2018 Chevrolet Cruze Hatch Diesel first drive review

Diesel has a dirty name, but Chevy's Cruze is trying to clean it up

A solid go-to for a competitively priced hatchback, if diesel doesn’t scare you.
A solid go-to for a competitively priced hatchback, if diesel doesn’t scare you.
A solid go-to for a competitively priced hatchback, if diesel doesn’t scare you.

Highs

  • Competitively priced
  • Comfortable over long journeys
  • Roomy
  • Sharp looks

Lows

  • Look elsewhere for sportiness

It’s unfortunate that Volkswagen made diesel a dirty word again. Because when Chevrolet offered Digital Trends a ride in the 2018 Cruze hatch diesel, we were forced to ask ourselves why. Why diesel during the fuel’s most slanderous period? Why push a diesel vehicle when it’s become synonymous with scandal? Curious about this — as well as how the actual car functions — we agreed to take the Cruze on a long journey through Alaska to see what it had to offer, both to the consumer and the world at large.

What’s new

The name “Chevrolet Hatch Diesel” spells out what you’re getting– a hatchback version of Chevy’s economy compact, which runs on a diesel power plant. It’s an exclusive model in this segment, which neatly answers part of our “why diesel” question. Nobody else is doing it.

Why diesel during the fuel’s most slanderous period?

The long-range Bolt EV may be the most attractive of Chevy’s offerings for those who think green, but it doesn’t exclude the automaker from filling the vacuum VW’s scandal created. In fact, to avoid the same fate, Chevrolet worked extensively with the EPA to prove the diesel powertrain is above board. The Cruze diesel complies with the new tier three emission standards. What it boils down to, as far as the EPA is concerned, is that the Cruze Diesel has the same greenhouse gas rating as its gas-powered counterpart. It differs in that the gas hatchback has a six out of 10 smog rating, and the diesel is three out of 10, with 10 being the cleanest.

Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The diesel engine itself is a 1.6-liter turbo four cylinder that can be married either to a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic. The engine has been engineered to make the most out of its fuel of choice, maximizing low end torque, and squeezing as many miles as possible out of each gallon. Drivers will have 137 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque on hand, with a promise of 30 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. To put that into perspective, the Cruze’s gas-powered counterpart can crank out 153 horsepower, but its city/highway mpg is lower at 29 and 38 respectively. The base Honda Civic manages 32 city and 42 highway, and the Toyota Corolla sees 30 city with 40 highway.

Trim levels and features

Skipping the more spartan offerings, the Hatch Diesel is available in the LT trim. This nets you comforts like the 7-inch touch-screen infotainment system with Chevrolet MyLink, SiriusXM radio, Bluetooth connectivity, and OnStar, with 4G LTE connectivity to turn your hatchback into a Wi-Fi hotspot.

2018 Chevrolet Cruze Hatch Diesel review
Dan Baker/Digital Trends
Dan Baker/Digital Trends

The driver confidence package is available to help drivers out with things like rear park assist, blind zone alert, and rear cross-traffic alert. Adding the RS package gives the Cruze a rear spoiler at the top, front fog lamps, a few body kit accents to make it more aggressive, and 18-inch machined wheels.

Technology overview

Though sparse, the Cruze is not without its comforts. Park assist, blind zone alert, and lane departure warnings are options that come in a package of safety touches that should boost the confidence of any driver. This tech is now common to see in affordable cars, so it’s good to see the Cruze’s tech suite is up to snuff.

The 7-inch screen is home to Chevy MyLink, though it does have Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility, something we found ourselves using often. We found it easier to use CarPlay than delve too deeply into Chevy’s OS, which was easy to ignore. It was navigation-free and beyond that, nothing about it stood out enough for us to hop off CarPlay and into the built-in system.

The extra devices we weren’t using for CarPlay were connected to in-car OnStar 4G LTE, and we let them battle it out to see who’d provide a usable map. We were surprised to see that, in some instances, the car’s LTE reception was able to eke out a bar or two over our smartphone.

Interior fit and finish

Considering how long we were driving, the front seats remained reasonably comfortable. The hours of seat time wore us out well before the seats themselves did. Welcome touches like heat for our rumps made the journey through Alaska’s glacier-chilled air much more pleasant than we anticipated, but if we had company, they wouldn’t be out of luck.

Heated rear seats are available to heat their rears. The back also had enough space to fit extra passengers without crunch. They wouldn’t be as comfortable as up front, but a grown adult could sit behind my un-adjusted driver seat without issue.

We’d even still have room left over for our gear, if it came down to it, since the cargo area behind the rear offered us nearly 23 cubic feet of space. That’s about enough space for a light grocery trip, or the travel gear of two roving DT staff members. As with the VW Golf, it’s enough for common use, but you’ll need to drop the back row to haul any more than that.

Driving and MPG

The journey from Anchorage to Homer, located towards the end of Alaska’s Kenai peninsula, is a particularly long trip at about 220 miles. Joining forces with the local chapter of the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), we signed on to take part in a road rally that would take us through Chugach National Forest, and down to Seward, before doubling back for a stretch as we made our way along the Cook inlet. It was a great way to take in Alaska’s natural splendor — and put the Cruze’s handling to the test.

It’s safe to say the Cruze looks more fun than it is to drive. Any attempts to push the car were met with resistance. The RS bits might help give the hatchback a look that says “this isn’t my mom’s car,” but underneath, the car’s characteristics don’t lend themselves to spirited play.

The automatic’s nine-speed gearbox is a joyless chaperone.

The 240 lb-ft of torque the motor can muster is available at the low end of the revs, which is good. Diesels often have low-end punch that standard gas power plants lack. However, prepare to deal with the torque’s desire to pull your front wheels in a direction of their own choosing if you lead-foot it. This is a common problem with high-torque, front-wheel drive cars, and the Cruze doesn’t do anything to manage it.

The automatic’s nine-speed gearbox is also a joyless chaperone. It will quickly upshift out of a gear for the sake of efficiency, and there’s no way to manually override it. If that hasn’t discouraged you by the time you encounter a windy road, the handling just might. The Alaskan backroads — which we hoped would be an opportunity to break up the sightseeing with a little fun — went to waste.

Our highway stretches saw us average 40 mpg without trouble, and even when the road rally’s directions led to more erratic, stop-and-go driving, we didn’t see our average sink below 35 mpg. That leaves us with a split mind on fuel efficiency. The highway number seems low compared to the 45 mpg on the sticker, but 35 mpg in mixed, aggressive backroads driving is excellent. We doubt gasoline-fueled competitors could match that on the same roads. In any case, it’s clear diesel still squeezes more distance from each drop.

Conclusion

At the end of our journey, we were of two minds about the car. In a vacuum, the Cruze hatchback ticks a lot of boxes: It’s not bad looking, it’s spacious enough for people and gear, and it’s easy to drive on both daily commutes and long hauls. It lacks thrills, but for the price ($26,740 for the auto and $26,310 for the manual), it’s very hard to ignore. Throw in the fact that you can eke out hybrid-like efficiency on the diesel and you’ve got a solid all-rounder that can contend with hatchback heavy-hitters like the VW Golf and Mazda3.

Yet even with this car’s emissions being on the level, hitting the EPA standards and being thoroughly scrutinized, it’s very hard to get over the fact that once you say “diesel,” its stock drops. Spending time in Alaska’s overwhelmingly stunning scenery underscores why the subject has people up in arms. This iteration of Chevrolet’s Cruze Hatch won’t convert anyone ill at ease with diesel, but anyone indifferent to the fuel’s current PR status will find it a very sound option.

The hatchback is available in dealers now — and if you decide to drive one off the lot, we recommend taking the scenic route home.

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