It’s not every day Chevrolet executives talk about launching at car that competes directly with … a Volkswagen.

The new 2014 Chevy Cruze Diesel, however, aims directly at the only affordable compact four-door sedan with a diesel engine sold in the U.S. until now: the Volkswagen Jetta TDI.

So within months of VW’s addition of a hybrid model to the Jetta lineup, Chevy has gone up against the Jetta TDI’s dominance and unveiled GM’s first diesel-engined passenger car since 1986.

While it’s pricier than various Cruze models with conventional gasoline engines, fuel economy is the Cruze Diesel’s raison d’etre: The EPA rates it at 33 mpg combined (27 mpg city, 46 mpg highway). That’s the highest highway rating for any non-hybrid vehicle sold in the U.S., as Chevy pointed out several times.

Its combined 33 mpg is exactly the same as the Cruze Eco with six-speed manual gearbox (28 mpg city, 42 mpg highway). That efficiency model is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline engine, and incorporates a host of weight-reduction measures and aerodynamic tweaks (some of which have made their way into the Cruze Diesel as well).

B20 biodiesel

One benefit for diesel drivers intrigued by renewable fuels: The diesel Cruze accepts fuel up to 20 percent biodiesel, or B20. It’s the only diesel passenger car to do so, although some diesel trucks now take B20 as well. But the Jetta TDI, for instance, is only warranted up to B5.

With its 15.6-gallon fuel tank, the diesel Cruze offers a real-world highway range of 700 miles or more. While that’s likely far beyond the range of most occupants’ bladders, it does mean owners have to fill up less frequently—which makes up for having fewer fuel stations.

Today, about 60 percent of U.S. gas stations also offer diesel fuel, with roughly half of them having it on the main pump ranks. (The other half has its diesel pumps somewhere else on the property, usually in a place where semis and big rigs can fuel up.)

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show

What's it called again?

Our test car was a base 2014 Chevrolet “Cruze Turbo Diesel”—which Chevy marketing materials also sometimes call the “Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel”. We’re going to call it the Cruze Diesel from now on, as we suspect virtually every buyer will.

Our test route, unusually, had as much high-speed highway driving as secondary and rural roads on it—testimony to GM’s confidence in the diesel Cruze’s high efficiency at higher speeds.

Over the first 43-mile leg, we averaged 39.2 miles per gallon according to the car’s digital display. On the 43-mile return route, that rose incrementally to 39.4 mpg.

We conclude that in everyday usage, the Cruze Diesel should easily return 36 to 42 mpg unless there’s a lot of heavy stop-and-go driving. Anecdotal tales by Cruze Diesel testers indicate that pure highway driving can return even higher figures, as much as 50 mpg or more—though we’ll wait to confirm those numbers ourselves before we believe them.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, 2013 Chicago Auto Show

Eurodiesel engine, beefier transmission

Under the hood is a 151-horsepower 2.0-liter turbodiesel four-cylinder engine—built by GM in Germany—that puts out 264 lb-ft of torque. (The comparable figures for the VW Jetta TDI’s 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine are 140 hp and 236 lb-ft.)

The diesel engine in the Cruze is mated to a six-speed automatic made by Aisin, a beefier unit than the GM-made six-speed automatic used in gasoline Cruzes.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, test drive in Hell, Michigan

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, test drive in Hell, Michigan

At idle, both inside the car and outside, it’s obvious this Cruze isn’t powered by a gasoline engine. There’s the characteristic sewing-machine growl of a diesel engine, but it’s not objectionable—just different. And on acceleration, although engine noise rises, the Cruze Diesel stays civilized, proof of a lot of effort put into noise suppression. It’s clearly quieter inside than the Jetta TDI, which can approach raucous under hard acceleration.

Strong pull in heavy car

On the road, the Cruze Diesel performs pretty much the way you’d expect a modern diesel passenger car to perform. It’s not terribly quick off the line, but as soon as the diesel revs up, it pulls strongly. Chevy quotes a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 8.6 seconds, which lets drivers keep up with traffic. Pedal input is linear, meaning that the driver has to push the accelerator pedal through some travel before acceleration comes on—unlike the touchy pedals used in some Japanese vehicles with gasoline engines.

It’s a heavy car, though—some 250 pounds heavier than a gasoline Cruze—due to the heavier engine, stronger transmission, bigger brakes, and extra equipment like the tank for Diesel Emission Fluid, or liquid urea.

That means that it’s smooth and comfortable, but hardly encourages sporting driving. In that respect, the Cruze Diesel differs from the trimmer Jetta TDI, which feels more light and agile from behind the wheel. The electric power steering is about average, neither as numb as most Toyotas nor as tactile and connected as the best Mazda steering.

Numerous new and redesigned parts

Many diesel fans have asked, “Why can’t carmakers bring over the diesels they sell in Europe?” The large number of unique components that Chevrolet developed for the U.S. version of its 2.0-liter diesel engine highlights just how different the two markets are.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

The U.S. version of the engine required many redesigned components to meet tougher U.S. emissions standards and the much greater temperature extremes found on the North American continent.

Just a few of the components included a new exhaust manifold, different exhaust-gas recirculation, ceramic glow plugs and an optional oil-pan heater for cold starting, a new timing belt and tensioner system, and numerous additional sensors in the exhaust system.

Chevrolet engineers also remapped the first three gears of the automatic transmission to provide smoother shifts and more seamless power delivery for North American drivers less accustomed to obvious and abrupt gear changes than their European counterparts.

Urea tank: 10,000-plus miles

The Cruze Diesel injects liquid urea into the exhaust to take care of challenging diesel emissions levels—unlike the Jetta TDI. Engineers admit that much of the North American development work will help future Cruze models comply with stricter European emission standards that are part of the Euro6 rules due in just a few years.

The urea tank has been designed to provide at least 10,000 miles of driving per tank—meaning that it can be refilled by the dealer at every major service interval. Chevy engineers suggested that owners may well get considerably more than that distance from each tank, depending on usage.

Aero tweaks from Eco

The Cruze Diesel benefits from work on other Cruze models that reduces aerodynamic drag to increase fuel efficiency at higher speeds. It uses the same active shutter under the grille that pioneered on the high-MPG Cruze Eco gasoline model, which reduces drag by closing off airflow through the engine compartment when it’s not needed for cooling.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, test drive in Hell, Michigan

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, test drive in Hell, Michigan

The diesel Cruze also has a decklid spoiler, panels under the body to smooth airflow, and low-rolling-resistance tires on its unique 17-inch painted aluminum wheels.

Chevrolet has also put a lot of effort into customized acoustic treatments for the diesel version, adapting some from the very quiet Buick Verano compact sedan that uses Cruze underpinnings. In our judgment, they work. While drivers and passengers will be conscious they’re in a diesel car if they listen for it, the Cruze Diesel is pleasantly quiet under most circumstances (if not quite as quiet at highway speeds as the standard version, perhaps the quietest compact we’ve ever tested).

Mid-twenties or more

The base Cruze Diesel comes standard with features that are options on other Cruze models, including leather-appointed seating with front seat heaters, remote keyless entry, remote start, a 7-inch color touchscreen for the six-speaker audio system, and a Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system that includes Bluetooth audio streaming.

Options include a navigation system and an Enhanced Safety Package that incorporates side blind-zone alert, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear parking assist. The Cruze Diesel comes with 10 airbags as standard (the Jetta TDI has only six) and the usual suite of electronic safety systems.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

Our test car was the standard 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, which carried a base price of $25,695. Its sole option was a $100 oil-pan heater, so with the mandatory $810 delivery fee, its bottom-line sticker price came to $25,795.

Adding navigation and appearance options to that total will bring it toward $30,000, which may seem a lot for a compact sedan, but is still roughly comparable to the highest end of the Jetta TDI range.

The navigation system, by the way, can be programmed to filter fueling stations so only those offering diesel fuel appear on the map. The Cruze Diesel doesn’t come that way from the factory; instead, the filters are supposed to be set by the dealer during the car’s pre-delivery inspection. Chevy claims it’s an easy setting for owners to change if the dealer should forget.

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel

Chevrolet marketers suggest that the Cruze Diesel costs less than a “comparable” diesel Jetta TDI, which they say is fitted with two extra-cost options: a Premium package and VW’s six-speed direct-shift automatic gearbox. That car carries a base price of $26,325—or $630 more than the diesel Cruze.

That said, it should be noted that the least expensive 2013 VW Jetta TDI (base trim, six-speed manual gearbox) is $23,055.

Diesel fans and enthusiasts have repeatedly asked whether Chevy will offer a six-speed manual transmission in the U.S. Cruze Diesel—as it does in the European version. Chevrolet marketing executives would say only that they’re starting with the transmission most Americans are used to, and that they’ll monitor market demand for the car and additional model variations.

The powertrain warranty for the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel is 5 years or 100,000 miles.

Chevrolet provided airfare, lodging, and meals so High Gear Media could bring you this first-person test drive.

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