It can be tough trying to oust a popularity contest favorite even if you too have a pretty face, and a fair degree of talent.
And so it has been thus far for Chevrolet’s Cruze Turbo Diesel that went on sale in June 2013 with a German Opel engine refined at GM labs in Torino, Italy and the U.S., with intent to compete against the VW Jetta TDI.
The diesel Cruze is of course based on Chevrolet’s best-selling gas version that for the past couple years has won back sales from Honda, Toyota, and others while reversing negative perceptions yet lingering for compact sedans with a bowtie on the grille.
The short story on the Cruze built in Lordstown, Ohio and served in diesel flavor is this: it’s worth a look, and some VW traditionalists may be sneering overly much.
It comes well equipped, gets competitive mileage but the automatic-transmission-only car is priced $1,250 more than the VW with automatic and has a couple inches less rear leg room, so it’s not a hands-down winner.
Whether the popularity of this hopeful incumbent will increase remains to be seen, but the latter half of 2013 saw the Jetta TDI continue as America’s best-selling diesel with 24,183 units delivered compared to 2,995 Cruze diesels.
Granted, for the first two months the Chevy was ramping up, but it settled into a 400-500 unit monthly range from August through December while the Jetta steadily declined from a peak in August of 5,876 sold to 2,894 in December.
And regardless of an initially moderate start, GM says as it seeks ways to meet future efficiency mandates, more diesels will follow the Cruze.
“Do you think four years ago the leadership in Detroit would have done a diesel Cruze? It would have been, ‘no, diesels are stupid … we’re not doing that,’” said Mark Reuss, GM executive vice president of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, at a media roundtable this week at the Detroit auto show. “We are doing this stuff.”
At this juncture, as the sales numbers show, the Cruze diesel’s volume makes it more a competitor for the Golf TDI, but we actually enjoyed driving Chevrolet’s anti-Jetta, and like some things about it better, so here’s more …
By now most people paying attention know that “clean” diesels no longer smell bad, emit clouds of smoke, clatter excessively, suffer reliability issues or difficulty starting and driving in extreme temperatures or high altitudes.
Anticipating the Cruze launch, GM did begin a campaign to counteract hold-over stigmas just like Audi has, and behind it all are projections that diesel car sales will increase in the next few years as federal regulations push for cleaner cars with higher mpg.
GM says the Cruze diesel is its “cleanest ever produced” and meets U.S. Tier 2 Bin 5 emissions standards. Thanks to a urea injection system that replaces the spare tire in the trunk, GM says it generates more than 90-percent less Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and particulate emissions compared to previous-generation diesels.
However in America, diesel fuel is taxed more and costs more than premium. It also contains more energy – 147,000 BTU per gallon versus gasoline’s 125,000 BTU. Its CO2 emissions are 14-percent higher per gallon, but offset by the fact that turbo diesels such as in the Cruze tend to be more thermally efficient.
More specifically, the Cruze’s engine is a 2.0-liter and EPA rated at 27 mpg city, 46 mpg highway, 33 mpg combined. This compares to the Jetta TDI’s 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, 34 mpg combined.
The Cruze’s diesel engine is used also in the European Opel Astra and Insignia, and Chevy Malibu. It’s not the 1.7-liter or 2.0-liter Daewoo diesel equipped in more than 35,000 diesel Cruzes that have sold in Europe.
The iron block, alloy head design uses a variable-swirl intake system to optimize clean efficient burn of its air and fuel. Compression ratio is 16.5:1 and the intake charge is injected by piezo-electric injectors at 23,000 psi.
Rated output is 151 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, and 264 pounds-feet torque at 2,600 rpm. An overboost feature under full throttle enables several seconds at 280 pounds-feet.
This compares to the Jetta TDI’s 140 horsepower, 236 pounds-feet of torque at 1,750 rpm. However VW has announced that during the second half of 2014 its new EA288 TDI 2.0-liter engine will replace its present 2.0-liter. This will apply to 2015 model year Jettas and several other models. The new TDI is rated at 150 horsepower, the same 236 pounds-feet torque, and promises cleaner emissions.
VW does not presently use urea injection, and one wonders whether GM could have placed the urea tank borrowed and downsized from its Duramax truck diesels somewhere other than the spare tire well.
And despite the extra ponies, the horsepower-to-weight ratio for the Chevy is slightly down from the Jetta’s. A Cruze diesel weighs around 3,475 pounds, and a Jetta Premium with Nav is around 3,160 pounds.
That means a Cruze has one horsepower for every 23 pounds of weight, and the Jetta has one horsepower for every 22.6 pounds.
As for its transmission, the Cruze comes with a 6-speed automatic that does the job satisfactorily. It is not as sophisticated as the crisp-shifting DSG dual-clutch auto in the TDI but the DSG is not perfect either, being notorious for excessive lag time from zero mph.
VW also offers a manual transmission for $1,100 less (the price of the DSG upgrade).
The type of drivers who favor diesels have sometimes been known to favor a manual, but many others do not, so Chevrolet can only hope they’ll be OK with auto only.
Not much need be said to anyone familiar with a standard Cruze, as that is what the Cruze 2.0TD otherwise is. It does benefit from the Cruze Eco’s aerodynamic tricks including lower front grille air shutter, mid-body aero panels and front air dam and rear spoiler.
Rear brakes are disc type instead of drums, and standard wheels are 17-inch alloys and they are shod with the Cruze Eco’s all-season low rolling resistance tires.
Trunk space is a decent 13.3 cubic feet.
Inside, it seems apparent that someone in GM’s marketing department decided the demographic willing to spend for a diesel would also want it well appointed.
The compact sedan is relatively plush inside with close to top-line content, which helps justify the price uptick over gasoline versions.
The car we drove stickered at $28,105 with the addition of audio system with Nav ($795), Enhanced Safety Package ($795), 2LT Driver Convenience Package ($380). These added $2,410 to the $25,695 base price which includes and $810 destination fee.
As it is, the Cruze diesel’s materials, design and layout are pleasing to the eye and touch, and look more contemporary than the VW’s relatively Spartan – or is that no-nonsense and functional? – interior.
Much attention has been given to the open weave cloth used on some dashboard surfaces with one reviewer even saying it is semi abrasive. It is unusual, and try not to drop an ice cream cone or other food on it, but otherwise, it’s just a bit different, and may hold up well enough over time.
Standard is Chevrolet’s MyLink interface with 7-inch screen, hands-free phone interface, Pandora, Sticher, Bluetooth streaming audio, and voice-commands.
A driver info screen relays personalized messages and other data. Radio offers XM service option sold separately by Sirius.
Also standard are power windows, mirrors, locks, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated front seats with 6-way power adjustable driver seat and 6-way manual passenger seat.
And the seats are comfortable front and back. With interior volume of 94.6 cubic feet versus the Jetta’s 94.1, the Cruze provides slightly more generous accommodations than the Jetta in some respects.
Where the Cruze comes up short is in rear knee room, which is 2.7 inches shorter – 35.4 inches versus the Jetta’s 38.1.
Driving The Cruze Diesel
The extra torque makes itself felt despite a slightly lower power-to-weight ratio, and effectively the Cruze feels more powerful than the Jetta TDI most of the time.
City driving is simple with power on tap to stay with or ahead of the flow.
On the highway, the same is true, and this is a long-legged runner just like the Jetta is.
Ample front leg room, with a comfortable multi-adjustable ergonomics and an interior layout and design that we find more pleasing than VW’s would nominate this for a coast to coast run if so desired.
Although the diesel offers relatively prodigious torque, its 0-60 times in the lower 8 seconds range may be a quarter second quicker than the Jetta TDI, and this is not super quick in any case.
As a reference, a Prius can manage low 10s and a Camry Hybrid around 7.2 seconds to 60.
From zero mph, there is less of a lag time with the Cruze than the automatic TDI also.
Ultimately, the Cruze is satisfactory for any normal road duties, and offers a relatively comfortable and well-damped ride. Its cornering prowess is controlled but the LRR tires can protest before diving too hard into an S-bend.
The Cruze diesel is not positioned as competition to a BMW 3-Series however, but as an eco car that gets the job done.
Where it excels over sporting sedans is in helping to pay back its buyer with superior miles per gallon in many instances.
Drive it carelessly, and you will clip below rated numbers – even well-below the rated numbers – but matching the EPA numbers does not take an excessively tender-foot treatment.
Our peak mpg was 54.5 mpg, and we routinely saw upper 40s on the highway, and upper 30s around town.
This is decent compared to some hybrids and if you subscribe to anecdotes surrounding diesels, being overbuilt they are known to last a long time, and this is further aided by the fact that this is no high-strung engine needing you to rev it to the moon.
As for the engine noise, GM added sound deadening and did a lot to muffle it, and it is acceptably hushed inside, not intrusive at all. Outside the characteristic diesel sound can be heard, but whether this is of concern comes down to personal sensibility.
Personally, we are not bothered by the sound, and it’s almost a novelty to fire up the little diesel and see if anyone takes note that this is not one more gas burning car. If you at all like to zag when most people like to zig, the relatively unique diesel life could be for you.
The Cruze also includes as standard a two-year maintenance plan, and a five-year 100,000 mile powertrain warranty.
Beyond the odd chance you like to zig when others zag, why would anyone buy a car that costs four thousand dollars more than the eco gas version and takes fuel that costs an average 22 cents more than premium gasoline and 56 cents more than regular?
The answer to this question is part of the reason why most sticker-conscious buyers in America look right past diesels – not to mention advertising has been limited, so some may not know this one exists – however none of this is saying diesels have no reason to be.
The driveability and torque the Cruze offer is one compelling reason. If you believe in the quality and durability of the engine, and plan to keep it a long time, that too can play a part.
Further, the vehicle does get relatively good-to-great fuel mileage, especially on the highway, and it does so with a single motive source, instead of a dual powertrain like a hybrid has.
Also, highway drivers wanting to travel far will be stopping for bathroom breaks more frequently than fuel stops given a 717-mile range from the 15.6-gallon tank – and this car has actually seen as much as 800-900 miles on a tankful.
Other competitors besides the Jetta TDI could be several.
There’s also the Cruze Eco, and as a contrarian pick, we’d nominate the Chevrolet Volt, assuming it’s subsidized which can get its price down to the upper 20s. The Volt would make much more sense around town but would be a less clear choice for predominately highway drivers.
In all, we do like the Cruze diesel. You will want a sharp pencil and a test drive to help decide whether it is worth it for you, but this is a solid package and indicators are it’s the first of more GM diesel cars to come.