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The Chevrolet Cruze re-established GM's biggest brand as a real competitor in the compact-sedan segment. And though its rivals keep getting safer, more stylish, and more technologically advanced, the four-year-old Cruze still compares well with them, with great refinement, a lovely interior, and its own conservatively styled body.
This year, it joins the VW Jetta in the segment by offering a new fuel-saving powertrain: a turbodiesel four-cylinder, the first diesel engine in any Chevrolet passenger vehicle since 1986.
Competitors include an entirely new Toyota Corolla, a Ford Focus that will receive styling updates and several new features for 2015, and a Honda Civic that was all-new in 2012 but then extensively updated just one model year later. Unlike the single body style of the Cruze, the Hyundai Elantra now has three different body styles--sedan, coupe, and hatchback--and that lineup continues to sell as fast as they hit dealers. Only the Dodge Dart has fallen short of expectations among compact sedans.
The compact Chevy's on-target design and equipment keep the 2014 Cruze a strong competitor. It's large inside, has a remarkably quiet highway ride, good safety ratings, and even a top trim level that brings mid-size luxury to a compact four-door. Its handsome exterior has aged well, but it was the interior that was the biggest improvement over its predecessors. The Cruze's cockpit uses rich materials and available two-tone color treatments to give a look that's equal in design and material quality to that of a much pricier mid-size sedan. Other contenders have added soft-touch materials as well, but the Cruze remains a car that impresses passengers.
Indeed, the interior room is almost that of a small mid-size sedan--and it's especially close to Chevy's new Malibu, which actually got smaller inside in its latest version. Four adults can travel comfortably (five somewhat less so), and the trunk is huge. The one factor that feels somewhat old is that everyone rides fairly close to the floor, an adjustment for drivers and passengers used to the more upright seating positions of utility vehicles.
As for the new Cruze Diesel, ditch your diesel preconceptions: Courtesy of no fewer than three different types of exhaust after-treatment, you won't smell a thing out the exhaust, nor see any smoke or soot. The turbodiesel engine meets all the same emission standards as any other car, but should return fuel economy that's significantly better than its 33-mpg EPA combined rating, especially if driven largely at highway speeds. The four-cylinder 2.0-liter diesel puts out 151 hp but a strong 264 lb-ft of torque, and it's mated to a different and beefier six-speed automatic transmission than the gasoline car.
Like all turbocharged engines, there's a slight lag as the turbo spools up when you stomp on the accelerator. After that, however, the diesel Cruze surges forward and gathers speed without any fuss. The diesel clattering noise you might expect isn't evident inside the car, but standing next to an idling Cruze diesel, you'll know exactly what's under the hood. And its 15.6-gallon fuel tank could give you as much as 700 miles of range at highway speeds.
For 2014, there are now three different Cruze engine options: turbocharged 1.4-liter and conventional 1.8-liter gasoline engines, plus the diesel. The smaller (but pricier) engine in most LT and all LTZ models is by far the better choice for gasoline models. It's smoother, more refined, more fun to drive, and more fuel efficient too. It can be paired with a six-speed manual gearbox, but most buyers will opt for the six-speed automatic. The 1.8-liter four is the cheaper base engine, but it's noisy and coarse when pressed.
You'll get the best gas mileage from the Cruze Eco model with the smaller engine and the manual; it's rated at 33 mpg combined. That Eco model has some additional weight reductions and aero tweaks to achieve that figure; the rest of the gasoline lineup ranges from 27 to 30 mpg combined.
On the road, the Cruze rides well, and the gasoline models are some of the quietest highway cruisers in the class, damping out wind and road noise and absorbing road shocks well. It's not the sportiest compact car--leave that to Mazda or Ford--but its absorbent suspension and quiet cabin will keep most passengers happy. The ride can be on the firm side, especially in the fuel-efficient models with low-rolling-resistance tires.
Inside, the Cruze is a good option for taller drivers. There's lots of headroom, due to that low seating position, and the front seats adjust over a lengthy range, accommodating long-legged occupants well. Only in back does its compact size betray you: The Cruze is just too narrow for three adults in the rear.
The Cruze has done well in previous years on crash-safety test ratings from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Last year Chevy added new safety equipment, including a rear-view camera system as part of a Technology Package. It also offered an Enhanced Safety Package that includes Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, Side Blind-Zone Alert, and parking assist--features restricted to high-end German luxury sedans not so many years ago.
Chevy's MyLink system offers voice commands and touch-screen control to operate connected smartphones. Included on the 2LT, LTZ, and Eco models, and optional on 1LT Cruzes, it also lets you stream music via Pandora or Stitcher through your smartphone's data connection, and includes album art and playlist info from Gracenote.