After years of living under a dark cloud in the United States, 2015 was shaping up to be the year affordable diesel-powered passenger vehicles would make a serious mark. Volkswagen, long a torchbearer for the technology in America, was reporting strong sales, Mazda was working to certify its Euro-market diesel, General Motors was readying its second-gen 2017 Chevrolet Cruze diesel, and several other manufacturers were, for the first time in decades, studying the viability of diesels for stateside duty. Then, as if on cue, the VW diesel scandal broke and it was back to square one.
But while VW was busy cleaning up its mess and Mazda continues to fiddle with its entry, the Chevrolet Cruze diesel hit the streets running clean. (EPA-compliant diesel vehicles also are available from BMW, Jaguar, and Land Rover, but they cost thousands more and attract a different demographic.) GM’s turbo-diesel 1.6-liter inline-four engine is now available in the dramatically improved, new-for-2018 Equinox compact crossover, too, so we snagged one to see if it’s a genuine fuel sipper with usable bottom-end grunt or just a clattery addition to the 1.5- and 2.0-liter four-cylinder gasoline engines already in the lineup.
Let’s get this out of the way up front: If you are standing next to the diesel Equinox when it fires up from a cold slumber, there’s no mistaking that a compression-ignition engine is under the hood. The cabin is substantially louder at idle—we measured 43 decibels in the diesel versus 39 in an Equinox 1.5T—but that additional hum isn’t obnoxious or off-putting. And as the engine warms to operating temperature, even its outside bark grows subdued, and the masses will be none the wiser to the absence of spark plugs under the hood.
While a 137-hp turbo-diesel engine may not immediately conjure the promise of performance, it does provide enough motivation for just about any type of situation you’re likely to encounter while behind the wheel of a compact SUV. That includes chirping the tires, albeit in its own special way: Putting your foot to the floor results in a lackadaisical step-off followed by a swell of torque that comes on and breaks the tires free while rolling at about 5 mph. All 240 lb-ft of torque are on board at a low 2000 rpm, and peak horsepower arrives at 3750 rpm; combined, they make the zone between 1800 and 4400 rpm fertile ground for harvesting acceleration. The six-speed automatic transmission is astutely tuned for the 1.6’s unique properties and makes no qualms about downshifting at the slightest provocation of the throttle to make the most of it. Whereas the Cruze diesel gets a nine-speed automatic, GM claims that transmission offered no fuel-economy benefits in the Equinox so it gets the carryover six-speed gearbox. Additionally, the diesel utilizes a taller 2.89:1 final-drive ratio whereas the nine-speed cars use either a 3.17, 3.50, or 3.87 final drive, depending on engine, transmission, and driveline combination.
Given the Chevy’s entertaining performance when booted around town, we were surprised by the less than impressive hard numbers: 9.4 seconds from zero to 60 mph and a quarter-mile time of 17.2 seconds with a trap speed of 80 mph. In real-world scenarios such as entering an interstate, that means keeping your foot to the floor for at least 10 seconds—or longer in states such as Michigan where posted speed limits vary from 70 to 75 mph and the flow of traffic generally exceeds them by a value of 10 to 20 percent or more. Once the size of the approaching vehicles in your rearview mirror begins to stabilize, however, maintaining the pace is easy. Set the cruise at 70, 80, or even 90 mph if you wish, and the Equinox is a willing accessory in your challenge to test the skills of the local constabulary. Interior noise at a steady 70 mph is a hushed 68 decibels, two quieter than the 1.5T and not too shabby for a vehicle with a compression-ignition engine.
While we doubt acceleration test numbers play into the decision-making process of most prospective Equinox diesel buyers, it is worth noting that the Equinox with the turbocharged 2.0-liter and all-wheel drive knocked off the zero-to-60-mph measure in 6.6 seconds and completed the quarter in 15.1 seconds at 94 mph; that’s 2.8 and 2.1 seconds quicker, a vast gulf of a performance difference. On the other hand, the turbocharged 1.5-liter with AWD barely ekes out a win over the diesel, posting times of 8.9 and 16.9 seconds at 83 mph, which fall within half a second of the diesel. Meanwhile, the Honda CR-V, one of our top picks in the segment, posted 7.6- and 16.0-second times. The difference with the diesel is that you are using all of the accelerator travel most of the time, whereas the gasoline engine can be operated with a bit more finesse. That the Equinox’s diesel four-cylinder takes these frequent full-throttle assaults so eagerly and stoically is its saving grace.
Braking numbers are similarly underwhelming. With a 182-foot stop from 70 mph, the diesel Equinox takes a full 15 feet longer than the 2.0-liter Equinox’s 167 feet and 21 feet more than the pretty impressive 161-foot braking distance posted by the 1.5-liter Equinox. Repeated stops revealed a firm, fade-free pedal at least, and the newly refined suspension keeps the 3769-pound car from nosediving or heading for the ditch.
It’s that same suspension tuning that enables the diesel Equinox to negotiate broken pavement without sending shock waves through the cabin yet still remain reasonably level during mildly aggressive directional changes as well as on long, sweeping freeway ramps. The compromise is effective and, combined with direct steering response, results in a vehicle more entertaining to drive than its middling 0.77 g of lateral grip would indicate. Indeed, the 0.85- and 0.86-g lateral-acceleration marks posted by the Equinox’s 2.0- and 1.5-liter gasoline brethren suggest the untapped potential of the chassis.
In cases like this, where similar vehicles post disparate braking and grip numbers, tire selection usually is the culprit. Our diesel Equinox wore 225/65R-17 Bridgestone Dueler H/L 422 all-seasons, while the 1.5-liter and 2.0-liter models were shod with 235/50R-19 Hankook Ventus S1 Noble2 all-season rubber. Upgrading to 19-inch wheels and tires on the diesel will cost you $1995, although we’d think twice before doing so as we definitely preferred the diesel’s much more forgiving ride quality on the 17s.
As is the case for most non-pickup-truck buyers, the decision of whether to go diesel ultimately comes down to dollars and cents. Chevy does a nice job of minimizing the guesswork by limiting the diesel model to the top two trims. Wearing a base price of $33,385, our 3LT AWD model included remote start, cloth seating, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control, and aluminum wheels. The sole option was the literally named Sun & Infotainment package, which adds a sunroof, a power liftgate, an 8.0-inch touchscreen to replace the base 7.0-inch unit, a driver info display, a 120-volt AC power outlet, and two additional USB charging ports. Far from opulent, this $2245 package bundles the features most buyers require. All in, our Equinox diesel carried a $35,630 as-tested price. (Front-wheel-drive diesels start at $31,635; going diesel is a $3890 upcharge over a 1.5T and $1345 more than a 2.0T.)
But for serious dieselheads, purchase price is only the second or third most important number. It’s fuel efficiency that impresses this thrifty bunch, the allure of extracting every possible mile from each gallon of dino juice far outweighing the ante. In that metric it delivers in spades. EPA rated at an already impressive 38 mpg on the highway, our Equinox returned a solid 43 mpg in our 75-mph highway cruise test. That’s a full 15 mpg better than the 1.5-liter Equinox AWD posted in the same test. Combined with its 15.6-gallon fuel capacity, the only thing standing between you and 670 miles of highway travel is a catheter. (Curiously, front-wheel-drive models get a slightly smaller 14.9-gallon fuel tank.)
In addition, our observed 34-mpg combined figure not only beats the EPA’s estimate by 2 mpg but also puts a 13-mpg smackdown on the 1.5-liter Equinox’s observed 21 mpg. The 2.0-liter Equinox fared no better, managing just 22 mpg in our hands.
At this point, convention dictates that we point out that the cost of diesel fuel traditionally is 10 to 20 percent above that of bottom-shelf regular. But that argument is somewhat negated in this instance by the Equinox diesel’s dramatically superior fuel economy and the fact that the 2.0-liter model requires pricey premium fuel. Still, there are a lot of variables involved, and only you can determine if diesel Equinox ownership will ultimately pencil in your favor.
Then again, if you’re in the market for an appealing compact crossover and the thought of using the least amount of fuel as possible for every mile traveled gives you a thrill, the Equinox diesel is currently your best bet. In fact, the only thing that could screw up the Equinox’s lock on this subsegment is the arrival of the long-promised Mazda CX-5 diesel.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door hatchback
PRICE AS TESTED: $35,630 (base price: $33,385)
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 @ 2000 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed automatic with manual shifting mode
Wheelbase: 107.3 in
Length: 183.1 in
Width: 72.6 in Height: 65.4 in
Passenger volume: 99 cu ft
Cargo volume: 30 cu ft
Curb weight: 3769 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 9.4 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 30.8 sec
Zero to 110 mph: 44.5 sec
Rolling start, 5–60 mph: 9.9 sec
Top gear, 30–50 mph: 4.5 sec
Top gear, 50–70 mph: 6.7 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 17.2 sec @ 80 mph
Top speed (drag limited): 121 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 182 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad*: 0.77 g
C/D FUEL ECONOMY:
Observed: 34 mpg
75-mph highway driving: 43 mpg
Highway range: 670 mi
EPA FUEL ECONOMY:
Combined/city/highway: 32/28/38 mpg