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2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, twisting the numbers: Motoramic Drives

9 July 2013

Numbers don’t lie: When fuel efficiency rises, a car travels further. When engine power increases, the car goes faster. Less weight equals nimbler handling and faster lap times, and so on. Technically, looking at a car on paper should offer a good indication as to how that vehicle behaves. But with Chevrolet’s new Cruze Diesel, something doesn’t quite add up.

The last time General Motors offered a diesel engine in a passenger car in the 1980s, the defect-plagued oil burners turned a generation of car buyers (and GM executives) against the technology. But times advance, and the new diesel in the 2014 Cruze comes from GM’s European brand, Opel. Which means it’s made in a plant in Germany, tinkered to U.S. specifications, built by the hands of those who specialize in such motors after decades of improvements.

On paper, the Cruze Diesel should be a legitimate rival to German giant Volkswagen and the Jetta TDI. It delivers 151 hp and a sizable 264 lb.-ft. of torque from its 2-liter turbo engine – a chunk more than the Jetta TDI. Fuel figures stand at 27 mpg city and 46 highway, besting VW on the highway (42) while falling short in the city (30). While you can buy a Jetta TDI for $23,055, the fully loaded version is more comparable to the Chevy, and comes in around $1,000 more; the Cruze Diesel starts at $24,885 and arrives with everything you could need as standard.

And when you climb behind the wheel, snuggled into the form-fitting leather seats while gazing upon the feature-packed infotainment system, things only get better. The car I drove had zero options, but I double-checked because the interior quality seemed almost too good. Rear legroom is plenty sufficient (35.4 inches), cargo space remains ample (13.3 cu. ft.), and in terms of general comfort, the Cruze Diesel is a definite winner.

Aesthetically the Cruze remains bland, but it’s also not unattractive. Firing the engine is like starting Bob the Builder’s digger, but that’s to be expected with a diesel. And at speed, the sound-deadening keeps the cabin demeanor serene. It's the translation of those diesel power figures into movement where something goes wrong.

The problem begins with the six-speed automatic gearbox, which seems to be on sabbatical. Once the correct gearing is finally engaged, additional shifts occur without hitch. That complaint, while annoying, remains livable. But there’s a bigger problem.

It’s not the Cruze Diesel's handling. While it's not particularly engaging, it does ride well, and cornering remains unspectacularly efficient. And the Cruze diesel delivers on its efficiency promise, powering 717 miles before needing to fill up and matching EPA figures with relative ease — even when exercising the right pedal vigorously.

What does disappoint, surprisingly, is the torque from that German lump, which can jump to 280 lb.-ft. for a limited time in "overboost" mode. How could that figure possibly disappoint? As Chevy loves to point out, that’s the same twisting power as a 1972 Camaro Z/28 generated from a 5.7-liter V-8. It should feel torquey as hell.

Yet a number of times, when blending into traffic, I found myself hopping desperately in the seat, coaxing the car forward as speeding vehicles edged towards my rear bumper much faster than I’d anticipated. My wife had a similar response after she took the Cruze for a spin. As an enthusiast, while I'm thrilled to receive great fuel mileage, I want my diesel to offer more initial oomph on acceleration, when compared to its gasoline-powered twin. So what happened?

The diesel motor adds roughly 250 lbs. to the Cruze’s curb weight, leaving it about 3,500 lbs. The Jetta is just below 3,200 lbs., making the Cruze’s sprightliness suffer. But I’m not convinced weight is the dominant issue here. Chevy quotes a 0-60 mph time of 8.6 seconds, and various automotive publications cite similar sprints, making the Cruze Diesel appear perfectly punchy for an economic sedan. But off paper, it simply doesn’t feel that way.

Chevy says torque peaks "between 1,750 and 3,000 rpm," and while that amount arriving at 1,750 rpm would pack a punch, if it’s closer to 3,000, that might be part of the issue. I think it’s a combination of the additional pounds, mixed with a gearbox that remains simply unwilling to respond and a tad too much turbo lag.

Or perhaps it’s not actually as slow as I felt it to be. Maybe it’s the silly marketing campaign Chevy implemented, bragging about the Cruze’s torque and comparing it to legendary muscle cars? It is an economy sedan, after all. Or perhaps diesel buyers, however many there are in the U.S., don't actually care as much about speed?

Either way, for me, I’m sitting on a wobbly fence. I love the interior, I love the ride, I love the efficiency, and I’m onboard with the price. I just can’t get past the expectation of having muscle-car torque and yet feeling like the Turbo snail – before he gets doused in nitrous oxide. One thing I am certain of after time in the 2014 Chevy Cruze Diesel? Numbers can indeed lie.

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