Anyone can do a cross-country trip if they have a full week to spare. But when time is of the essence, it’s important to be efficient with fuel and pit stops. Which brings us to diesel, an ever-increasing option in the states — there are now two (count ‘em, two) American made passenger production vehicles with diesel powertrains, not including cargo vans and heavy duty pickup trucks. We drove one of them, the Chevy Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel ($24,985), from New York City to West Michigan for a nearly 2,000-mile round trip. Under the hood was Chevy’s two-liter turbodiesel, which promised a miraculous oil-sipping, high-mpg land flight with a total of over 24 hours of time behind the wheel.
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Diesel-powered cars, while quite popular in Europe, have had a rough go of it state side. Thanks mostly to the dismal mechanical and financial performance of the Oldsmobile Diesel engine in the late Seventies through the mid Eighties, oil-burning motors in passenger cars haven’t found much favor in the U.S., well, ever. They’re a dime a dozen in work trucks and professional-grade vehicles, as well as a few European brands here, but American diesel is simply not alive and well. Chevy aims to change that — and take a true shot across Europe’s bow — with the turbo-diesel four-cylinder in the Cruze.
There are two main reasons a person might want a diesel. The first is economy: diesel engines are more fuel efficient than their gasoline counterparts. The other reason one might want diesel power is because the engines, while often underpowered, by nature produce prodigious amounts of torque, which is just damn fun for enthusiastic driving. As it turns out, torque also helps a great deal on snow and ice.
The trip from NYC to Michigan was almost entirely devoid of precipitation and road ice. Temperatures were low but spirits were high as we blasted across Pennsylvania, crossed through Ohio and took that last left turn in Michigan. But once at our destination, the heavens opened and let it snow. The entire week involved endless snowfall and under-plowed roadways, salt crust and quite a lot of sliding around.
It must be said that this is certainly a plain, relatively inexpensive car that without a special engine wouldn’t be all that notable; the diesel engine is the Cruze’s best feature. However, it really lived up to its name, easily cruising hundreds of miles at a stretch without so much as a whimper. (In fact, though we pride ourselves on extreme road tripping abilities, the car outlasted our resolve — and our bladders — every time.) We found the middle setting on the seat heater (between “tepid” and “thermonuclear”) to be enough to warm us without much help from the HVAC. Good thing too, since the temperature control knob is a total knee magnet should you take your foot off the gas. Not that we did much — our records show that running in cruise control was actually detrimental to the car’s mileage numbers. The firm seats are also noticeably narrow, but very comfortable overall, head and leg room are great. And the car looks good too, even a little aggressive, in a nice dark color with large alloy wheels.
Under most circumstances, the engine is excellent. But only when it’s warmed up. And also only when you’re not in a major hurry. Floor the throttle and the noise is horrid and harsh, but the car lopes along in sixth gear effortlessly, and shifts up to it quickly. Which is when the torque comes in to play: even with moderate acceleration during highway passing maneuvers the transmission didn’t need to shift down at all. In fact, the low-end torque allowed us to easily and gently modulate the accelerator in slippery stuff, eliminating much of the counterproductive wheel spin winter drivers are wont do to.
America’s new diesel engine is a good one; the car around it isn’t bad, either. Unfortunately, we never saw Chevy’s projected 46 mpg highway or anything very close to it. The highest we ever got over any distance was just under 41 mpg in mostly highway conditions. In the perfect climate, on perfect roads, with the wind at our backs and the speedometer pinned to 65, it probably would’ve done better. But no road trip is perfect. Neither is the Cruze — but an American diesel is worth cherishing all the same.