"I heard someone got 47 mpg on the drive down," someone murmured at the dinner table after I arrived in Indianapolis for the 97th Indy 500 race. I had driven from Detroit in the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, the highest-mileage variant of Chevy's successful compact sedan.
I was that hypermiling driver, and no, I did not draft semi-trucks or drive 10 below the speed limit. Over 267 miles, at an average speed of 68.7 mph, I averaged 46.9 mpg. (The Cruze's trip computer optimistically read 47.1 mpg.) According to a neat economy gauge in the Cruze's instrument cluster, my best mpg average over a 25-mile period was 55.2 mpg. I used just 5.7 gallons of the car's 15.6-gallon tank. In theory, that means the 2014 Cruze Diesel could go about 800 miles before refueling, but with an EPA rating of 27/46 mpg city/highway, Chevrolet quotes a range of 717 miles.
The heart of this mileage champ is a 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder. The engine is a revised version of the 2.0-liter unit used in the Opel/Vauxhall Astra, Insignia, and Zafira overseas. However, for its U.S. application, General Motors engineers gave the four-cylinder numerous updates. Most important is the addition of a particulate-scrubbing urea filter, necessary to meet American emissions standards. The North American unit also gets a new intake cooler, a higher-capacity ERG sensor, ceramic glow plugs to aid cold starts, a low-friction vacuum pump, an improved timing belt system (that only needs to be serviced every 100,000 miles), and an optional oil pan heater ($100).
The result is that the Cruze Diesel is good for 151 hp at 4000 rpm and 264 lb-ft of torque at 2000 rpm, with 250 lb-ft available from 1750 to 3000 rpm and a maximum of 280 lb-ft with overboost. The oil-burning Cruze pulls strongly, without turbo lag or sudden wallops of power.
There is one direct competitor for the Cruze Diesel here: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. The VW is down 11 hp and 28 lb-ft; its EPA city rating is better, at 30 mpg, but its highway figure of 42 mpg is 4 mpg lower. The Chevrolet's additional torque makes it feel like the faster car off the line -- it's half a second quicker to 60 mph -- but your ears will pay dearly for it. Unlike the Volkswagen, there's no mistaking the Chevy for anything other than a diesel. Whereas the Jetta's engine noise is subdued, the Cruze's clatter is reminiscent of an old diesel Mercedes-Benz. That said, it's most audible at idle and at low speeds; it fades away once the car gets moving, and the cabin is one of the most hushed in the compact sedan segment.
Even though they thrum loudly at highway speeds, the 17-inch low-rolling-resistance tires (fitted to the Diesel and Eco models, P215/55R17 all-seasons wrapped around split five-spoke alloy wheels on the Diesel) aren't Chevy's only mileage-increasing trick. The Cruze Eco also donates active aerodynamic shutters, revised grille baffling, and a redesigned undertray to aid airflow on the highway.
Despite the additional 200 pounds of weight from the diesel engine, the 2014 Cruze Diesel drives just like any other Chevy Cruze. The chassis is retuned to cope with the weight increase -- the steering calibration, suspension, and pedal mapping have all been modified. The steering is well weighted with a nice heft, but communicates little of what the front tires are doing. The ride is firm, but not punishing; however, it's not as well sorted as its VW competition -- the Chevrolet exhibits harsh impacts over larger bumps.
The Cruze Diesel also uses a different transmission than gas-powered models. Unfortunately, the Aisin-sourced six-speed automatic (no manual is offered on the Diesel) -- is slow to respond to inputs and is just as clunky as the GM-designed six-speed in non-diesel models. The Cruze's traditional automatic isn't any worse than the Volkswagen's dual-clutch unit, however, and the Cruze is never jerky on shifts or confused as to which gear to be in, the way the Jetta often is.
Impressive build quality, good ergonomics, and high-quality fabric inserts on the dashboard make the Cruze cabin feel as though it belongs in a more expensive vehicle. The firm seats are comfortable for long drives, although I would have liked an adjustable lumbar support. The base six-speaker sound system on the Cruze Diesel helps drown out highway tire noise and trumps the Jetta TDI's optional Fender system (Chevrolet also offers an upgraded nine-speaker Pioneer audio system for $445). The Cruze's cabin falls short of the Jetta's in space -- it's down on front head- and shoulder room and by a full 2.7 inches of rear legroom, and feels it. Where the Volkswagen's interior is bright and airy, the Chevy's is more cosseting and sporty. That said, outward visibility is very good, save for the thick A-pillars that sometime make parking-lot maneuvers difficult.
Compared with the gas-powered Cruze models, there are almost no aesthetic changes to the Cruze Diesel. Eagle-eyed onlookers will notice the unique wheel design, four-wheel disc brakes, and small green 2.0 TD badge. Otherwise, there's little to differentiate the Diesel from any other Cruze.
Pricing for the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel starts at $25,695, including destination. It's not quite an apples-to-apples comparison with the Volkswagen Jetta TDI because Chevrolet offers just one trim level with standard features like leather seating surfaces, heated front seats, 17-inch wheels, and a touchscreen infotainment system. (The VW is available in three trim levels.) With all the option boxes ticked, the American and German cars are almost at parity in price and equipment. It comes down to a matter of badge prestige -- Volkswagen still holds an edge over Chevrolet in that respect -- the importance of highway fuel economy, and personal preference. Thanks to its better interior and its outstanding real-world fuel economy, the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel edges out the Volkswagen Jetta TDI in the two-car compact diesel sedan segment.
2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
|Price as Tested:||$25,695|
|Engine:||2.0-liter turbodiesel I-4|
|Horsepower:||151 hp @ 4000|
|Torque:||264 lb-ft @ 2000|
|Wheels:||17-inch aluminum wheels|
|Tires:||P215/55R17 all-season tires|
|Curb Weight:||3475 lbs|
|Fuel Economy:||27/46 mpg city/highway|
|Cargo:||13.3 cu ft|
|Legroom (front/rear):||42.3/35.4 in|
|Headroom (front/rear):||39.3/37.9 in|