Review: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

A diesel-powered car from Detroit? The 46 mpg-rated Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is here.

It sounds like Europe, this Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel. Emitting a distinctive clatter audible more from outside the car than from within, the squat four-door compact sedan might remind you of a European holiday.

Needless to say, it's a bit of a surprise to hear a diesel engine behind a grille that bears the distinctive, highly recognizable gold bowtie of Chevrolet.

But there are a lot of unexpected surprises - mostly good ones - about the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel. And not just its absurdly long name.

What is it?

Though its full name might be a mouthful, the Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel is a pretty simple proposition. Digging into its global-market parts bin, General Motors did what was necessary to make a big-in-Europe 2.0-liter four-cylinder diesel engine meet emissions standards in the United States. A diesel-powered Cruze has been part of Chevrolet's global lineup for several years.

To that end, Chevy fitted a urea exhaust after-treatment system that dispenses a commonly-available fluid into the exhaust system in an effort to cut down on noxious fumes. Hidden away where the optional spare tire would normally be, the system raises the trunk floor less than an inch. (Fear not: An air inflator kit is also included - to be fair, spare tires are becoming increasingly rare on new cars).

Under the Cruze's hood, the 2.0-liter puts out 151 horsepower and 264 lb-ft. of torque, a significant boost over the 1.4-liter turbocharged gas engine standard in all but the base Cruze LS. Unlike gas-powered Cruzes, the diesel mates exclusively to an Aisin six-speed automatic gearbox. In our market, no stick shift will be available - but fuel misers have little reason to be concerned since this sedan is rated at an industry-leading 27/46 mpg (33 combined). To get better EPA-rated highway fuel economy, you'll have to buy a hybrid, but it's worth noting that the Volkswagen Jetta TDI is rated at 34 mpg combined.

Given that big bump in power, the Cruze diesel is marketed as something of a premium model rather than a stripped-out high mpg special. Just one trim about equivalent to the gas model's 2LT is available, meaning heated (front) leather seats, touchscreen infotainment and 17-inch alloy wheels are standard.

Our particular tester lacked any options, but a moonroof and navigation system are available.

Starting at over $25,000, the Cruze diesel is pricier than the Jetta TDI, but the Chevy is better equipped as standard and it offers more features as options.

What's it up against?

For years, VW has owned the compact diesel four-door segment with its popular Jetta TDI.

What's it look like?

A conservatively stylish four-door, the Cruze has become a common sight in North America since launching for the 2011 model year. Our tester's paint shade is a new offering for 2014, though.

Clean lines dominate its plucky design. We think the Cruze looks more balanced than its Chevrolet Malibu big brother, but it is not nearly as evocative as the full-size Chevrolet Impala.

Aside from gaining its own 17-inch alloy wheel design, Cruze diesel is distinguished from its brethren only by a green 2.0TD badge. We're not overwhelmed by the rather '90s-looking alloys, but we're told that they improve aerodynamics. Hey, every bit helps.

And on the inside?

Still one of the most serene and comfortable interiors you'll find on a compact sedan, Cruze has aged well inside. Cruze uses a "dual cowl”-style dashboard vaguely reminiscent of GM cars of the 1950s. But that's the only throwback you'll find inside; a big high-resolution touchscreen display sits at the top of the center stack, with buttons for audio and climate controls generally well distributed below.

GM's MyLink infotainment system is on board, but Cruze uses an earlier software than that found now on some of the automaker's newer designs. We're fine with old school, however, since this interface is easier to use and less prone to lagging. In fact, we'd call it state of the art among compact sedans - even if it is, technically, a generation behind.

Front seat passengers aren't treated to a huge amount of stretch-out space thanks to the wide lower dashboard (which is oddly weak on small items storage despite its girth), but they do at least get two of the most comfortable and supportive thrones we've ever sampled - regardless of price. That said, a full power driver's seat (including backrest) and a power passenger's seat would be nice options given that a loaded Cruze diesel tickles $30,000.

Rear seat room, on the other hand, is unremarkable up against the comparatively palatial Jetta. At least the Cruze's trunk is finished better than the cost cutting evident inside the Jetta's cargo area.

Though few soft touch materials can be found, those on offer are generally nicely grained and finished in a low sheen style. One exception is the rear door upper panels, which are clearly a lower grade plastic than that used up front. We're also not fans of the black mesh material that covers the passenger side of the dash; more appealing than hard plastic, yes - but it is also a dust and lint magnet.

But does it go?

We're happy to report that, for the most part, the Cruze diesel feels more like a strong gas-powered compact car than one motivated by Rudolf Diesel's fuel of the future. If you were clamoring for the clatter and vibration of an old diesel, you're going to be sorely disappointed.

At idle, Cruze diesel settles into a nearly inaudible thrum about par with the Jetta (although, notably, the Cruze seems considerably louder from outside the car). Step on the accelerator and you're rewarded with terrific pull from this quick-revving engine. Helping the situation is a rock-solid six-speed automatic that always seemed to be in the right gear. Moreover, unlike the gas-engined Cruze's gearbox, the diesel's transmission fired off quick shifts with none of the head-bobbing lulling we've seen all too often from GM vehicles lately.

If anything, we think the Cruze diesel might provide just a little too much grunt at low speeds; a more gentle throttle pedal tuning might better tame the torque onslaught. But there's no denying that this is one efficient machine - on a highway trek, we averaged 47 mpg and around town we rarely saw less than 30 mpg. Both of those figures are about 10 percent better than we typically see in a Jetta TDI.

On the road, the "class up” virtues that have made us big fans of the gas-powered Cruze remain present here as well. Thanks in part to its heft (Cruze tips the scales at 3,500 lbs., a bit above the class norm) and in part to its rigid structure, this little four-door's taut but compliant ride rivals some luxury cars.

On a curvy road, Cruze's light but direct steering gives it a playful demeanor backed up by nicely composed chassis tuning. No, it won't rival the sporty Mazda3 or even the Ford Focus as our pick for navigating a canyon road, but the Cruze offers a nice balance between performance and everyday utility.

And who can argue with 47 mpg as tested?

Leftlane's bottom line

Its classy interior and upmarket driving characteristics have long made the Cruze one of our favorite compact cars. This new diesel engine elevates it further in our eyes. Given the choice of a Cruze diesel or a Jetta TDI, we'll put on our bowties, so to speak.

Do the math and, no, you're not likely to come out ahead with the Cruze diesel's fuel economy gains over its much cheaper gas-powered sibling. But the same iffy equation hasn't stopped buyers looking for highway range and robust torque from taking home Jetta TDIs every year. If Chevrolet can lure Jetta TDI shoppers into showrooms, it will have a real hit on its hands.

2013 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel base price, $24,885. As tested, $25,920.

Black Granite Metallic paint, $225; Destination, $810.

Photos by Andrew Ganz.

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