HELL, Mich. -- The gaudy 46 mpg highway rating on the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze diesel, combined with its smooth powertrain and relatively quiet cabin, might be enough to ease Americans' leeriness of diesel cars.
The diesel compact, subtly marked with a green emblem on the trunk lid, began hitting showrooms in about a dozen U.S. markets last month, and a broader rollout is planned by September. General Motors is aiming the model, the company's first U.S. diesel car since the 1980s, primarily at "diesel intenders," or buyers already familiar with diesel technology.
But GM execs also see an opening to tempt some mainstream buyers who simply want good fuel economy. If that happens, GM probably would add a less expensive trim level for the penny pinchers.
The basics: GM engineered the 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine to beat the Cruze diesel's primary competitor, the diesel Volkswagen Jetta, in horsepower (151 vs. 140) and torque (264 pounds- feet, vs. 236).
The engine is a variant of one developed by GM at its diesel center in Turin, Italy, and is built in Germany. It's teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission from Aisin Seiki Co. of Japan, a beefier gearbox than the six-speed on the gasoline-powered Cruze that's designed to handle the tougher demands of a diesel.
The engine's ample torque offers plenty of pull at low- and mid-range speeds. Inside, the chattering diesel engine under the hood of such a small vehicle takes some getting used to. GM engineers used every trick in the company playbook to reduce diesel-engine noise to suit American tastes. Features such as acoustic-laminated glass and triple door seals were derived from the Buick Verano, a Cruze cousin that has been lauded for its quiet cabin.
Notable features: GM is offering the Cruze diesel in only the 2LT trim, the nameplate's second-highest level, which includes leather seats and a 7-inch touch screen with Chevy's MyLink infotainment system.
The 46 mpg highway rating beats the Jetta's 42 mpg and is the highest for any nonhybrid car sold in the United States. The Cruze can travel 700 miles on one tank of fuel.
The car has an "overboost" feature that increases torque to an estimated 280 pounds-feet for short bursts of acceleration, such as for highway merges.
What Chevy says: Cristi Landy, Cruze diesel marketing director, said at a press event here to introduce the Cruze diesel that the 46 mpg highway rating "might be a bigger game-changer than we thought" and could "appeal to a broader group of customers." She said GM would consider a less expensive model if demand is brisk.
Compromises and shortcomings: At $25,695, including shipping, it could be too pricey for cost-conscious buyers more interested in good fuel economy than in being an early adopter. The 27 mpg rating in city driving falls short of the Jetta's 30 mpg.
The market: Through April, U.S. sales of diesel cars fell 6 percent to 37,496, according to data from HybridCars.com. That represented just 1.4 percent of total U.S. car sales. The VW brand dominated with a 74 percent market share. Jetta was the top-selling diesel car, with 12,762 units.
Chevy sales chief Don Johnson said in February that he expects the diesel to account for roughly 10 percent of Cruze sales, implying annual volume of more than 20,000 units.
The skinny: Chevy's marketing department will have to work hard to steal sales from diesel king Volks- wagen, despite the Cruze diesel's edge on many measures. But the car's 46-mpg highway rating could give it a boost by broadening its appeal beyond diesel enthusiasts.