Chevy is poised to take a bite out of the piece of the diesel-flavoured pie.
When it comes to fuel-efficient commuting, people often default to hybrid electric vehicles to do the job. While hybrids are great for low-speed city traffic, some of them are forced to run the gasoline engine whenever you’re driving at high speed, which means your efficiency takes a hit. The latest hybrids have gotten better at highway efficiency, but there are still some out there that would prefer to stay away from electrified powertrains for various reasons. For a long time, Volkswagen’s four-cylinder turbodiesels were the overwhelming choice for highway warriors that covered vast amounts of ground every day, thanks to their excellent high-speed efficiency, relatively refined road manners, and overall range between fill-ups.
Just about everybody knows about VW’s recent regulatory troubles, which had the side effect of taking every TDI-badged product off the roads. Diesel-powered vehicles with competing manufacturers have also come under the microscope, with some opting to pare down sales of certain models instead. A few have made a comeback, such as the diesels in some Jaguar-Land Rover products (reviewed here). However, the mainstream market has been left wide open, until Chevrolet announced that their Cruze compact car would get a diesel option for the 2017 model year. We were sent a “Pepperdust Metallic” Cruze LT Diesel with GM’s new nine-speed automatic transmission for a week-long test.
We’ve tested multiple variants of the Chevy Cruze (reviewed here), and coming away mostly impressed – it proves to a mostly competent and low-key competitor in one of Canada’s hottest segments. Its interior and exterior styling are inoffensive, and the standard turbocharged 1.4L gasoline engine compares well with the best of them, such as the Honda Civic and Hyundai Elantra (reviewed here). The manual transmission has a few quirks, but it otherwise is a good effort by Chevrolet. Inside, the Cruze continues to be a very quiet car, and GM’s strong mobile phone integration suite continues, complete with 4G LTE capabilities.
This particular car came equipped with the “LT True North Edition” ($3,200) package, which adds leather seating, power sunroof, uprated Bose audio, heated steering wheel, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, among other goodies. Adaptive radar cruise control is not available, however. All Cruze Diesels are equipped with 205-section tires on 16-inch wheels – there is no option to upgrade to a larger size. What’s interesting: the only way you can tell if a Cruze is diesel-powered is to look for the blue ‘TD” badge on the rear trunklid.
The recent availability of a turbodiesel engine should get the attention of diesel fanatics and road warriors alike. This 1.6L all-aluminum turbodiesel happens to be borrowed from GM Europe’s Opel arm, and is sometimes informally called the “Whisper Diesel”. It produces 137 horsepower at 3,750RPM and 240 lb-ft. of torque from 2000RPM. For comparison’s sake, the standard 1.4L gasoline turbo-four produces 153hp and 177 lb-ft., respectively. As of this writing, there aren’t a whole lot of choices out there if you’re looking for diesel – Jaguar-Land Rover still seems to be focusing on these alternative powerplants, but the room is otherwise very quiet if you look around.
This particular diesel is paired up with GM’s new nine-speed automatic transmission (designed and built in-house). A six-speed manual transmission is available, but with three more forward ratios, it’s easily the more intriguing choice (#savethemanuals campaign withstanding). The torque-rich power delivery combined with the very tight gear spacing of the nine-speed auto makes for a refined low-rev experience. The engine rarely needs to exceed 3000rpm in order to really get the Cruze moving quickly, and ninth gear is long enough for some very relaxed high-speed cruising. We have to commend Chevy for offering the diesel with both transmissions – it matches up with what Volkswagen used to do with their smaller turbodiesel cars.
From the driver’s seat, the diesel is quiet, muted, and stays out of the way. The typical diesel clatter is a little more subdued, compared to the Volkswagen diesels of yesteryear, and it also doesn’t sound like the engine in a Hino delivery cube truck, like the big four-cylinder diesel sounds like in the Chevy Colorado (reviewed here). One little detail is worth noting: the manual controls for the automatic transmission reside on top of the gear selector. It’s not a lever you push, but rather a set of two buttons that reside on top of the handle, which isn’t the most intuitive place to put them. Furthermore, it’s not very practical to control gearing on your own, since the gear spacing is so tight to begin with. It’s really best to simply let the engine and transmission figure things out for you. Since diesel engines don’t provide much in the way of engine braking during deceleration, manually downshifting doesn’t do a whole lot to help the driver.
The Cruze LT Diesel is a car that excels on the highway, but it is more than happy to handle the urban commute. Chevy rates it at 7.6L/100km in the city, 5.0L/100km on the highway, and 6.4L/100km in a combined cycle. During my week of mixed driving, I ended up with an indicated average of 6.1L/100km. Also included is an idle start-stop system that gives automatic transmission-equipped models a very slight edge over the three-pedal variant in the city, though there’s no way to disable this function. However, if you’re looking for maximum highway efficiency, the manual transmission is your best bet, with a hybrid-beating 4.5L/100km rating. The 52L tank also ensures a range of over 1000km, in theory. There’s also a diesel exhaust fluid tank that will need to be periodically filled up, usually at scheduled service intervals.
Chevy prices the Cruze Diesel at the very top of the model lineup – even higher than the fully-loaded, gasoline-only Premier trim. The most affordable way to get into a Cruze with a diesel is to opt for the manual transmission, which nets you a Cruze that costs $24,395, before taxes and additional dealer fees. If you prefer the automatic transmission, adding $1,450 bumps the price to $25,845. Selecting Pepperdust Metallic (read: brown) is another $495, and the aforementioned Diesel True North package adds $3,200. All in all, the fully-loaded Cruze LT Diesel, equipped with the automatic transmission will run you about $30,798, plus taxes and fees.
It’s not as easy to compare the Cruze Diesel to any of Volkswagen’s current diesel offerings: simply because they don’t really exist. What the Cruze does compete with, however, are members of its own family: the gasoline-powered Chevy Cruze LT will cost you at least $4,250 less. It’s important to do the math to see whether the additional up-front cost premium will be offset by the money saved by the gasoline you won’t have to pay more for. The gasoline Cruze LT is rated at about 6L/100km on the highway.
General Motors is taking a very calculated risk, to see if the diesel market still exists. A great number of people no longer see Volkswagen as a trustworthy company, so there’s a lot of work to be done before diesel becomes a viable alternative once again. The fuel efficiency gap between gasoline and diesel is becoming smaller every year, though Chevy’s commitment to the high-efficiency game is quite impressive. If you’re looking to cover huge amounts of ground on the highway, with long-legged range, diesel remains one of the better choices available to you. Chevy even goes as far as to mention (in a fairly specific way) their compliance to emissions regulations with this particular engine. With Volkswagen out of the game (for now), Chevy is poised to take a bite out of the piece of the diesel-flavoured pie – because they’re the only ones in town.