Cruising down the freeway at 65 mph in light traffic, the electroluminescent lettering of the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel began making remarkable claims, showing an average of over 50 mpg. Well over. I could see that it was going to take some time to move the fuel gauge needle off full.
This particular screen wasn't the typical trip computer, but Chevy's Eco screen, which recorded the best average over 50 miles. This screen turned driving into a game, trying to record the best average. Chevy should enable an online ladder where drivers can compare and compete.
That high freeway mileage shows the beauty of diesel, and the limits of EPA fuel economy testing. The Cruze Diesel's EPA mileage came in at 27 mpg city and 46 mpg highway. I handily beat the highway estimate, and ended up with a combined average, involving city and freeway driving, of 39.2 mpg. Most drivers should see mileage in the mid- to high 30s.
Last week, I wrote of the Mercedes-Benz GLK250 BlueTec that it could make Americans more likely to consider a diesel when vehicle shopping. Well, the Cruze Diesel can lay greater claim to tipping that balance, as it is more of a mass-market car. In the Cruze lineup, the diesel is the most expensive, but it is also the most powerful.
Basic compact sedan
The Cruze, competitive with the Honda Civic, is a small sedan, a recent and needed addition to Chevy's stable. It seats four with reasonable comfort, and can take a fifth passenger in the rear seat in a squeeze. The trunk looks remarkably big, considering the size of the car.
The styling of the Cruze won't set the world on fire. The bland design seems intended to appeal to the broadest swath of buyers, who generally don't want a car that will be noticed on the road. The conservative exterior look gets somewhat countered by a more stylish interior. Here, leather covers the seats and a nice two-tone band bows across the dashboard and around the front seating area.
As to ride quality, the Cruze is decent for its class. Not particularly soft -- the suspension damps out the bumps reasonably well -- but lacking the solid feel of higher-end vehicles. The suspension engineering is fairly typical for a car with a base price below $20,000, using MacPherson struts up front but a modified torsion bar for the rear, nonpowered wheels.
No sports car, the Cruze Diesel tended to understeer, tires shrieking, when taking turns fast. And typical for the segment and most new cars, it uses electric power steering.
The diesel power plant under the hood is a 2-liter four-cylinder engine using a turbo, as most diesel passengers cars do, to give it decent acceleration. Horsepower comes in at 151, while torque is a nice 264 pound-feet. Diesels typically have high torque figures and lower horsepower.
Unfortunately, stamping the accelerator pedal doesn't unleash all the torque. In fact, nothing much happens at all, initially. It's as if the car, in a quest for fuel economy, enforces a waiting period on heavy acceleration, forcing you to rethink your driving strategy.
As I used my foot to insist I did want to accelerate, the Cruze Diesel eventually set off at a pretty good clip. But there certainly weren't going to be any front-wheel chirps. While under way, stepping into it to make a passing maneuver, the Cruze Diesel was also a little loath to take off. Passing other cars in an oncoming traffic lane didn't seem like a good idea in this car.
Some of the blame likely goes to the one-choice-only six-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox does a good job of finding the best gear for fuel economy, and has a bit of descent programming built in, so that it geared down when I applied the brakes coming down a hill.
Putting it in manual mode and keeping the gears in second and third on a twisty mountain road, watching for that 5,000rpm redline, I was able to keep more immediate power on tap for the accelerator.
Another peculiar feature of diesels is that they make quite a bit of noise, even from a four-cylinder engine. With the Cruze Diesel idling, my photographer thought something was wrong with the car until I explained its engine. Gasoline cars don't make this kind of clatter, which might turn off some potential buyers.
At speed, most of the diesel clatter becomes overwhelmed by other road noises.
To make the Cruze Diesel 50-state-legal for emissions, Chevy used an exhaust cleanup system similar to that of Mercedes-Benz. The car contains a 4.5-gallon tank of fluid that gets sprayed into the exhaust, cleaning up nitrogen oxides. Unfortunately, that means added maintenance, although a handy screen on the instrument cluster display alerts you when the tank needs a refill, which should be every 10,000 or 15,000 miles.