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2018 Chevrolet Cruze Test Drive Review
Chevrolet expands its Cruze lineup with diesel versions in hopes of attracting some of the last fans of this misunderstood fuel, who suddenly find themselves with few options.
As the dissonant chords of Dieselgate still resonate throughout the industry, most car companies have abandoned efforts toward any future diesel-powered cars. A $15 billion fine will have that sort of chilling effect. But Chevrolet has taken a different approach, instead seeing the mass retreat from diesel as an opportunity to fill a void. As the driver Jean-Pierre Sarti said in Frankenheimer’s 1966 epic “Grand Prix”: “When I see something really horrible, I put my foot down. Hard! Because I know that everyone else is lifting his.”
Look and Feel
Take a quick look at the LT Diesel Hatchback and you won’t notice it’s anything other than a conventional Cruze. Other than its drivetrain, designated by a small TD badge on the right side of the hatch, there’s nothing to distinguish it from every other LT Cruze on the road, with sharp lines and an aggressively angled rear end. But there’s more than just a new engine under the hood, as the diesel trims ditch the old 6-speed automatic from the gasoline version for Chevrolet’s new 9-speed automatic, designed and built in-house.
This combination absolutely transforms the Cruze Diesel Hatchback from a slow and uninspired entrant in the segment to a serious contender with the efficiency chops to back it up. While its performance numbers on paper are nearly identical to the gasoline version’s, it’s the character and driveability that set it apart and make the Cruze Diesel worthy of a test drive.
Available only in LT trim, the Diesel Hatchback comes standard with the Convenience Package that will get you a power driver’s seat, keyless entry and ignition, and remote start for an MSRP of $25,865. That’s a premium of more than $2500 over a similarly equipped gasoline version, and with an $875 Destination fee, the walkaway price for my test version came in at just $26,740. Since testing, prices from Chevrolet have been revised with a new MSRP of $25,920 and a standard $2500 cash allowance, bringing the new walkaway price to $24,295.
It was the poor performance of the standard Cruze Hatchback that prevented me from recommending the 2017 version as an alternative to other, more attractive options in the segment. Acceleration was slow both off the line and at speed, and I couldn’t come anywhere close to its advertised 31 mpg combined rating, instead hovering around the mid-20s. If I were trading economy for speed, I might accept such sacrifices, but the Cruze failed to deliver on either end.
With the new diesel powertrain and 9-speed transmission, the 2018 Cruze LT Diesel Hatchback feels like an entirely new vehicle. With 240 lb-ft of torque showing up at 2000 rpm from its 1.6-liter turbodiesel engine, it’s immediately strong, erasing the main issue I had with the gasoline engine, whose peak horsepower doesn’t arrive until 5600 rpm. In the Diesel, 137 hp joins the party at 3750 rpm, and while the acceleration certainly won’t shock or excite, as you get higher into the rev range, it’s enough for highway passing.
More importantly, because you don’t have to over-rev just to get usable power, the Diesel returns truly impressive mileage. Estimates put its combined rating at 35 mpg, but my trips all averaged at least 40, with my highway test loop of 100 miles returning better than 50 mpg. However, and perhaps just as important, the Diesel is much dirtier than the gasoline version, with a smog rating two times worse, according to the EPA. That's not going to do any favors for diesel's image.
Handling is sprightly if not spirited, though to get the more complex and formidable Watt’s rear linkage—what Chevy calls a Z-link suspension—you have to spring for the $1700 RS package. That's a shame, as I tested a 2017 Cruze hatchback with this setup, and it definitely helps calm the rear end over rough pavement during cornering. This is something Chevrolet should just make standard if it really wants the Cruze to compete with some of the more refined options in the segment.
Form and Function
The Cruze suffers from expected shortcomings when it comes to fit and finish, though the interior offers an attractive, if divisive, design. Much like Ford’s small-car interiors of late, the ornate, almost flamboyant design isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly one of the more memorable interiors on the market. Appropriate levels of hard plastics are balanced by soft-touch surfaces in all the right places, but if you’re looking to upgrade the interior with some extra luxury, you’re mostly out of luck. It’s available only in the LT trim, so you’re unable to add features like heated rear seats, wireless charging, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and auto climate control, because they’re restricted to the Enhanced Convenience Package, which you can get only with the Premier. This is 2018. Unless you’re buying something like a $14,000 Kia Rio, every car should come with auto climate control at this point.
Interior space puts the Cruze right in the middle of the pack, in both cargo and interior volume. At 6’4” I found both front and rear seats more than comfortable, and with a total cargo volume of 47.2 cubic feet, the Cruze is just a few cubes off from the class-leading VW Golf’s 53. More of an issue are the tight opening and sharply angled hatch of the Cruze, which can make access a bit tricky, not to mention presenting a frustrating restriction for taller items. If hauling is your primary concern, check the Golf instead.
This is where my main issues with the Cruze Diesel Hatchback crop up. Primarily, the auto stop/start system can’t be disabled. Manufacturers developed this feature for sneaky reasons, allowing them to claim an additional mile per gallon or two on paper that simply won’t get seen in real-world use while contributing extra wear and tear to engine components. This is only magnified in a high-compression engine like a diesel, but on top of longevity concerns, it’s simply quite annoying.
Teen Driver was made standard last year, and this allows owners to set limits for speed and distance for a secondary driver with app-delivered reports and notifications whenever those limits are exceeded. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are also standard, which works to fight against the major complaint I have with the Chevy MyLink infotainment system: its voice recognition. I’ve driven several Chevy test vehicles, and I’ve always found their voice recognition slow and stunted, seemingly unable to decipher many street names. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you can use your phone’s voice-command features, a superior system with which you’re already familiar.
Five-star overall and frontal crash ratings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are joined by 4-star ratings in side crash and rollover tests. More impressive is the Cruze’s 110-foot stopping distance from 60 mph. It’s better to avoid an accident than survive one, after all, but if an accident is unavoidable, the Cruze is fitted with full-length side curtain, knee, and front and rear side airbags.
Chevy is trying to make the Cruze LT Diesel Hatchback as attractive as possible, with an automatic $2500 cash allowance and a noted flexibility with its MSRP at dealerships. If you can get a deal, that makes the Diesel a viable option in the segment. But beyond mileage, competitors still offer the same advantages that overshadow the gasoline version—better performance and more features for less money. If the Cruze is something you’re considering, bring these points up when negotiating the price and you could walk away with a truly unique ride, at least until someone else decides to dip their toes back into the diesel waters.
A CarGurus contributor since 2008, Michael started his career writing about cars with the SCCA - winning awards during his time as editor of Top End magazine. Since then, his journalistic travels have taken him from NY to Boston to CA, completing a cross-country tour on a restored vintage Suzuki. While his preference is for fine German automobiles - and the extra leg room they so often afford - his first automobile memories center around impromptu Mustang vs. Corvette races down the local highway, in the backseat of his father's latest acquisition.
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