It would be generous to say that General Motors hasn’t had the best luck with small Chevrolets. Their first attempt, the Chevrolet Citation, was best known for its malfunctioning brakes, while the Cavalier’s main selling point was its price – ditto the Cobalt, which had its nameplate unceremoniously retired after a single generation.
1. LT models come with a turbocharged 1.4L 4-cyinder with 138-hp and 148 lb-ft of torque.
2. Fuel economy is rated at 24/36-mpg (city/hwy).
3. The Cruze has a 15 cu-ft trunk, as large as many mid-size sedans.
4. Starting at $16,995 our Cruze 2LT test car retails for $20,675.
Rather than take yet another kick at the compact can, GM has effectively abdicated development of their newest small car, the Chevrolet Cruze, to other divisions across the globe, most notably Opel and GM Daewoo Auto Technology Company (yes, that Daewoo). Built in 8 factories (located everywhere from Australia to Kazakhstan) and sold in over 60 countries, the Cruze has to satisfy a dizzying set of demands, serving everyone from affluent North Americans who may buy the car for their adult children, to overtaxed Europeans who will pay incredible sums for what they consider a “family car.”
The North American launch of the Cruze was delayed by about a year, but the Cruze ended up arriving here at the best possible time – the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra are all long in the tooth and due for a re-design. The new Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus are only now hitting dealers, and cars like the Suzuki SX4 are on the radar of almost nobody. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Cruze has the upper hand in a segment devoid of new product – but that means that GM won’t be able to blame anyone else should the Cruze suddenly stall in the marketplace.
Fortunately, the car has lots going for it. While some have criticized the styling as generic, we think that it looks attractive (albeit a little conservative) and its well-proportioned body doesn’t scream “compact car” to the public the way more rotund Japanese offerings do. While most stock photos of the Cruze show the top dog LTZ model, with its 18” wheels, lower stance and slightly different cosmetic trim, our test car was a 2LT model, a less expensive version equipped with GM’s new 1.4L Turbo 4-cylinder engine. While it’s not quite as eye-catching as the LTZ, it still looks smart, even with the smaller 16-inch wheels and standard rear drum brakes.
The interior on our 2LT is also not the rich looking leather that one finds in the brochure (or in the photos shown here), but the predictable fabric seat surfaces and black plastic that most buyers will end up with. While the LTZ gets leather trim on both the seats and the dash, lesser models get “premium cloth,” which isn’t bad at all, and feels somewhat like the mesh material that used to adorn the CD wallets of the early 2000s.
The car’s center stack is well designed, with large buttons that can be clearly seen and easily manipulated, even with winter gloves on. Our tester came with options like Bluetooth integration, Onstar, steering wheel mounted stereo controls and the aforementioned 16-inch wheels, but the list of standard features is still fairly generous, with an auxiliary jack, XM radio, cruise control, power windows and locks, stability control and 10 airbags all standard.
“European inspired handling” is a particularly odious cliché, but on the road, the Cruze doesn’t feel like anything that’s come out of Detroit or Tokyo in the past little while. Fitted with Firestone all-season tires, the Cruze is enthusiastic when pushed hard in the corners, but reaches the edge of its performance envelope very quickly. The basic elements are all there – the chassis is stiff, the steering communicates what the front tires are doing and the suspension is well tuned without being wallowy – but clearly this is not a car that’s been designed with sporty driving in mind.
On the highway, the Cruze reminds us of the previous generation Volkswagen Jetta, with the way it tracks true down the road at a low rpm, albeit with more wind noise that we would have liked, particularly coming from the A-pillar. Sure, the Cruze doesn’t have the tomb-like silence of a Lexus LS460, but the car’s highway road manners are laudable relative to the current crop of competitors.
Based on our *ahem* unscientific acceleration tests, we feel confident in saying that the 1.4L engine’s strength is in highway driving, rather than setting benchmark 0-60 times. Turbo lag is noticeable, but the accompanying torque is a delight, and will let you blow past whomever you please. It’s always amusing to feel the little rush of torque brought on by the 1.4L’s donut sized turbocharger, although some buyers may find the brief moment of turbo lag to be an annoyance.
On the other hand, the 6-speed automatic is truly a dismal unit. It feels like a CVT sometimes, holding revs for an unnaturally long amount of time, executing gear changes far too slowly, with an overall feel of being a couple generations behind the competition. Having driven a 2011 Hyundai Elantra immediately after the Cruze, we find it galling that GM signed off on such an antiquated piece of equipment for such an important car.
Fuel economy, while initially impressive for some Eco trim levels getting as high as 42-mpg, is less exceptional for “regular” models. Pegged at 24/36-mpg it’s quite good, but not as high as the 28/38-mpg rating in the Focus or 29/40-mpg rating for the Elantra.
The Cruze may not be a corner carver, but it shines in executing mundane tasks, like commuting in heavy traffic, picking up groceries or shuttling people to various destinations. The compact dimensions, excellent sightlines and accessible torque make the Cruze a great car for darting in and out of traffic, while the large 15 cubic foot trunk is able to swallow up all kinds of gym bags, groceries and assorted parcels. We didn’t even hear too many complaints from rear seat passengers when sitting three abreast, though we never had anyone exceptionally tall sitting there.
Buyers looking for solid A-to-B transportation could do much worse than the Cruze, especially in 2LT trim. For now, Chevrolet’s “one-size fits all markets” small car is good enough to expunge the wretched compacts of the past three decades from our collective memories. But the new Focus, as well as the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, with its cornucopia of creature comforts and superior fuel economy ratings both give us pause before declaring a winner in the compact segment. Perhaps a three-way shootout is in order sometime in 2011.