A good GM diesel car ... has hell frozen over?

The Cruze diesel is rated at 27 in city driving and 46 mpg on the highway.

HELL, Mich. -- General Motors' passenger-car diesel program has, quite literally, been to Hell and back.

Chevrolet chose this out-of-the-way and ironically named destination for journalists to test drive its Cruze diesel, which began arriving in dealerships this week.

Of course, GM soured the U.S. market for diesel passenger cars in the 1980s with sluggish, noisy, unreliable engines.

But the 2.0-liter turbodiesel that we drove straight to Hell this week should exorcise those demons.

The powertrain is smooth, with ample torque available at low- and mid-range speeds.

Inside, it takes a while to get used to the diesel engine chattering away under the hood of such a small vehicle. But I'd bet most U.S. car buyers would find it quieter and more refined than anything they imagine a diesel car to be.

You can always tell how confident an automaker is in a new model by whether it makes the rival car available for the media drive. And yes, Chevy's event planners had Volkswagen Jetta TDIs on hand for comparison tests.

That made sense. GM engineers benchmarked against the Jetta, and the Cruze diesel beats it in almost every category: More horsepower (140 hp); more torque (258 pounds-feet); a bladder-challenging 700-mile range for one tank of gas.

Even so, I wouldn't expect Chevy to go poaching a bunch of import-biased diesel aficiandos with the Cruze diesel. Those buyers are different breed.

But after driving it, I think Chevy has a much broader opportunity: anyone who wants really good fuel economy that actually meets or exceeds the EPA rating.

The Cruze diesel is rated at 27 in city driving and 46 mpg on the highway. On my 35-mile drive through a mix of country roads and highways, I averaged 43 mpg without really trying.

Even with the steep price premium -- $25,695, including shipping, about $5,200 more than the gasoline-powered Cruze Eco -- the Cruze diesel should reap plenty of incremental sales for Chevy.

And if gas prices spike? Well, then Chevy could -- wait for it -- really raise some hell in the compact segment.

You can reach Mike Colias at autonews@crain.com

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