For decades, diesel has been the fuel of choice in Europe. In the United Kingdom, more than half the cars sold every year run on the stuff, and that’s well behind the rest of Europe, which vastly prefers diesel to gasoline. In the United States, though, diesel has barely registered, and Americans have favored hybrids over small diesels. That’s about to change, though. A number of manufacturers—like Chevrolet with the new Cruze Diesel—are betting on this fuel as an alternative to hybrids, and when you compare the two, it makes a lot of sense.
Mention diesel cars to anyone over the age of 25 and two recollections come to mind: soot-covered taillights of Mercedes diesels from the 1970s and the ill-fated Oldsmobile diesel sold between 1979 and 1985, which offered horrible reliability and non-existent performance. Both conspired to drive nails in diesel’s American coffin for the last 30 years.
Times change, though. As of 2006, most of the diesel fuel available in the United States has been Ultra-Low-Sulfur-Diesel (ULSD), which results in much lower particulate emissions, eliminating the soot-covered rear bumpers. Along the way, electronic engine management and turbocharging have combined to provide substantial performance upgrades and improve efficiency at the same time.
The time has never been more right for diesel-powered cars, and auto manufacturers are ready to unleash a number of new diesel-powered models. Audi, Volkswagen, and Mercedes-Benz have sold diesels here for years and are increasing their diesel product offerings in the next year. BMW offers a diesel-powered 3 Series in 2014, and now Chevrolet is getting in on the act with the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel.
The Cruze’s main rivals, for now, are the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which has the longest history of successful diesel sales in the compact segment in the United States, and the Toyota Prius, which is the best-selling hybrid in America. So how do the diesel competitors fare against the reigning hybrid?
The lowest price leader in the segment is the Jetta TDI, which tops out at $24,950 when competitively equipped. The Cruze Diesel costs $795 more ($25,695 MSRP). At the top of the ladder is the Prius, which rings in at $29,295 when equipped with the same options as the other two competitors.
Of course, the numbers don’t tell the complete story. The Cruze Diesel is the best-equipped of the bunch, with standard leather seating, remote keyless start, and onboard OnStar telematics.
The performance title goes to the Cruze Diesel, with 151 hp and, more importantly, 264-lb.ft. of torque, thanks to a turbocharged four cylinder. It’s performance you definitely feel when you’re accelerating out of a side street or coming up a highway onramp. The Volkswagen Jetta TDI offers 140 hp. The torque figure in the Jetta is a bit lower at 236-lb.ft., but its maximum torque arrives at a significantly lower RPM, just 1,750 to the Cruze’s 2,600. Both cars aren’t winning any stoplight drags, taking close to nine seconds to reach 60 miles per hour, but they both beat the Prius C, which takes almost 11 seconds to get there.
Which vehicle you decide to buy largely depends on what kind of driving you do. If you spend a lot of time in stop-and-go city traffic, the Prius shines, offering an amazing 51 mpg city fuel economy, versus the Cruze Diesel’s 27 and the Jetta TDI’s 30. But on the open road, the benefits of a hybrid are less impressive. The best you can expect to wring out of a Prius is 48 miles per gallon, well beyond what you can expect out of any traditional gas-powered sedan of this size. But diesel’s efficiency allows for hybrid-like fuel economy at highway speeds. The Cruze Diesel provides 46 mpg on the highway, and the Jetta TDI provides 42. With a fuel tank that holds about five gallons more than the Prius, the Cruze Diesel wins the overall range contest handily, with 717 miles at the ready.
The Prius has always been significantly more expensive to purchase than any other car in its size segment, but it carries a price premium because it can deliver much better fuel economy. The $5,000 price premium over the two diesel competitors makes hybrid efficiency less attractive, especially if you drive on the highway for any length of time.
The Cruze Diesel—in mixed city and highway driving conditions—should cost about $1,750 per year to fuel. The Jetta TDI comes in at right about the same. The Prius is lower at $1,100 per year. But figuring about 15,000 miles per year, it would take you over seven and a half years to pay for the added cost of the Prius.
If pure fuel economy is your end goal, it’s hard to beat a hybrid, especially if you’re spending most of your time in the city. But if lowering your overall cost of ownership during the average lifespan of a new car is what you’re after, the Cruze Diesel and the Jetta TDI offer a lot of savings up front.