In 2014 Chevrolet jumped back into the passenger car diesel market with the Generation 1 Cruze in North America. Reviews were generally positive, and after a one-year break, Chevy upped the ante with a Generation 2 Cruze and a new diesel. And this time the oil-burner is available with a 6-speed manual as well as a new 9-speed automatic. This is currently the only manual transmission diesel car available in North America, and many think it’s targeted at TDI owners who are selling their cars back.
The Cruze has been in North America since 2008. The second gen car was introduced in 2016. Size is similar to the 1st gen, but the new car is about 350 lbs. lighter than its predecessor. And in 2017 (2018 for the diesel) it’ll include a hatchback version. Sedans are assembled in Ohio, hatches are assembled in Mexico.
The Cruze is a fairly roomy compact sedan, comparable to the current generation VW Jetta Sedan. Front room is ample, although the front seats may be narrow for some. Rear seat room is adequate as long as front passengers cooperate by moving their seats up a bit. The trunk is quite large, but with a small opening that’s pretty common in current sedans. More importantly, lifting the trunk floor reveals a spare tire, which was missing on the previous generation car.
The 1st gen Cruze used a VM Motori diesel engine outside North America, and a Fiat/GM sourced 2.0L engine here, coupled to a 6-speed automatic. The new engine, called the MDE for Medium Diesel Engine, is all aluminum with a chain-driven cam, and is made in Hungary for many GM applications including Chevrolet and Opel. At 1.6 liters it’s smaller than its predecessor, but makes 134 HP and 236 lb-ft. of torque in US trim. GM likes to brag that the engine is “Whisper Quiet” with up to 10 fueling events per revolution. We’d agree it’s quiet, but not as quiet as the Ford-sourced V6 in some Land Rover models. You can hear the engine when it’s cold, but once it warms up it sounds like most direct-injected gasoline engines.
Performance is at least adequate. 0-60 takes about 8 seconds, only slightly more time than the base 1.4L gasoline engine. The expected diesel torque is there, allowing you to avoid downshifts that would be required in the gasoline engine car. Like many diesels, the torque makes the car feel quicker than it is. We drove the six-speed manual, and gearing seems appropriate, although 6th is noticeably shorter than in a VW TDI. 70 MPH is about 2,200 RPM, where it would be about 1,800 in a VW. The engine is smooth and quiet, however, so you won’t notice the additional revs unless you look at the tachometer.
Ride is compliant, helped by the stock 16” wheels and Goodyear all-season rubber. Shock dampening is on the soft side, but on most roads it works well. The body appears stiff and tight, with no clunks or rattles. The electric steering is numb, but so are most cars these days. Despite the lack of feel the steering feels quick and the car is easy to position in its lane, as long as you can get used to the sharply raked windshield and long dash.
Most people buy diesels in this class for fuel efficiency. And the Cruze delivers, offering the highest non-hybrid fuel economy in America: 30 MPG city/52 highway with the manual, 37/47 with the automatic. The car we test drove had only accumulated 5 miles when we started driving, so testing economy in a car that green would be unfair. Gentle driving at “normal” highway speeds (70 MPH or so) should net you 50 MPG. Like a lot of new diesels, it takes a bigger hit in the city than older cars. Expect mid-30s in the city or heavy traffic.
Quality and Price
Defectors from TDIs may long for the “German engineering” they’re used to in VW products, even when many TDIs are assembled in Mexico or the USA. The Cruze styling is instantly recognizable as a GM product, both inside and out. Interior finishes are good but not up to VW/Audi standards. More hard plastic is visible, and the seats, although nicely finished in leather in our example, are a bit smaller and flatter than in a VW Jetta, for example. Overall finish looks good inside and out, with only some evidence of cost containment in the thin trunk carpeting. The Cruze Sedan is available only in LT trim, with prices starting $23,795 plus an $875 destination charge. Leather is $1,125, and other options are available. But dealers we spoke to are willing to deal, with discounts approaching $5,000 without pushing too hard.
Will Chevrolet attract folks who would buy a new TDI if they could? Is the Cruze Hatchback a worthy replacement for the VW Golf? Dynamically, it’s a close match. So is the fit and finish. The real questions may be how the styling will hold up in a few years, and if it will have the near-legendary durability that VW TDIs enjoy. Right now, however, it’s the only game in town if you want a diesel with a manual transmission.