Wildlife on a car launch typically revolves around hotel watering holes and the hunt for elusive executives. Oh, and don’t poke the hungry journalist, especially just after hibernation. But on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, it’s moose and bear, whales and bald eagles, the latter strolling the beach of our seaside hotel in Homer as casually as seagulls in Coney Island. Each Alaskan vista is more stunning than the last, but the assembled journalists finally train our cameras and sights on a certain wounded, potentially unpredictable animal: The new diesel version of the 2018 Chevy Cruze.
The driving experience, at least, proves no cause for concern. Over three all-day drives in a manual-transmission Cruze Hatch Diesel—EPA rated at 33 city/48 highway miles per gallon, or 34/52 mpg for a stick-shift sedan—the Cruze is never less than pleasant. And its real-world fuel economy is frankly spectacular, easily topping 50 mpg on Alaska’s scenic highways, even at a 70-mph-plus pace (more on that later).
Yet a question hangs in the moist, mild Alaskan air: Are American buyers in the 49th state—or any of the 49 others—turned off or scared off by Volkswagen’s shameful Dieselgate scandal? Or, with VW and Audi scrapping their oil-burner lineups in America, could the Cruze seize an advantage and cherry-pick some diesel-deprived VW fans?
Sure, some VW loyalists may not be interested in switching to a Chevrolet. Yet Chevy suddenly enjoys a rare, exclusive status: At its $26,310 base price, this Cruze—sold alongside General Motors’s 2018 Chevy Equinox and GMC Terrain SUVs—becomes the only genuinely affordable diesel passenger car sold in America. The others are mainly pricey Mercedes-Benzes, Jaguars and Land Rovers, the least-costly being the Jaguar XE diesel sedan at roughly $37,000 to start.
Chevrolet itself has no expectation of runaway sales for its oil-burning compact. But if 50-plus mpg fuel-sipping is your game, and you’re not into hybrids, this Cruze is the only game in town.
We get our first frugal taste of the Cruze at the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum in Anchorage, where we slap on decals to prep for the SCCA’s United States Road Rally Challenge. (My name, rendered as “L. Ulrich” on the Cruze’s doors, draws some Metallica jokes from rally participants). And no, this isn’t a balls-out backwoods rally in Subarus and other AWD beasts. This is the other sport of rallying, a low-speed, time-to-distance affair where drivers and navigators vie to earn the fewest possible points—as in golf—by arriving precisely at checkpoints in stages timed to the hundredth of a second.
The good stuff? You can compete in any car, including your daily driver, as the 27-car field makes clear: There’s an Anchorage-area attorney and his wife in a BMW 3 Series, and another married couple that (seriously) drove from Kansas to Alaska in a new Camaro. Another young duo competes in an adorably tiny 1986 Mini, originally sold in West Germany.
Some teams, with years and decades of road rally experience, take this all very seriously. The top rally class hooks up wheel sensors to obtain ultra-accurate speed data. Most teams wield clipboards and Velcro-backed calculators to plot time, speed and distance formulas. Yet if you’re genetically inclined to speed, or even making good time on a road trip, road rallying may remind you of that old quote (no, not from Mark Twain), that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” With the entire wilderness of Alaska stretching before us, we spend days with our noses buried in coded trip notes—including clues based on mileages and roadway signs—meandering through obscure towns and driving below the speed limit.
It’s the solid-citizen antithesis of a Gumball or Bull Run, where no laws need be broken to compete and win. Still, frustrations can rise and tempers flare. Picture a trip to your grandmother’s house, only grandma is senile. Her “directions” are indecipherable, but you’d better not make a wrong turn, because the clock is ticking and the meatloaf is getting cold. The crazy part hits me when I see the Camaro couple in the unmistakable throes of a marital spat at one checkpoint: Couples actually volunteer to do this with their leisure time, to waltz into what any marriage counselor would rank among the deadliest relationship minefields—tussling over directions in an automobile.
The Cruze hatch is humbly handsome, with the forward-canted hatch and rear roof spoiler that have become virtual givens in the class. I’d still rate the cool factor as low, even by hatch-nerd standards, with the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus—let alone a VW GTI or Focus ST or RS—scoring higher in my hatch-loving eyes. Even slathered with rally decals, the Cruze reads as a straightforward economy car.
And it goes about its business with sincere ease, an impressively hushed interior, and all the features you’d expect; from ten standard airbags, heated seats and a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot to a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. Okay, all the expected features but one: You can’t get a navigation system with onboard map displays. There's only cumbersome turn-by-turn directions in the driver’s display, offered remotely through an OnStar subscription.
Back in 2014, the first-gen Cruze Turbo Diesel was GM’s first diesel since the 1986 Chevette. Its 2.0-liter engine, straight from Opel’s European parts bin, actually put out more power than the new one: 151 horses and 264 pound-feet of torque, with 280 pound-feet available in short bursts of overboost. But that iron-block, turbo-laggy engine emitted an obtrusive diesel clatter at idle and around town, and the Cruze itself was far more Spartan than the new version.
The new 1.6-liter, aluminum-block turbodiesel brings just 137 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque. But GM’s Opel Astra-based engine, dubbed Flüsterdiesel (or “whisper diesel”) by German journos, is more refined, more efficient, and 50 pounds lighter. Delivering up to 10 discrete squirts of fuel at a high 29,000 psi for each compression stroke, the engine avoids the all-at-once fuel explosion that creates notorious clatter in compression-ignition engines. GM claims the new international diesel—engineered in Turin, Italy, developed in the U.S. and built in Hungary—is 50 percent quieter at idle. And once we’re warmed up and rolling, virtually all traces of diesel sound disappear. The engine can run biodiesel, too, in case you’re ready to steal some of Groundskeeper Willie’s grease.
The Cruze isn’t fast, pulling from 0-60 miles per hour in about 8.5 seconds, but it never feels slow, whether with the six-speed manual or the new nine-speed automatic whose ratios are well-chosen for diesel duty. As before, there’s precious little connection through the steering wheel, yet the Cruze’s pleasingly tuned chassis and strong brakes make it an earnest partner. The Chevy feels planted through the curves, despite low-friction, easy-to-howl tires that trade ultimate grip for fuel savings. Manual-transmission models, sedan or hatch, add a standard RS package which includes a slightly sportier suspension and 18-inch wheels. The torque-rich diesel is just strong enough for confident passing, the Chevy marching into triple-digit velocities on splendorous downhill grades and carrying that speed up the rises with no strain. A variable-nozzle turbocharger bumps the torque curve and reduces lag, especially at low rpm.
After the first day’s rallying is done, my driving partner Daniel Shapiro and I head toward the port city of Seward. Finally, we can pay attention to other important numbers: The Chevy’s real-world fuel economy. Clutching my way to sixth gear, I set a mellow 60-mph pace, and the Cruze responds to the Prius-like tune of 57 mpg—nine mpg better than its EPA highway rating. A faster run, averaging better than 70 mph, still finds the Cruze sipping at 52 mpg. Either number is outstanding for a roomy hatchback that swallows our pair of roller bags and a backpack with room to spare. Dropping the rear seats more than doubles that cargo capacity, allowing nearly 47 cubes of storage.
Back in 2014, the Cruze Diesel was dinged in some quarters because—unlike VW’s “miracle” TDI clean diesels—it was forced to integrate a tank of Diesel Emissions Fluid (DEF) to meet America’s stringent emissions rules, which allowed exponentially fewer smog-forming nitrogen oxides than Europe and other markets. VW was roundly praised for engineering diesels that could be squeaky-clean with no need of that costly, weight-adding “Selective Catalytic Reduction,” or “SCR” systems. Of course, VW’s technical superiority turned out to be a dirty lie: Take away the onboard, software “defeat device” that VW cooked up to fool government emissions tests, and VW diesels were emitting toxic, lung-choking nitrogen oxides at up to 40 times allowable levels.
Unlike VW was, Chevy isn’t bullshitting the American public—or regulators, or what’s left of them at the Environmental Pollution Agency— that there’s some free lunch on diesel. The Cruze integrates an SCR system with a 3.2-gallon DEF tank, which owners must refill roughly every 4,000 miles, at a price of about $14 for do-it-yourselfers.
One downside to that honesty is a hefty price premium on GM’s diesel tech: The Cruze Diesel Hatch starts from $26,310, or $26,740 with the nine-speed automatic. Both represent a $2,800 upcharge over a comparably equipped, gasoline-powered Cruze LT hatchback, whose turbo four generates 153 horses and 177 pound-feet.
With the gasoline, manual-trans hatch delivering a healthy 27/40 mpg, the Dept. of Energy figures the diesel buyer will save just $50 a year at the pump, spending $1,150 versus $1,200 for the gasoline version. How is that possible? For one, on a nationwide average, diesel fuel costs 22 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded, blunting its efficiency gains. If you live where diesel is a relative bargain, you’ll do better. The EPA also tends to underrate the real-world mileage of diesels. Still, the payback period for this most-efficient Cruze will be many, many years.
That stiff showroom pricing might limit the Cruze to the usual diehard diesel fans, or people who see great mileage and energy conservation as their own reward. Loyalists may also appreciate familiar benefits of robust torque, diesel-engine durability, and unmatched driving range. Getting into the numbers-crunching rally spirit, I figure we can easily cover 676 highway miles on a tank, using 13 of the available 13.5 gallons at 52-miles-per. We don't win the rally (not even close), but we kick serious ass in the economy race.
As the rally winds down, we face a long drive up the Kenai Peninsula to Anchorage. It’s time for my preferred method of time-to-distance, one I find far more exhilarating than driving below the speed limit every mile, every goddamn minute. I check the Waze app’s estimate of our arrival into Anchorage, nearly 200 miles distant, and declare that I can beat it by 40 minutes, arriving at precisely 6 p.m. for well-earned cocktails and dinner. Flashing past snowcapped peaks, glaciers, primordial forest, pristine beaches and seemingly every dusty pickup and Subaru in Alaska, I flog the Cruze for all it’s worth. I steam into Anchorage right on schedule—rally, baby!—and consult hosts Nick Jaynes and Nick Richards of Chevy communications on the prospects for this most iconoclastic of Cruzes.
Our two Nicks make the same argument vis a
vis the VW scandal that I’ve made myself: Aside from actual VW owners and auto insiders, no one really knows or cares. Most Americans have only a passing knowledge of the scandal, at best. And while many VW fanatics feel betrayed by the company, many don't feel betrayed by their cars. They were perfectly, even wildly content with their VW and Audi diesels, and would still be driving them if VW hadn’t been forced to buy back their tainted, cheatin’ TDI’s.
Still, I ask Nick Richards—after the corporate and consumer nightmare of Dieselgate, what would you say to people who ask about a Cruze diesel?
“Ours is clean,” Richards says. Any questions?
Lawrence Ulrich, The Drive’s chief auto critic, is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times and Detroit Free Press. The Detroit native and Brooklyn gentrifier owns a troubled ’93 Mazda RX-7 R1, but may want to give it a good home. Email him at Lawrence@thedrive.com.