A few years ago, automotive journalists frequently cried out for more diesel-powered passenger cars to be sold in the U.S. Such vehicles offered the alluring promise of strong acceleration yet outstanding gas mileage, and steady engineering improvements that have nearly eliminated the clattering roar once associated with this type of engine.
Now, many of the same journalists are on the diesel deathwatch after Volkswagen, responsible for most diesel sales in the U.S., was forced to admit to skirting federal emissions regulations. To achieve the fuel efficiency, performance and affordability that buyers expected, VW programmed its diesels to perform differently — and pollute less — during an emissions test than in ordinary driving.
Since being outed two years ago, Volkswagen has no longer offered diesels in the U.S. — save a handful of 2015 models that sat unsold until the company recently found a way to bring them into legal compliance. Several other automakers have also faced questions about their emissions-control software or have dropped plans to introduce new diesels to the U.S.
But amid all this furor, an unassuming little Chevrolet sedan hides a rare diesel engine. The new 2017 Cruze diesel is rated for up to 52 mpg on the highway, and successfully received EPA certification amid intense scrutiny for any potential mischief.
The Cruze diesel isn’t a vehicle you’d choose for its strong personality. It’s pleasant to drive — quiet, comfortable, roomy and well-built — but without distinctive styling or sporty driving dynamics. And while the 137-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine delivers swifter and quieter acceleration than a Toyota Prius, the experience is rather ordinary compared to other compact cars.
Of course, not everyone is looking for character. A small car that goes about its business without fuss can be greatly appreciated. But even though the Cruze experience stirs little feeling, buyers who don’t feel some emotional attachment to diesel engines may not be impressed when they crunch the numbers.
First of all, the Cruze’s diesel engine costs about $3,000 more than a comparably equipped Cruze running on normal gasoline — a base price of $24,670 — and even the gas-powered Cruze is on the pricey side compared to a Hyundai Elantra or Toyota Corolla. Secondly, diesel costs more than regular unleaded — according to AAA, about 18 cents extra per gallon on average in D.C. as of June 14 — and is available at fewer stations. Buyers also need to add an emissions-controlling exhaust fluid every few thousand miles, an expense unique to diesels.
Another factor is that diesel cars generally excel on the highway, not in the city. The much-touted 52-mpg rating is for highway driving in a model with manual transmission. With the tested automatic, that figure falls to 47 mpg — which is still outstanding — and the EPA city rating is a good but unremarkable 31 mpg. That’s within 1 mpg of the gas-powered Cruze and various competing economy sedans. Drive mainly around town, and you won’t see most of the Cruze’s benefit.
That said, the Cruze is an agreeable road-trip vehicle. Its quiet, low-revving engine, respectable interior room, smooth ride, smart infotainment system, and of course, outstanding highway mileage and long range are ideal for traveling. Those spending a lot of time driving in those conditions should give serious thought to this Chevrolet.
Otherwise, though, shop the standard gas Cruze against a host of other pleasant, economical small cars, including the Elantra, Corolla, Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza. And for eye-popping gas mileage, hybrids — chiefly the Prius and Hyundai’s promising new Ioniq — are the way to go for city driving.