Among the many success stories written in the aftermath of GM’s financial implosion, arguably the biggest surprise – to at least this interested observer – is the roaring success of Chevrolet’s Cruze subcompact. In YOD (Year of Detroit) 2013 the small Chevy is almost ubiquitous. And that ubiquity looks to continue into 2014 should the Cruze diesel enjoy the same market acceptance as those models that precede it.
If, roughly twenty years ago, someone had told me the manufacturer responsible for Cavaliers (laughable) and – later – Cobalts (regrettable) would be capable of making a credible run at Civics and Corollas with a Korean-designed/Ohio-built 4-door I woulda’ grabbed a gun and shot the notion dead. While building some of the best trucks and SUVs in the marketplace, GM couldn’t find a viable response to the very real need for small cars with a roadmap. Thankfully, the corporate needle has moved, and with an increasingly able assist from GM Daewoo, along with a senior management committed to avoiding the market complacency that has historically plagued the ‘General’, there is a small Chevy making a run at Civics and Corollas. And I’ve put away the gun…
If the Cruze’s success has made it almost singular, the addition of a diesel elevates its unique proposition another couple of notches. As the press material tells us, GM produces roughly a half-million small displacement diesel engines in a year, and of the Cruze models sold in Europe – a lineup which includes both a 5-door and estate – four out of 10 are delivered with an oil burner. And with the diesel (again, according to Chevy) the company “is redefining the meaning of great fuel economy with this car.”
Within its 2.0 liter displacement, the Cruze’s 4-cylinder turbo diesel – mated to a standard 6-speed automatic – delivers 140 horsepower (at 4,000 rpm) and 258 lb-ft of torque (at but 2,600 rpm). The horsepower, of course, would be easy to duplicate with a Kia, but the torque of a small displacement turbo diesel is to die(sel) for! To be sure, that torque won’t pull the steering wheel out of your hands with each and every application of throttle. In fact, unless you give the pedal a bit of a kick you’ll get no perceptible kick in typical stop-and-go driving. But like a 29er mountain bike, once the Cruze gets going it absolutely rolls, maintaining an 80-mile per hour cruise (cruze?) with seemingly no effort.
Of course, the premise behind offering a diesel in today’s marketplace is efficiency, and here we have a mixed bag. The EPA tells us the Cruze diesel achieves 27 City/46 Highway/33 Combined. And with the bulk of our driving in-town/stop-and-go, the Cruze’s computer suggested 32 miles per gallon. To its everlasting, budget-friendly credit, we added no fuel in almost 400 miles of driving. But ‘32’ ain’t ‘46’, and we’re not sure what hill you’d have to roll down to achieve a fuel economy that side of 40. What we do know: In driving 15,000 miles per year you should need to buy no more than 500 gallons of diesel, and can go over 500 miles – in real world driving – between fill-ups.
If the rationale behind the Cruze diesel is numbers, the execution of the chassis is simply numbing. With all of the goodness available via a rigid body structure, good brakes and supple suspension, the tuning guys have literally ‘tuned’ all of the life out of it. Having driven the Cruze with its 1.4 liter turbo and been mildly entertained, we were expecting high times when an interesting platform is matched with almost 260 lb-ft of torque. Regrettably, it didn’t happen. The car is fine – if not entertaining – on the open road, but around town you might as well be driving a golf cart with an almost-dead battery.
Whether it’s the high-efficiency tires, the diesel’s additional 300 pounds (!) or the perception that buyers of efficiency (Prius) simply don’t want to have fun, we’d argue that buyers of the Cruze’s direct competitor – Volkswagen – have demonstrated an interest in both. GM can do it, but needs the managerial will to execute.
In sum, the Cruze diesel constitutes an attractive compact in fully-equipped guise and, with reasonable efficiency, has a lot going for it. If the fun factor could be dialed up, and its $26K window sticker could be dialed (at least slightly) down, we’d put it on our short list. As it sits, I’ll ponder it for a nano-second before buying Chevy’s Sonic RS, or a clean C6…
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