Like the American kid who returns from study abroad with a German accent, Chevrolet’s latest Cruze sedan will come with a decidedly European flair.
Starting in September, Chevy will offer the compact sedan with a diesel engine. It joins the two gas engines that have been available in the car since the Cruze began selling in 2010.
Built in Germany, the turbo diesel engine gives Chevy a compelling fuel-efficiency play in the U.S. in the popular compact segment. The Cruze diesel is rated at 27 miles per gallon in the city and 46 on the highway.
Aside from the oil-burning motor tucked under the hood and a higher price tag, the rest of the car remains largely unchanged. It has the same quiet interior, comfortable ride and handsome, if conservative, styling seen on other Cruze models.
Chevy had good reason to stick to the recipe. The Cruze was the company’s most popular sedan in 2011 and 2012, and sits in third place for all compact car sales through July. Only the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla — perennial sales stalwarts — are selling better, according to Edmunds.com.
By bringing a diesel Cruze to the U.S., Chevy hopes to attract a young buyer who wants something unique and fun to drive.
“They usually love the idea of something different,” Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America, said in an interview with The Times. “And they’re willing to pay a little money for it.”
The Cruze diesel starts at $25,695, which is about $3,600 more than a gas-powered Cruze with the same options. That premium is compounded by diesel prices that, at least for now, are generally higher than regular unleaded gasoline prices around the country.
When asked whether that could hamper diesel sales in the U.S., Reuss shrugged.
“It’s always a concern,” he said. “But if I have that concern, all I have to do, usually, is wait a month and then diesel goes below gasoline. Or I’m not concerned today, but I may be tomorrow.”
Reuss also pointed to the popularity of the Cruze diesel’s main rival, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI. It too commands a premium over a similar gas Jetta, but roughly a quarter of Jetta sales in the U.S. are turbo-diesel models, Volkswagen said.
Moreover, diesels don’t compete directly with hybrids, even though both boast fuel efficiency as a main selling point.
“A diesel buyer is not even close to a hybrid buyer,” Reuss said. Hybrid buyers “want the car because it makes a statement about sustainability more than anything.”
This is one reason that the Toyota Prius — a conspicuous a statement about one’s eco-consciousness — is the most popular vehicle in California.
The Cruze diesel makes no obvious statement. Step back 3 feet and you’d be hard-pressed to see any difference from the gas Cruze. Only a tiny green badge on the trunk lid and a small rear spoiler suggest that something different lies under the hood.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine makes 151 horsepower and 264 pound-feet of torque, and pushes power to the front wheels via a six-speed automatic transmission.
With so much torque, it’s reasonable to expect that the Cruze would scoot off the line with impressive acceleration. Yet it doesn’t — blame the turbo, which felt like it needed too much time to spool up.
Once the car does finally get moving, power feels healthy, especially for this compact segment. A brief overboost feature bumps up torque to 280 pound-feet and gives the Cruze impressive freeway passing power.
Our testing had the car on the freeway more than in the city, conditions that suit a diesel’s appetite for long trips. After almost 350 miles of testing the Cruze diesel, we averaged just under 38 mpg. (Hybrids, by contrast, tend to get better mileage in stop-and-go driving.)
Dropping a diesel motor in the front of the car adds about 330 pounds to the weight of a similar gas-powered Cruze, but drivers aren’t likely to notice any change in the car’s handling. The Cruze has never been a lightweight, but it’s still plenty in tune with the road.
The rest of the Cruze diesel’s experience was nearly identical to that of the gas model. All versions of the Cruze are impressively bolted together, with some of the most solid construction you’ll find at this price point.
That’s a good thing, because this engine is loud — like, school bus loud. Fortunately, this is only noticeable if you’re outside the car; from within, the layers of sound isolation do their job admirably. So sit back in the Cruze diesel’s standard leather seats (heated in the front) and ignore the stares in the parking lot.
Reuss said GM would be happy if it picked up about 5,000 Cruze diesel sales a year in the U.S. Considering that Volkswagen sold roughly eight times that many Jetta TDIs in 2012, such a conservative goal should be attainable.
2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel
Times’ take: A modest diesel with modest expectations
Highs: Solid construction, great efficiency, comfortable ride
Lows: Noisy engine, lagging acceleration, price premium
Vehicle type: Four-door compact sedan
Base price: $25,695
Price as tested: $26,500
Powertrain: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine, front-wheel drive
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic transmission
Torque: 264 pound-feet
Zero to 60 mph: 8.6 seconds, according to Chevrolet
EPA fuel economy rating: 27 city, 46 highway