With Volkswagen’s TDIs out of the picture, the Chevrolet Cruze diesel has become a unicorn—the only manual-transmission diesel passenger car available in the United States and the only diesel passenger vehicle (crossovers and SUVs included) that sells for less than $30,000. The closest approximation is the BMW 328d xDrive wagon that starts at $46,945 and can’t be had with a stick shift.
That’s what goes on the marquee. But the aluminum-block turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that powers this Cruze—making 137 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque—deserves to share the limelight. As a freshened piece of clean-and-quiet, fuel-stingy kit, it’s nonetheless a vestige of another time and place, before regulators made several big moves to favor hybrids; before downsized, direct-injected gasoline engines erased some of diesels’ mileage advantage; and before one especially noteworthy 2015 scandal. It also was conceived primarily by and for Opel, the former General Motors Europe brand that has now been sold off to France’s PSA Peugeot Citroën.
Get it while you can, we say, because the Cruze diesel does a good job carrying the torch: It gets phenomenally good highway mileage, even at the real American highway speeds where a lot of hybrids get weak-kneed. And it has a pony-car-like wad of torque that’s on tap at almost any time and in any gear—which makes the Cruze diesel feel a lot quicker than it is, especially with the manual transmission.
More Efficient than Quick
This model is even more of an EPA mileage champ than was the 2015 Golf TDI, earning EPA ratings of 29 mpg city and 48 mpg highway with the manual or 30/45 mpg with the new nine-speed automatic. It did well in the keep of our leadfooted Michigan drivers as well, returning 38 mpg while it was in our care.
On the performance side, the Cruze diesel is definitely no speed demon. Its lackluster 8.2-second acceleration time to 60 mph was just 0.1 second quicker than the manual-equipped gasoline Cruze 1.4T that we described as having a “lifeless engine” and “sluggish performance.” By 100 mph, the tepid gasoline model has a 2.7-second advantage over the diesel. Still, the Cruze diesel is a bit quicker to 60 mph than was the last Volkswagen Golf TDI hatch we tested.
Consider also that the Cruze diesel took 3.5 fewer seconds to squirt from 50 to 70 mph than did the Cruze 1.4T, for instance, and that it was quite a bit quicker in its top-gear acceleration tests than was the manual Golf TDI. This is a car well suited for easy, no-downshift-required passing.
The Cruze diesel sedan we tested was quicker with the nine-speed automatic that most buyers will choose, but what fun is that? A little enjoyment is the reason we’d choose the stick-shift Cruze diesel, even though the shifter is mediocre. Throws are on the long side, the clutch pedal is a little stiff, and there’s a reverse-lockout button on the front of the shift knob that feels as if it should be accompanied by a PRNDL gate. The manual’s gates are well defined, though, and using it is preferable to driving any hybrid vehicle that comes to mind.
It’s not as if you really have to shift a lot, anyway, because there’s so much flexibility in this engine, which is in its sweet spot from just past its torque peak of 1500 rpm all the way to 4000 rpm. It doesn’t reward revving into its upper ranges quite as much as the latest Gen 3 version of Volkswagen’s much loved 2.0-liter TDI, an engine we’ve experienced only in a Passat in its fixed, emissions-legal specification. But the Cruze does pack a similar quick-responding wallop of torque—a wallop that didn’t fade as we drove up to altitudes around 6000 feet. The only thing missing, as we noted on the descent from those heights, is that there’s precious little engine braking available. The Chevy’s brakes were up to the task, though, and back on flat ground at our test track they hauled the diesel hatch down from 70 mph in a commendable 165 feet.
Competence without Inspiration
On the outside, the Cruze looks the part of a hot hatch. All manual-transmission Cruze diesel hatchbacks include the RS package, which brings a sporty body kit, front fog lamps, a rear spoiler, and 18-inch machined-face wheels; they also get firmer damping and a larger-diameter front anti-roll bar.
At the root level, the Cruze is a capable driver. Its suspension setup, with struts in front and a Watt’s link assisting the torsion-beam axle in back, loads up in a satisfying, predictable way for traversing curvy back roads. But it still lacks the supple ride and body-control combination found in the VW Golf family—most Golfs have an independent rear suspension (the TDI had a torsion-beam axle like that on the Cruze, though), so the advantage tips to VW on ride quality. Michelin Primacy MXM4 P225/40R-18 all-season tires helped the Chevy negotiate our skidpad at 0.90 g, substantially more grip than the 0.84 g we’ve measured in non-GTI Golfs. The Cruze’s rack-mounted, electrically assisted power steering is so light on-center, though, that it impedes straight-ahead highway tracking.
Inside, the Cruze fails to be as convincing or inspiring. It’s all functional and comfortable enough, but no one’s going to call it charming. There are many dull details here. A few puzzling pieces, like the diagonal pad of soft trim in front of the passenger, tease your hands with something more pleasant to touch in what is otherwise a sea of downmarket plastics. On the upside, the back seat is among the roomier ones in this class, and the seatback flips down nearly flat for cargo hauling. The 7.0-inch MyLink touchscreen infotainment system is straightforward to use and works well with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Cruze as a whole hews to the quietness claims that Chevy applies to this engine—aided by an extra layer of sound insulation—as the entire car is free of excessive engine, road, and wind noise. But the thrum of the diesel is felt more than it’s heard—in the footwells, for instance. Once the engine is warmed up, it’s extraordinarily quiet; it settles to such a low purr at idle that from a few car lengths away you might forget it’s running. Chevy boasts of all sorts of quieting measures on and around the engine itself, such as acoustic padding for the intake manifold. Still, opening the hood—or just popping it—reveals the difference that underhood blanketing can make.
Consider this a last chance. If you have a long highway commute, the Cruze diesel is probably a better choice than most hybrids. Get one before they’re gone.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $26,395 (base price: $26,395)
ENGINE TYPE: turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve diesel inline-4, aluminum block and head, direct fuel injection
Displacement: 98 cu in, 1598 cc
Power: 137 hp @ 3750 rpm
Torque: 240 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Length: 175.3 in
Width: 70.5 in Height: 57.7 in
Passenger volume: 94 cu ft
Cargo volume: 23 cu ft
Curb weight: 3104 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 8.2 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 25.7 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 35.8 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 9.5 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 18.5 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 9.6 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 16.5 sec @ 84 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 123 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 165 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.90 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY:
Observed: 38 mpg
EPA FUEL ECONOMY:
Combined/city/highway: 35/29/48 mpg