Mountain Wheels: GM offers Cruze buyers an efficient diesel choice

Available for $25,695, 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel offers the best highway fuel economy of any non-hybrid passenger car in America.  All-new Cruze Diesel delivers segment-leading SAE-certified 151 horsepower and 264 lb-ft of torque with segment-leading 46 mpg highway.  It can go 717 miles on one tank of diesel fuel.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Turbo Diesel

MSRP: $24,885; as tested: $25,795

Powertrain: 151-HP 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder diesel engine, six-speed automatic transmission

EPA figures: 33 MPG combined: 27 city, 46 highway

My endless mission to slightly globalize the U.S. car market — or at least find environmentally friendly motoring solutions that do not expensively reinvent the wheel — came awfully close to finding a top-notch candidate: the new Chevy Cruze Turbo Diesel.

A new (for us) offering for Chevrolet’s very popular small four door, the diesel is General Motors’ first North American passenger car diesel option in a mighty long time. (More than 40 percent of the Cruzes sold in Europe have the 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbodiesel engine.)

So let me get to the big sell: Under almost totally normal mountain driving conditions — Breck to Denver, on U.S. Highway 285 — the Cruze generated more than 51 mpg. It’s rated for 46 mpg highway and my trip up to Summit County from Denver on the freeway produced figures in the low 40s.

You don’t need to plug it in. There’s no super-expensive and eventually-needs-to-be-replaced battery pack. It’s got loads and loads of torque (264 foot-pounds), useful for propelling you uphill, or passing slower folks. And you can go to the gas station and buy diesel, which is currently a couple of dimes more than regular gas, but … did I mention the 46 mpg part?

I know, I know. Some of you actually don’t want to save fuel, or money, for whatever reason. On the whole, when people think about saving the earth, they are for some reason drawn instead to vehicles like the very expensive Lexus RX 450h, a $63,000 luxury hybrid I drove recently — diesel still seeming extremely déclassé, more suited to ranch trucks and construction vehicles.

I would like to say that the Cruze Diesel is a nice re-entry point for the mainstream market, as will be the upcoming diesel version of the Mazda6. Though the U.S.-built VW Passat and its virtually silent diesel engine is already well-known by that secret underground of diesel fans.

The Cruze’s diesel option is not perfect: There’s a slightly more than $2,000 price difference between it and the comparable 1.8-liter gas-engined base model, which already gets about 36 mpg. The space normally devoted to a spare tire is used instead for a tank of the urea-based additive necessary to scrub the diesel exhaust, the common technology in most current diesel offerings. For tire trouble, there’s an electric emergency air pump is subbed.

And Chevy’s engine, while big on the long-term economy, is not exactly whisper-quiet on start-up. Get it rolling and the noise is mostly imperceptible, though Chevy did thoughtfully add padded material (like the inside of a motorcycle helmet) to the dash and the doortops, to help insulate a bit of the sound.

That little 151-horsepower engine can also get completely overtaxed by heavy air conditioner use — bury the pedal to cross a busy intersection with the AC blasting and you’ll get the all-time worst turbo lag you’ve ever experienced — but it’s much less pronounced under normal driving circumstances.

Cruze is otherwise a pleasant-enough vehicle for its segment, comfortable and relatively well appointed. I got heated leather seating in my $25,795 tester, plus a three-stage electronic readout offering eco-driving feedback and an entertainment touchscreen that requires OnStar to download navigational directions.

Funny that bourgeois earth-firsters would ultimately rather pony up for a high-end hybrid such as the admittedly very impressive (and fully AWD) Lexus RX 450h, which uses a 3.5-liter V6 and front and rear electric motors to achieve an overall 29 mpg figure, a big change from the 20 mpg combined in the standard gas model. The Lexus shifts its efficiency to stop-and-go city driving, and can go all-electric for a significant distance — or use the extra boost (295 combined horsepower) to get a bit sportier than the standard gasoline model.

My tester was admittedly super-laden with expensive option packages, including rear entertainment system and an incredible Mark Levinson stereo, but it was also curiously cranky — electrically run compressors and generators were very, very loud on start-up, possibly owing to our test-model’s advanced age.

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