2011 Chevrolet Cruze Review - First Drive

Unlike past failed attempts at building a solid compact car, Chevy’s new Cruze isn’t designed to compete, but to win

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2011 Chevrolet Cruze Review - First Drive
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Never mind the Cobalt. Forget you ever heard the name Cavalier. The newest compact C-car from Chevrolet is the Cruze – a globally engineered vehicle designed not just to compete in the growing small-car segment, but to win.

FAST FACTS

1. Base LS models get a 1.8L 4-cylinder, while the majority of Cruze models offer a new turbocharged 1.4L 4-cylinder with 138-hp at 4900 rpm and 148 ft-lbs of torque at 1850 rpm.

2. Standard features include power windows, air conditioning, power locks with remote keyless entry, 10 airbags and StabiliTrak.

3. No fuel economy numbers have been released, but Chevy expects the Cruze ECO model with a six-speed manual to achieve 40-mpg highway.

4. The base-model Cruze LS starts at $16,995, with ECO and LT trim levels (1.4T) priced at $18,895 and the LTZ model toping out at $22,695.

And for the first time, well, ever, this isn’t just marketing hype behind a lackluster model with a typically low-grade interior.

TINY 4-CYLINDER GETS TURBO-POWER, EXCEPTIONAL FUEL ECONOMY

Already on sale in 60 countries worldwide, this global platform still has a few surprises for its North American debut. Most notably is the launch of a new turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, designed to deliver the power and driving experience of a larger powerplant with class leading fuel economy. In fact, Chevy claims an ECO model (with a 6-speed manual transmission) will get 40-mpg on the highway. An automatic ECO model will get slightly less, with standard models most likely in the mid 30s range – although no official numbers have yet to be released.

The engine looks tiny in the cavernous space under the hood, its puny turbocharger about the size of a fist. Yet despite its size, the 1.4 delivers both power and fuel economy. During our day with the Cruze, we registered an average of 27-mpg (under what can easily be considered harder than average driving conditions). As for power, the little engine makes a total of 138-hp and 148 ft-lbs of torque, with that torque number coming on strong at 1850 rpm.

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The engine isn’t without its faults, however. Being so small, the lack of power before the turbo kicks in is noticeable, something that is compounded by the time it takes for the 6-speed automatic to kick down a gear or two. We also noticed it’s a bit loud with plenty of low speed acceleration sound coming through the firewall and into the cabin.

BIGGER THAN A COMPACT, AND FEELS IT

On the highway though, it’s whisper quiet and incredibly smooth, thanks to both an abundance of weather stripping as well as a lengthy wheelbase, wide stance and an innovative rear end suspension.

While technically still a semi-independent setup, Chevy engineers have incorporated what they call a Z-link in the rear that allows for separation of the lateral and vertical movements in the rear suspension. As a result, the rear bushings don’t have to serve double-duty, meaning they do a much better job at providing an adequate ride. While a true independent rear end is the most ideal solution, it’s also an expensive one and with the exception of Honda, no other automaker has gone this route.

The fact that we get the Z-link suspension (as well as the 1.4T engine) is a sign that Chevy wants to position the Cruze as a leader in the compact segment in North America. In other markets, including Europe where Chevy slots in below the Opel brand, the Cruze comes with a standard torsion beam setup.

Added benefits of the Z-link suspension include light weight, low cost and compact dimensions, allowing the Cruze to deliver a cavernous trunk volume of 15 cubic feet.

Steering is reasonably direct for an electric system and better than some we’ve tested recently. It’s not overly responsive or weighted very heavily, instead delivering more of a highway-oriented feel.

Still, when pushed, there’s adequate grip and the chassis is quite stable. We were impressed with the car’s road holding capabilities without the larger 18-inch wheels, complete with wider, lower profile tires – standard on top-trim LTZ models.

CRUZE DRIVES AS NICE AS IT LOOKS

And the Cruze looks like it drives, with a design that’s handsome and that speaks to the vehicle’s size. In higher-end trim levels or with the optional RS aero package, we might even say it’s elegant, the added brightwork adding class and the skirt package delivering a lower look that brings to mind sporty European sedans.

We don’t normally dedicate much time to design elements as they’re often best appreciated though photography, but a few items on the Cruze are worth pointing out. For starters there’s the strong bodyline and three-window design that adds length to the car. The high beltline gives a sophisticated look – but isn’t so high so as to affect visibility (Camaro we’re looking at you). Then there’s the bold front end. And finally, the elongated look of the headlights helps make the car appear even wider than it is, while the sweeping corners of the lights reduce the appearance of the front overhang – an unavoidable part of a front-wheel drive car.

Technically a mid-size car rather than a compact, due to its spacious interior, the Cruze looks even more impressive when next to the narrow track, tall-bodied competitors.

And while it does feel larger on the highway, on the few twisty roads we could find on our drive route through Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., it also felt like it was taking up a significant portion of the lane – an unusual feeling for a compact car.

INTERIOR DESIGN, MATERIALS AND CRAFTSMANSHIP ALL FIRST-RATE

Inside, there’s a proper sedan feel as well, with a spacious cabin that’s as distant from the Cobalt as Chevy’s Corvette ZR1 engine is from the original Vette’s inline-six.

Base models come well-equipped with power windows, locks, remote entry and AC. There are also 10 standard airbags and StabiliTrak. But it’s not the features that impress us most, but the design, materials and craftsmanship. We can’t say the interior is high quality, because this is a compact car after all. Then again, in LTZ trim with heated power leather seats, plus a leather wheel and shift knob, we guarantee you’ll be impressed. We just wish you could get items like cruise control or steering wheel mounted audio controls without having to pony-up for the $21,395 2LT trim level.

What makes the Cruze’s interior so good is what GM interiors have been lacking for so long, namely, style and materials that not only look high-grade, but feel it too. Nice piano black accenting on the modern center stack leads up into a dual-cockpit design. Buttons are soft to the touch and the silver-rimmed knobs with soft rubber surfaces turn with smooth operation. Plus, all the controls are where they should be, making for excellent ergonomics.

As the exterior suggests, there’s plenty of space inside for the driver to get comfortable. Front seats are relaxing while the optional leather is soft to the touch and not the third-rate hide you’d expect on an economy car. The rear seat isn’t as spacious as we expected though. Headroom isn’t an issue for taller passengers, but legroom is still tight for the 6-foot crowd.

THE COMPETITION

The day before our drive, Chevy marketing execs commented that they understand those shopping for the two leaders in this segment (the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla) won’t search out the Cruze and so they’re planning grassroots marketing initiatives to get potential customers in the Cruze and its rivals. We were given a taste for this, driving all three cars back to back

Improved as the Cruze may be, it still doesn’t deliver the Civic’s driver-oriented feel, although the Cruze was nicer on the highway with less wind noise. A more appropriate competitor is the Corolla, and the direct comparo showed two cars with remarkably similar comfort-oriented rides. The Corolla’s engine/transmission combo was much smoother, although it’s interior and exterior design is lacking considerably when compared to the Chevy.

We would have appreciated the opportunity to drive it against the just-released 2011 Volkswagen Jetta. Not normally rivals, both Chevy and VW have swapped their compact car philosophies for 2011, with Chevy now focused on delivering a more up-scale product, while Volkswagen is hoping to draw in buyers with a less sophisticated, lower cost alternative.

CRUZE PRICING MAY GIVE STICKER-SHOCK TO SOME

Which brings us to the Cruze’s price point. A quantum leap forward from the Cobalt it’s priced accordingly, starting at $16,995 – a $1,000 premium over the Jetta, and roughly $1,500 more than either the Corolla or Civic. It’s also an over $2,000 hike from its predecessor. And despite being well-equipped, that entry price is for the LS model with the best-to-ignore 1.8-liter engine. Getting into a 1.4T model will cost you $18,895, while the 2LT with heated leather seats and other options is $21,395 and the top-trim LTZ with automatic climate control, ultrasonic park assist and 18-inch wheels retails for $22,695.

THE VERDICT

Our biggest surprise in comparing the Cruze with perennial compact all-stars like the Corolla and Civic is that it’s actually worth doing now. Chevy has finally built a compact car to rival the Japanese and they’ve priced it accordingly.

With added size, style and features, Chevy has built the Cruze to be a top choice for those looking to down-size their car, without giving up features, or the sort of driving experience they’re used to.

Apart from some added refinement that is needed for the powertrain, the Chevy Cruze hits or even exceeds the mark on the all-important interior quality factor, while adding to the package with fuel economy, safety, a great ride and an incredible look.

LOVE IT
  • Handsome good looks, especially in LTZ trim or with RS package
  • Projected fuel economy
  • Quiet ride that’s great on the highway
  • Great interior design, quality, features
LEAVE IT
  • 1.4T powertrain needs refinement
  • Isn’t priced like past Chevys
  • No wheel-mounted audio controls on lower-end models
  • Rear seat legroom could be bigger

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Chevrolet Cruze Forum
2009 Toyota Corolla
2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
2010 Honda Civic Sedan Review
2009 Hyundai Elantra Review
2010 Nissan Sentra 2.0 S Review
2009 Ford Focus

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