We've all seen reviews of top-of-the-line cars and trucks, but how many people actually buy them? So you're on a budget. Welcome to The Regular Guy, where regular guys and gals can read about the cars normal people buy.
The black eye General Motors received over its huge swath of recalls in 2014 seems to be taking a while to heal, especially where its small cars are concerned. Take the 2015 Chevrolet Cruze diesel, for example. It's a reasonably capable compact sedan that is comfortable and offers great fuel economy. But passersby are likely to comment, "A Chevrolet, huh?"
When I brought one home to try out for a week, the first to pass judgment on the car was my neighbor from across the street. "Chebrolay es garbeeg. Economico, pero muchos problemas. Nissan es better," he said in Spanglish. It didn't take a linguist to discern what he meant.
Later that day, a pair of police officers stopped and questioned me as I photographed the car on a stretch of waterfront sidewalk in an industrial area near my house. After they had run my ID in their computer and were satisfied I wasn't an escaped felon preparing to fence a stolen economy car, they relaxed.
"Chevrolet... those are kind of, uh, well, lots of recalls on those," one of them said with a wan smile. They were patrolling in a rental fleet-worthy last-generation Chevrolet Impala, and seemed to be speaking from experience. Others made similar comments.
Who's to say how this particular model will fare over the next five years? General Motors seems to have gotten its act together, but only time will tell. What I can say, with authority, is that the Cruze diesel I tested was a very decent car. Was it special? Not particularly. Was it fun to drive? It drove and handled just fine, but there wasn't anything to rave about. The car had comfortable seats, a sunroof, a nice new-leather smell wafting from the interior, and—with the exception of a few trim pieces on the dash—an interior that felt quite the opposite of chintzy. Its trunk was fairly large for a small car, and I had no trouble loading a couple pieces of Craigslist furniture—a desk chair and a tall stool—inside. Three Ikea tarp bags brimming with laundry also fit in there with room to spare after the furniture had been removed.
But the car's strength is its fuel economy, hands down. The midnight blue Cruze, with a much more pleasant brown and cream interior, arrived with a full tank of diesel fuel. I drove around Brooklyn, N.Y. for a couple of days, then picked up the Craigslist furniture in Westchester County, about an hour to the north. A few days (and a few short, stop-and-go errands) later, I drove to Fairfax County, Va., just west of Washington, D.C. Although the Cruze was clearly not a Honda or Toyota, it was a nice fit in the 'burbs. Better yet, it still didn't need refueling. After another day of stop-and-go around my parents' neighborhood, I pointed the car north, making it halfway through New Jersey— almost all the way back to Brooklyn—before a buzzer told me I'd better refuel.
All that from a car with a 15.6-gallon tank. Say what you will about diesel fuel's higher per-gallon price, I was beginning to feel that there might be some value in not having to stop at filling stations all the time. The car's computer was helpful in breaking down city and highway mileage. The EPA rates the Cruze diesel at 27 mpg in the city and 46 on the highway. Based upon the car's computer data, I was getting anywhere from 26 to 34 mpg around town (I have a problem with my right foot, and the 2.0-liter turbodiesel mill's pronounced turbo lag made it worse) and up to 52 mpg on the highway.
Let me be clear: when I decided that making time outweighed fuel conservation, faster freeway speeds caused the highway number to dip into the mid-to-high 40s, depending upon the presence of hills. But with the cruise control set at 64 mph, it was averaging between 50 and 52 mpg all day.
Unfortunately, for every action, there's a reaction. In this case, the action of buying a Cruze outfitted with a diesel engine brings with it two notable drawbacks. First, the diesel option is expensive. The base price of the diesel Cruze I drove was $25,660, nearly nine grand higher than the base, petrol version. Second, the urea tank required by federal emissions standards—urea is a fluid that helps "scrub" diesel exhaust of harmful gases—takes up the entire spare tire well. I realize that many automakers now offer new cars with neither spare tire nor tools to change a flat, but this is unjustifiable. This car was equipped with OnStar roadside assistance for such occasions, but I've broken down on a lonely road in the middle of the night before, and am well aware that when tow truck drivers don't feel like coming out, you're going to be there for a while.
The infotainment system was also an issue. GM's full-color display screen looks nice, but its navigation program might not make much sense to someone who's used to driving by Google Maps. Add to that the dizzying array of buttons between the audio control knobs—islands of nostalgic and easy-to-understand calm in a sea of electronic confusion—make it difficult to operate when you're supposed to be concentrating on the road. The instrument cluster display screen does its job adequately, albeit with graphics reminiscent of the pixelated green-on-black DOS programs no one has seen since the early '90s, and balky stalk-mounted controls and a nearly invisible twist switch.
Like most modern cars, visibility is marginal. Its thick A-pilars make it difficult to see around on curves and when turning corners. The car also has a high rear deck and thick B-pilars, so rearward and side visibility are also difficult. Driving without electronic collision avoidance monitors and a backup camera could be tricky.
All in all, the Cruze diesel is a nice car with a very European feel. The diesel engine's reassuring clatter has the ring of sober-living Continental burghers. It's a shame the Cruze wagon isn't available in the US (sorry, Europe only; they tell us no one buys wagons here), and the same can be said about the manual transmission—which is available, however, on the Cruze Eco model.
There's a turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline engine option for the Cruze that makes more sense here in the States, where diesel will—thanks to the way our tax system is structured—cost more than gasoline, for the foreseeable future, anyway. So any savings you might glean from the diesel model's outstanding economy will be soaked up by more expensive fuel prices and a higher price tag.
As tested, the Cruze I drove had a sticker price of more than $29,000. The question is, would you pay that much for an economy car built by a company with a few well-known skeletons in its closet?
By the numbers: 2015 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
MSRP: $26,485 (includes $825 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 2-liter, 151-hp DOHC turbodiesel, front-wheel drive / 3.5-liter, 268-hp V-6 engine, front-wheel drive
Transmission: 6-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy: 27/46 city/highway
In showrooms: Now