January 24, 2019

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With Volkswagen’s TDIs out of the picture, the Chevrolet Cruze diesel has become a unicorn—the only manual-transmission diesel passenger car available in the United States and the only diesel passenger vehicle (crossovers and SUVs included) that sells for less than $30,000. The closest approximation is the BMW 328d xDrive wagon that starts at $46,945 and can’t be had with a stick shift.

That’s what goes on the marquee. But the aluminum-block turbocharged 1.6-liter engine that powers this Cruze—making 137 horsepower and 240 lb-ft of torque—deserves to share the limelight. As a freshened piece of clean-and-quiet, fuel-stingy kit, it’s nonetheless a vestige of another time and place, before regulators made several big moves to favor hybrids; before downsized, direct-injected gasoline engines erased some of diesels’ mileage advantage; and before one especially noteworthy 2015 scandal. It also was conceived primarily by and for Opel, the former General Motors Europe brand that has now been sold off to France’s PSA Peugeot Citroën.

Get it while you can, we say, because the Cruze diesel does a good job carrying the torch: It gets phenomenally good highway mileage, even at the real American highway speeds where a lot of hybrids get weak-kneed. And it has a pony-car-like wad of torque that’s on tap at almost any time and in any gear—which makes the Cruze diesel feel a lot quicker than it is, especially with the manual transmission.

the manual-equipped gasoline Cruze 1.4T that we described as having a “lifeless engine” and “sluggish performance.” By 100 mph, the tepid gasoline model has a 2.7-second advantage over the diesel. Still, the Cruze diesel is a bit quicker to 60 mph than was the last Volkswagen Golf TDI hatch we tested.

Consider also that the Cruze diesel took 3.5 fewer seconds to squirt from 50 to 70 mph than did the Cruze 1.4T, for instance, and that it was quite a bit quicker in its top-gear acceleration tests than was the manual Golf TDI. This is a car well suited for easy, no-downshift-required passing.

The Cruze diesel sedan we tested was quicker with the nine-speed automatic that most buyers will choose, but what fun is that? A little enjoyment is the reason we’d choose the stick-shift Cruze diesel, even though the shifter is mediocre. Throws are on the long side, the clutch pedal is a little stiff, and there’s a reverse-lockout button on the front of the shift knob that feels as if it should be accompanied by a PRNDL gate. The manual’s gates are well defined, though, and using it is preferable to driving any hybrid vehicle that comes to mind.

It’s not as if you really have to shift a lot, anyway, because there’s so much flexibility in this engine, which is in its sweet spot from just past its torque peak of 1500 rpm all the way to 4000 rpm. It doesn’t reward revving into its upper ranges quite as much as the latest Gen 3 version of Volkswagen’s much loved 2.0-liter TDI, an engine we’ve experienced only in a Passat in its fixed, emissions-legal specification. But the Cruze does pack a similar quick-responding wallop of torque—a wallop that didn’t fade as we drove up to altitudes around 6000 feet. The only thing missing, as we noted on the descent from those heights, is that there’s precious little engine braking available. The Chevy’s brakes were up to the task, though, and back on flat ground at our test track they hauled the diesel hatch down from 70 mph in a commendable 165 feet.

The Cruze as a whole hews to the quietness claims that Chevy applies to this engine—aided by an extra layer of sound insulation—as the entire car is free of excessive engine, road, and wind noise. But the thrum of the diesel is felt more than it’s heard—in the footwells, for instance. Once the engine is warmed up, it’s extraordinarily quiet; it settles to such a low purr at idle that from a few car lengths away you might forget it’s running. Chevy boasts of all sorts of quieting measures on and around the engine itself, such as acoustic padding for the intake manifold. Still, opening the hood—or just popping it—reveals the difference that underhood blanketing can make.

Consider this a last chance. If you have a long highway commute, the Cruze diesel is probably a better choice than most hybrids. Get one before they’re gone.

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