2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel: Quick Drive

Boasting an EPA-estimated 27/46/33 mpg city/highway/combined, the diesel version of the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan is now hitting dealerships in select cities. We took a brief drive in the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel — Chevrolet’s first diesel-powered car since the 1980s — here in Chicago, which will be one of the car’s early markets.

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The car will also appear in cities Chevy has determined have high sales of three things: diesel fuel, the gas-powered Chevy Cruze and the car that has owned the diesel slice of this segment’s pie, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, which is rated 30/42/34 mpg with an automatic transmission. After appearing in Baltimore, Denver, Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee, the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel will spread across the country by year’s end.

It’s obvious from the name Chevrolet uses in all of its press releases — Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel — that the automaker is trying to re-educate the American motorist, whose expectations of diesel vehicles are that they’re noisy, smoky, smelly and slow. That’s what they used to be but aren’t anymore.

Standing outside a running CCTD, you know it’s a diesel. Though it’s not necessarily loud, it’s louder than the Jetta TDI, and it has the distinctive chugga-chugga diesel sound, which you also hear from inside. Thankfully, you don’t feel it. Hydraulic engine mounts isolate the shuddering 2.0-liter four-cylinder from the cabin. You don’t even feel it when you turn the Cruze’s engine off. Such high-compression diesels tend to jolt the car a bit when you shut them down. It’s a bit noticeable in the Jetta and surprisingly jarring in Mercedes-Benz diesels I’ve driven.

Off-the-line pokiness in the Cruze recalls diesels of old, but in this case it results from a throttle progression tuned to prevent inevitable wheelspin. The drivetrain management also uses this trick during turns, for the same reason. The engine hardly lacks grunt, with a rated torque peak of 264 pounds-feet at 2,000 rpm and a claimed 280 pounds-feet for short bursts if you go past 90% on the accelerator pedal.

After a few meters, the Cruise diesel hits its stride, pulling ahead confidently with even power delivery. Chevy says the engine makes 250 pounds-feet of torque from 1,750 to 3,000 rpm. (Typical of diesels, this one has a lower redline than gas engines — 5,000 rpm — so the 1,250 rpm span actually makes up a respectable segment of the rev range.)

I found the car reasonably quick, but by no means a sports car. The estimated zero-to-60 mph time is 8.6 seconds. I suspect its diesel payoff is best appreciated in a car that’s full of adults, or loaded with cargo, or climbing a steep hill — and probably all three at once. The most potent gas-powered Cruze, with a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, produces 148 pounds-feet at 1,850 rpm. Even its horsepower peak, at 138 hp, is lower than the diesel’s 151 hp.

The six-speed automatic transmission, a model different from the one in the gas Cruze, mostly behaved well, though there were a few times it hesitated when I jabbed the pedal to pass. Typical of diesels, the acceleration is pretty modest once you hit highway speeds.

To accommodate the car’s heavier engine and overall weight, the CCTD has a revised suspension with different springs and shock absorbers. The car retains the comfortable ride we’ve come to expect from the gas-powered Cruze, and the body control seems good in turns, if not exceptionally sporty. I’ve never found the regular Cruze to feel particularly sporty anyway.

So what are the downsides for the diesel Cruze? One is its use of a selective catalytic reduction system in the exhaust, which comparable Volkswagen cars don’t employ. SCR requires a urea solution called diesel exhaust fluid that must be refilled roughly every 10,000 miles. That’s not the downside; it’s a minor issue that gets blown out of proportion. But the 4.5-gallon tank does occupy the space meant for a spare tire, so you’re stuck with a sometimes-worthless sealant system instead.

Another downside is price: The Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel starts at $25,710, including an $825 destination charge. It’s closest in features and appointments to the gas-powered Cruze 2LT, which costs $23,305 with an automatic transmission. With the CCTD’s high mileage, the price premium is easier to justify if you do a lot of highway driving — especially at this point in time when diesel prices have dropped below those for gas in some states such as Illinois and Wisconsin. Chevy’s timing is excellent.

Here’s another downside —for both Chevrolet and the clean-diesel movement: From an outside inspection, you wouldn’t know the Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is a Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, because even though Chevrolet goes out of its way to emphasize the clean, the turbo and the diesel in the car’s name, the exterior is even more muted than the engine.

The only badging is a green rectangle next to the model name that reads “2.0 TD.” It’s nearly indistinguishable from a gas-powered Cruze Eco at more than two paces. In comparison, the Jetta’s TDI badge shouts at you … yet is admittedly equally meaningless to the uninitiated. (The 2.0 TD even shares the Cruze Eco’s front end, active grille shutters and other aerodynamic treatments.)

Major blunder, Chevy. Nothing makes the case for a modern clean diesel as effectively as experiencing one, and with this car’s minimal badging, people won’t know they’re experiencing the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel — the black smoke it’s not putting out, the odor it’s not producing and the traffic it’s not clogging. I think the car will prove itself, but it could use some help.

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