With Cruze Diesel, Chevy builds a Jetta jouster

"I know a little German," offers the heroine in the 1984 comedy, Top Secret. “He’s sitting over there.” Cut to a dwarf in lederhosen, smiling and waving his Alpine hat.

It quickly grumbles to life and purrs like a lion on catnip.

The Chevrolet Cruze knows a little German too, and not just the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, from which it is so obviously attempting to win buyers. Under the hood of the Lordstown, Ohio-built Cruze Diesel clatters a 2-litre turbocharged engine from General Motors’ Opel factory in Kaiserslautern, Germany.

The Jetta TDI’s popularity (a not-insignificant 20% of Jetta sales, says VW), combined with steeply increasing federal fuel-economy standards, motivated Chevrolet to add a diesel engine to the Cruze lineup. And, say Chevy engineers, the installation was fairly simple; Opel already offers a diesel version of its mechanically similar Astra.

Eyes closed, a buyer would be hard-pressed to discern the Cruze’s diesel engine from Volkswagen’s TDI, but Chevrolet opted for the more aggressive, and expensive, approach to cleaning exhaust emissions, using a urea-injection system similar to that employed on diesel engines from BMW and Mercedes-Benz, including the twin-turbo four-cylinder unit in the new GLK250 BlueTEC. The system injects minute amounts of urea liquid into hot exhaust gasses, converting highly toxic nitrogen oxide into less harmful ammonia and nitrogen. Chevrolet says the Cruze’s urea supply will last at least 10,000 miles per tank, so refilling it becomes part of routine maintenance. Volkswagen, in contrast, eschews the expense and complexity of urea injection – and the need to refill the urea tank – by tuning the Jetta’s engine with a priority on reducing emissions.

Having an on-board chemistry lab scrubbing exhaust emissions means the Cruze's engine can focus on power and efficiency. As such, it tops the Jetta TDI’s power plant in both respects, with an additional 11 horsepower (for a total of 151), an extra 28 pound-feet of torque (265) and 4 more highway miles per gallon (46mpg). That translates to a driving range of 717 miles per tank – more than 100 miles farther than the Jetta TDI’s range. Cruising range is more of an issue with diesels than with gasoline-powered cars because fewer US filling stations sell diesel. If refuelling is less convenient, the driver will want to do it as infrequently as possible, and the Cruze obliges.

The German-made engine feels right at home in the American-made Cruze. It quickly grumbles to life and purrs like a lion on catnip. It is responsive to throttle pressure, seeming to rev as willingly as some gasoline engines, although torque crests at a low 2,600rpm. Acceleration from a stop is sluggish off the line, but speed builds neatly in the mid-range; 30-50mph and 50-70mph feel particularly impressive.

In mostly highway driving, the Cruze Diesel returned 44mpg while travelling to Hell and back -- that is, an 80-mile round trip between the Inn at St Johns, a former seminary in Plymouth, Michigan, and the Hell Creek Ranch Campground, in the rural Michigan town of Pinckney. The test car exceeded EPA test speeds during the trip, so 44mpg was impressive, and the dips in fuel economy around town supported Chevrolet’s promise that the Cruze would return close to 30mpg in traffic.

Though the gasoline-powered Cruze aims to compete with such basic transportation appliances as the Toyota Corolla, the diesel model has been upgraded to make it a legitimate alternative to the more upmarket Jetta TDI. Both cars are well detailed, save a few remaining bits of unsightly hard plastic on the dashboard and lower door panels. Aside from its powertrain, the most appreciable change made for the Cruze Diesel is a reprogramming of its electric power steering, which now feels as German as the car’s engine. Chevy attributes the need for heavier steering to the diesel model’s additional 250lbs, weight carried on the front wheels. Maybe so, but it is true as well that Jetta cross-shoppers would balk at the lifeless steering feel of the gasoline-powered Cruze.

The six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and provides the softer feel that American drivers tend to prefer over the crisper dual-clutch automated transmission in the Jetta. Unfortunately for enthusiast drivers, the Cruze does not have a conventional manual transmission to compete against the standard six-speed gearbox in the Jetta.

For Chevrolet, the most flag-waving American of automakers, the challenge will be making consumers aware that this surprising, European-flavoured product exists in its portfolio. Not only that it exists, but that it is palatable, even tasty. Barring that, the Jetta TDI will eat Chevy’s brave new slice of pie before it has a chance to cool.

Vital stats: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

  • Base price: $25,695, inclusive of $810 destination fee
  • As tested: $26,595
  • EPA fuel economy: 27mpg city, 46mpg highway
  • Powertrain: 151hp 2-litre turbocharged diesel four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: Remote start, heated front seats, six-way power adjustable drivers seat, six-speaker touchscreen audio system, Chevrolet MyLink hands-free Bluetooth mobile device integration
  • Major options: Power sliding sunroof