Quick spin: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel [Review]

We get some seat time in Chevy\'s new diesel compact.

The past year has been a big one for Chevrolet's compact car lineup. The new Cruze Sedan debuted to much fanfare a year ago, bringing a distinctly more upscale driving experience with it. That was followed by the Hatch variant in the fall, marking the nameplate's first foray into the five-door market and setting it up as a competitor to the likes of the Ford Focus, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf.

Now, Chevrolet is introducing its updated diesel engine, rounding out the lineup and giving customers an alternative to Volkswagen's (currently unavailable) oil-burning compacts. How does it stack up? Chevrolet loaned us an example with the express intent that we take it on a road trip to find out.

But before we get to that, let's discuss the experience of driving a diesel-powered car. Unfortunately, American car buyers frequently possess very strong opinions about such vehicles; they think their engines loud and their emissions noxious. As such, many people think diesels are for applications where such things don't matter. In other words, they're for trucks.

Some (notably diesel fans) may protest that these are outdated notions, but that doesn't mean they've gone away; in fact, many found themselves vindicated by Volkswagen's Dieselgate fiasco.

The Cruze TD, then, has a multifaceted mission: First, it must win over existing diesel fans; second, it needs to overcome the objections of buyers who never considered one prior. It was with those ideas fresh in our minds that we set off for central Indiana.

What is it?The 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel (or TD) is powered by a 1.6L, 137-horsepower turbodiesel engine boasting a whopping 240lb-ft of torque. For now, customers can spec only the four-door variant of the Cruze with the diesel, and it's available with either a six-speed manual transmission or GM's new nine-speed automatic. The Hatch TD will arrive later this year.

Surprisingly, the diesel's EPA fuel economy ratings differ significantly between the two transmission choices. The automatic is rated at 31 mpg city and 47 mpg highway; the manual, on the other hand, is rated at 30 mpg city and a whopping 52 on the highway.

Our tester was equipped with the nine-speed--not our first choice for a purchase, but ideally suited to a long highway slog, which is exactly what we had in mind.

What's it up against?Despite the weak market for compact cars, Cruze itself faces a raft of competition. Every mainstream automaker sells at least one small sedan or hatchback.

However, on the diesel front, it's a completely different story. With Volkswagen's TDI models sidelined pending renewed certifications from the EPA, the Cruze TD essentially has this market to itself. For those who simply prefer fuel-efficient powertrains no matter the flavor, hybrids such as the Toyota Prius and Hyundai Ioniq provide alternatives with more city-oriented efficiency.

What does it look like?Forgive our bluntness, but it looks like a Chevrolet Cruze. The diesel model is differentiated only by a blue "TD" badge on the rear decklid. Our silver test model is about as bland as they come in the exterior department, its rather rental-car-spec color all the more dreary against a backdrop of early spring in the Midwest.

And the inside?Like the exterior, the Cruze TD's interior carries over essentially unchanged. At launch, the diesel is available only on the LT trim, which lags only the Premier model in terms of equipment content. That means you get quite a bit of standard equipment, but it also means you're looking at a base MSRP in the low-mid 20,000-dollar range just to get into an oil burner.

As for unique elements, the only sign that you're sitting in a TD model is the low-RPM tach.

But does it go?Our time with the Cruze was spent driving from Northeast Ohio to Indianapolis, Indiana. It's a roughly 300-mile drive along Interstates 71 and 70, with speed limits ranging from 55 to 70 miles per hour. Put another way? We were right in the Cruze's wheelhouse.

While hybrid cars prefer the stop-and-go urban environment to keep their batteries topped up, a diesel wants the open road. A steady-state cruise is where this car should shine.

The first thing we noticed was the TD's start-up idle. It's loud--not overly obtrusive, but certainly more present than your typical compact four cylinder's. It took a while to quiet down, too. Diesels, in addition to being more suited to highway use, are notorious for needing time to warm up.

With that thought in the back of our minds, we set off. Rarely, of course, does one live on an actual highway. To get there, we had to navigate urban stop-and-go driving, even detouring into a park in order to get some photographs. While the Cruze TD may not get the best fuel economy around town, its ample torque down low makes the driving experience excellent.

A few miles in, the clamor of the diesel settled into a smoother, less intrusive buzz as we found ourselves accelerating onto the Interstate. Again, we found the engine's ample torque more than equal to the task of getting us up to speed. The Cruze isn't fast, mind you, but it handles this sort of stuff admirably.

On the freeway, we were reminded of our previous impressions of the Cruze's steering. It's light and relatively slow, requiring more frequent corrections than we'd like. As we put the miles on, we grew to tolerate it more and more.

In fact, we grew to like the Cruze TD more and more. It's not quite as nimble and sharp as some of its competitors, but its ride is excellent and highway road and wind noise have been kept to a minimum. It's no Lexus (or even Buick), but as relatively inexpensive highway cruisers go, it's a good one.

We couldn't help but compare the experience to that of driving the larger (and currently unavailable) Volkswagen Passat TDI a couple of years ago. The midsize Passat may fit a family more comfortably, but it felt slower and even softer than the Cruze. The Passat's peaky torque delivery was nowhere to be found here, which made the Cruze feel quicker even if it really isn't.

So, what of the fuel economy? Remember that our automatic-equipped car was rated for only 47 mpg on the highway. From door-to-door, we saw 51.9 per the on-board trip computer. Even allowing for error (not uncommon), it performed at least as well as advertised.

Leftlane's bottom lineWe said from the top that the Cruze has two missions to accomplish: Impressing diesel fans and winning over new ones. Since most existing diesel fans are by default Volkswagen fans, they may not immediately take to the Cruze's driving dynamics, but we expect they could grow to embrace them. We found the Cruze to be approachable and comfortable--two key attributes for winning over the uninitiated. The Cruze is an excellent ambassador for diesel power, but will people respond to high-efficiency compacts in the era of cheap gas and runaway truck sales? Only time will tell.

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Sedan TD, base price $23,795; as-tested, $24,670Destination, $875

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