Chevrolet's Cobalt compact sedan and coupe weren't even competitive when they made their debut for the 2005 model year, and this is emblematic of why GM found itself in bankruptcy court last year. In the past few years we've highlighted GM's best models and said they simply have to spread the quality to all segments. That's exactly what Chevrolet has done with the 2011 Cruze sedan.
The conservative styling won't draw crowds, but the Cruze's roominess, efficiency, quality and refinement bring Chevrolet into a whole new world of compact cars.
It goes toe-to-toe with the Honda Civic, schools the Toyota Corolla and makes the outgoing Cobalt seem all the more embarrassing. The Cruze trim levels I tested at a Washington, D.C., rollout were the 2LT, LTZ and an LTZ with the RS appearance package. The lower 1LT and base LS trim levels weren't available, which is unfortunate because these come with cloth upholstery, and GM has implemented impressive new fabrics in other recent models. We'll have to wait and see.
Each of the test cars came with leather, a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and a six-speed automatic transmission. Cars.com editor Mike Hanley recently drove prototype Cruzes at GM's proving grounds and reported on the high-mileage Eco model and the six-speed manual transmission. Both the Eco and the base LS model's 1.8-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder are in the final stages of development.
Exterior & Styling
The Cruze has been criticized as too conservatively styled, an understandable complaint, especially because the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus compact has been lauded for its design. Also understandable, though, is Chevrolet's desire for broad acceptance of this global vehicle. We in the U.S. are actually late Cruze recipients, as the model has sold roughly 270,000 units already around the globe. It was even imported to Mexico at the end of last year. U.S. versions will be built in Lordstown, Ohio, where the Cobalt ceased production in June.
Few exterior cues distinguish one trim level from another. They all have body-colored door handles and side mirrors. Sixteen-inch steel wheels are standard on the Cruze LS and 1LT, and the 1LT can upgrade to 16-inch alloys. The 2LT has 16-inch alloys and can step up to 17-inchers. The LTZ has 18-inch silver alloy rims. The Eco will get its own lightweight alloy wheels.
The RS appearance package, offered on LT and LTZ models, includes unique front and rear bumpers and rocker moldings, fog lamps and a rear spoiler. It also adds an RS badge low on the front doors. The LT or LTZ trim-level badge remains on the trunklid.
The inside is where you spend your time, and it appears Chevrolet spent a lot of time on it. As on the outside, gaps between panels and trim pieces are tight, and the controls, lids and doors feel and sound good. But I don't think that kind of thing is as evident to most people as is the overall quality of materials, and here the Cruze excels. While the Civic still exudes overall quality four model years into its current generation, its materials are inconsistent in texture and design. The Cruze is harmonious overall, with soft, low-gloss materials where you want them. The piano-black bezels on the center control panel are a classy element that Mazda recently moved away from in the competing Mazda3.
I'm less impressed with the silver-colored plastic, which is also on the center panel. There's no shortage of this stuff in cars nowadays, trying to imitate metal and often failing. It's not the worst I've seen — not even close, actually. I mention it mainly because an LTZ I drove had a variation on this trim, a patterned silver that looks much, much richer.
The most controversial material is a coarse fabric that can be had on the dashboard and doors. I drove an LT with the stuff in black, and I think it's pretty neat — different in a good way. It also comes in red. It looks like it could turn dust collection into an art, but Chevy folks say it can be cleaned with a vacuum and typical cleaning products. Traditional smooth surfaces are also available in accent colors.
In the Cruze, roominess is the word. Its passenger volume is 95 cubic feet, beating the Ford Focus at 93, the Honda Civic at 91 and the Toyota Corolla at 92. Likewise, its trunk volume measures 15.4 cubic feet, dwarfing the Focus' 13.8, the Civic's 12.0 and the Corolla at 12.3. View a full comparison and you'll see the Cruze beats the competition in many seating dimensions. What the figures don't reflect is how far back the front seats travel, which gives the front seats more legroom than the numbers suggest — and gives the whole car more flexibility. My test cars' driver's seats had a power control combining fore/aft and height adjustment, plus a manual backrest release lever that's way too far back and gets jammed against the B-pillar if you have the seat scooted back appreciably. There's no sign of a lumbar adjustment, but I didn't miss it, and I found the seat quite comfortable overall. I suspect some occupants might find the bottom cushion hugs the hips too much, but the seat isn't otherwise overly bolstered.
The manual front passenger seats had a fore/aft handle in front and no less than three levers on the outboard side for height, bottom-cushion tilt and the aforementioned too-far-back backrest lever. You hardly ever see this much adjustability in a manual driver's seat, much less a front passenger's.
The Cruze has a comfortable ride, a nice compromise between world-car firmness and the softness of some American-market cars. My test cars had 17- and 18-inch wheels, and I didn't feel a substantial difference in ride firmness between the two. It's likely the standard 16-inch wheels with their higher-profile tires will ride softer, but you'd be wise to drive with the different sizes before making any decisions.
The Cruze's drivetrains mark a change in how automakers power their cars, for a couple of reasons. Where simple engines are usually the staple and turbocharged ones are a high-level upgrade, the Cruze's turbo-four will be the volume seller and the plain 1.8-liter could become little more than an afterthought. Also, to date, automakers have used turbocharging — sometimes combined with direct injection — to split the difference between power and efficiency, mostly bringing to market some strong four-cylinders, V-6 engines as powerful as V-8s, V-8s as strong as V-10s and so on. Chevrolet's 1.4-liter turbo is exactly what we've been waiting for: technology making a tiny engine powerful enough and exceptionally efficient.
Exactly how efficient the Cruze will be remains an open question, as EPA estimates haven't been released yet. The most Chevrolet can say is that the Eco version will hit 40 mpg in highway driving — and that's with a manual transmission. We can assume the regular trim levels won't be too far behind; Chevy says the Cruze should be a class leader.
With this efficiency comes decent power. Chevrolet predicts the longest zero-to-60 mph time for the turbo engine at 10 seconds in the manual Eco trim level, which is tuned for efficiency. Other versions shave another second or more.
The Cruze feels notably quicker than the ultra-efficient Ford Fiesta, which is a substantially smaller model rated from 28/37 mpg to 29/40 mpg depending on equipment. Once the Cruze gets rolling a few miles an hour from a standing start, the engine starts pulling, giving you good acceleration at low engine speeds where you need it most. The power rating is 138 horsepower, just 2 hp more than the base 1.8-liter, but the torque is 148 pounds-feet (versus 123). The engineers say the torque hits its peak at 1,850 rpm and stays flat close to 6,000 rpm, and that's how it feels to the driver. As you get close to the tachometer's redline, the tug seems to taper off and the engine starts to sound buzzy, but overall the refinement is good. As I mentioned in my Buick LaCrosse four-cylinder review, GM's Ecotec engine family historically hasn't been a paragon of smoothness and silence, but it's clearly improving.
The six-speed automatic is pretty smooth on the upshift, but I sensed some lash — basically some slack — in the drivetrain in the first car I drove. It was less pronounced in the others, so it might have been because these were early-production models. More prevalent was a hesitation in dropping down to passing gear when I jabbed the accelerator. Modern automatics are "learning" transmissions designed to adapt to your driving style, and drivers of all styles were hopping in and out of the test cars.
For this reason, it's possible the transmissions didn't know which way was up, but I've been criticizing GM for this characteristic in its six-speed automatics — both front- and rear-wheel-drive applications — since their introduction, so I have my doubts. Not everyone will notice this behavior, or care, but it's definitely worth looking for when you go for a test drive. There is a manual mode you can activate by moving the gear selector to the left and pushing it forward and back. Here, too, there was some delay, and it seems to step down multiple gear changes sequentially rather than jump directly from, say, 5th to 3rd.
The Cruze takes to the curves ably, with a competent suspension and good body control. The electrically assisted power steering is a far cry from GM's early efforts, which located an assist motor on the steering column rather than the rack. The feel is much more natural and well tuned for all speeds.
Critics will focus on Chevrolet's use of what's arguably a semi-independent rear suspension rather than an independent design, a variation on a torsion beam supplemented by a Z-link Watt's linkage, which keeps the suspension centered. At Cars.com we focus on the results, not the formula, and the Cruze behaved quite well in spirited driving on normal roads. I wouldn't call the Cruze's handling exceptionally sporty like that of the Mazda3, but the foundation for sport tuning is clearly there. A track test will be the final arbiter, but most people don't drive on a track, so I'll say the mission has been accomplished. The compact rear suspension design is partly responsible for the large trunk and accommodating backseat.
I rode around in the backseat and was impressed with the ride, which can vary from the front, especially in a small car. Though the long front-seat travel can make the backseat legroom appear limited in photos, it's actually quite good. Most drivers and front passengers don't need that much legroom and can share.
It was reasonably easy to converse with front occupants, though occasionally some noise crept in. The cabin is quiet overall, which made a couple of sounds stand out: There's some wind noise along the B-pillars when you hit and exceed 60 mph; this might actually be from the side mirrors, but I really heard it right next to my head when driving. The tires also tended to sing on grooved pavement and rumble on coarse asphalt. I detected no real difference between the 17-inch Continentals and the 18-inch Michelins, both all-season tires.
The Cruze features 10 standard airbags: two frontal and two knee airbags for the front occupants, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for all four outboard seats, and a pair of curtains that cover the side windows. Also standard are antilock brakes and the StabiliTrak electronic stability system with traction control. Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard, and rear discs can be had on the LTZ or as an option on the LT.
Chevrolet provides OnStar as standard equipment with six months' free service, after which a subscription fee applies. Rear sonar parking assist is a notable safety option. For all the standard safety features, see the Safety and Security section on the Standard Equip. & Specs page.
Standard features on the base LS trim level include the manual transmission, air conditioning, an analog auxiliary input for MP3 players, three months of XM Satellite Radio service, and power windows and locks with remote keyless entry.
The 1LT adds the turbo engine and automatic transmission. The 2LT adds alloy wheels, a heated power driver's seat, leather upholstery throughout, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth, a USB port for controlling an iPod through the stereo, steering-wheel stereo controls and remote engine start.
The LTZ adds 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear parking assist.
The parking assist can also be had as an option. Some other options include a Pioneer premium stereo and a navigation system with a hard drive that can store MP3 files and allows you to pause and resume a radio broadcast.
Cruze in the Market
One of the highest compliments you can pay a car is to say it feels more expensive than it is, and that's the case with the Cruze versions I drove. Note that I'm tempering the praise because the minimum base price of the trim levels I tested was $20,675.
Chevrolet learned its lesson with the Cobalt, and the Cruze is more than simply competitive in its class — as any new model must be to draw buyers until its next redesign. Whenever a new model debuts, we look at its long-term prospects, and our predictions depend on how well the vehicle covers the basics. It needs a solid structure, passable and not trendy design, usable interior space and a competent suspension. These are all things that can't be changed — at least not easily — until the next redesign, which is years away.
Any problem a shopper might have with the Cruze — perhaps not enough power, not sporty enough handling, the wrong mix of features — can be addressed practically at any time with a new engine or engine tuning, more aggressive suspension rates or a reworking of the feature packaging. For too long, GM slogged through with a value proposition based on things like extra space and low price. The Cruze is a balanced package offering a lot of everything. This is exactly where Chevrolet needs to be.
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