mpg.

Somehow I felt as though I’d failed because in June we’d met with Cruze diesel program people who’d told us they regularly could average better than 50 mpg “without trying hard” in their own driving.

That Saturday, we set out for New Hampshire’s Lakes Region without great expectations, leaving in mid-morning with a fresh fill-up and anticipating we’d hit some nasty traffic.

Fortunately, traffic wasn’t bad going or returning; neither was the gas mileage. Filling up again after an even 200 miles, we’d averaged 43.7 mpg. That’s more like the Cruze diesel we were hoping to find, but you have to wonder if the big mpg numbers are more suited to an owner who does a lot of highway driving.

On the road, the Cruze was a pleasure, an example of how far so-called compact cars have come. The front suspension is a standard MacPherson strut setup while the rear has a z-link design. The electric power steering had a good feel and the suspension was stiffer than expected.

Trunk space was cavernous. We found out just how large while vacuuming out the leftover sand after a day at the beach.

The Cruze is immediately recognizable as a Chevrolet with the marque’s now-global, two-tier grille with golf bowtie logo. The arched roofline ends with a small rear deck that belies all the trunk space that extends under the sloping rear window.

We’ll give the Cruze engineering team one challenge: to convert some of that trunk space into rear seat legroom. That was our only real gripe with the car, especially when comparing it to the competing Nissan Sentra, which had both a large trunk and ample rear seat legroom.

On the plus side, the diesel version of the Cruze has a decidedly upscale interior with heated, leather-appointed seats, steering-wheel controls, 60/40 folding rear seats, on-board vehicle computer, and a sound system that features Bluetooth, audio-streaming services, and voice activation.

Our test car had an MSRP of $25,695 (including $810 destination charge), and the only option was a $100 oil pan heater for a bottom line price of $25,795.

To obtain the safety feature I’d like in any new car, we’d have to add a $380 “Driver Convenience Package” that includes the should-be-standard rearview camera along with auto-dimming rearview mirror, lighted vanity mirrors, and outside heated mirrors. A $790 safety option adds other much-appreciated features: rear park assist, cross-traffic alert, and blind-spot warning. Other available options include a sunroof ($900) and navigation system ($795).

Chevrolet’s designers did a sound job of insulating the Cruze. Stand outside when it starts up and you can hear the unmistakable clatter of a diesel engine. Close the doors and windows and the clatter is gone, leaving the Cruze silent enough for easy conversation among passengers.

The engine is an adaptation of the GM diesel sold in Europe, where nearly 40 percent of Cruze sales are diesel-powered. It produces 151 horsepower with 264 lb.-ft. of torque.

That torque gives the Cruze plenty of quickness from a standing start and enough passing power to satisfy any normal driver. An “overboost” feature increases that torque figure to approximately 280 lb.-ft. for short bursts such as merging and passing.

A six-speed automatic transmission, a beefier component than the ones found in gas-powered Cruze models, makes for a combination that is smooth while upshifting and downshifting.

The Cruze has a five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a two-year maintenance plan that includes oil changes, tire rotation, and topping off the fluid in the diesel exhaust system.

Chevy has taken notice of Volkswagen’s five-pronged diesel TDI (turbocharged direct injection) program that makes diesel power available in the Beetle, Golf, Jetta, Passat, and Touareg models.

With the new cleaner engines and cleaner diesel fuel available, diesels slowly have been gaining sales traction. Gone is the plume of blue exhaust smoke that over the years gave diesels the nickname of “Oil Burners.”

Chevy has become the first domestic manufacturer to say, “Why don’t we take a crack at this?”

The result—this Cruze—has the look and feel of a winner.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $25,695/$25,795. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 27 city/46 highway/33 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 28.8 and 43.7 on different trips. Drivetrain: 2.0-liter turbo diesel, 6-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel-drive. Body: Five-passenger compact sedan.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 151. Torque: 264 lb.-ft. Overall length: 181 in. Wheelbase: 105.7 in. Height: 58.1 in. Width: 70.7 in. Curb weight: 3,475 lbs.

THE GOOD

Strong engine, solid ride, upscale interior.

THE BAD

Rear legroom.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Only domestic diesel looks promising.

ALSO CONSIDER

VW diesel Jetta, Sportwagen, Beetle, and Golf.