Chevrolet's Cobalt compact sedan and coupe weren't even competitivewhen they made their debut for the 2005 model year, and this isemblematic of why GM found itself in bankruptcy court last year. Inthe past few years we've highlighted GM's best models and said theysimply have to spread the quality to all segments. That's exactlywhat Chevrolet has done with the 2011 Cruze sedan.
The conservative styling won't draw crowds, but the Cruze'sroominess, efficiency, quality and refinement bring Chevrolet intoa whole new world of compact cars.
It goes toe-to-toe with the Honda Civic, schools the ToyotaCorolla and makes the outgoing Cobalt seem all the moreembarrassing. The Cruze trim levels I tested at a Washington, D.C.,rollout were the 2LT, LTZ and an LTZ with the RS appearancepackage. The lower 1LT and base LS trim levels weren't available,which is unfortunate because these come with cloth upholstery, andGM 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 1.4-liter engine anda six-speed automatic transmission. Cars.com editor Mike Hanleyrecently drove prototype Cruzes at GM's proving grounds and reported on the high-mileage Eco model and thesix-speed manual transmission. Both the Eco and the base LS model's1.8-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder are in the final stagesof development.
Exterior & Styling
The Cruze has been criticized as too conservatively styled, anunderstandable complaint, especially because the upcoming 2012 FordFocus compact has been lauded for its design. Also understandable,though, is Chevrolet's desire for broad acceptance of this globalvehicle. We in the U.S. are actually late Cruze recipients, as themodel has sold roughly 270,000 units already around the globe. Itwas even imported to Mexico at the end of last year. U.S. versionswill be built in Lordstown, Ohio, where the Cobalt ceasedproduction in June.
Few exterior cues distinguish one trim level from another. Theyall have body-colored door handles and side mirrors. Sixteen-inchsteel wheels are standard on the Cruze LS and 1LT, and the 1LT canupgrade to 16-inch alloys. The 2LT has 16-inch alloys and can stepup to 17-inchers. The LTZ has 18-inch silver alloy rims. The Ecowill 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, foglamps and a rear spoiler. It also adds an RS badge low on the frontdoors. The LT or LTZ trim-level badge remains on the trunklid.
The inside is where you spend your time, and it appearsChevrolet spent a lot of time on it. As on the outside, gapsbetween panels and trim pieces are tight, and the controls, lidsand doors feel and sound good. But I don't think that kind of thingis as evident to most people as is the overall quality ofmaterials, and here the Cruze excels. While the Civic still exudesoverall quality four model years into its current generation, itsmaterials are inconsistent in texture and design. The Cruze isharmonious overall, with soft, low-gloss materials where you wantthem. The piano-black bezels on the center control panel are aclassy element that Mazda recently moved away from in the competingMazda3.
I'm less impressed with the silver-colored plastic, which isalso on the center panel. There's no shortage of this stuff in carsnowadays, trying to imitate metal and often failing. It's not theworst I've seen — not even close, actually. I mention itmainly because an LTZ I drove had a variation on this trim, apatterned silver that looks much, much richer.
The most controversial material is a coarse fabric that can behad on the dashboard and doors. I drove an LT with the stuff inblack, and I think it's pretty neat — different in a goodway. It also comes in red. It looks like it could turn dustcollection into an art, but Chevy folks say it can be cleaned witha vacuum and typical cleaning products. Traditional smooth surfacesare also available in accent colors.
In the Cruze, roominess is the word. Its passenger volume is 95cubic feet, beating the Ford Focus at 93, the Honda Civic at 91 andthe Toyota Corolla at 92. Likewise, its trunk volume measures 15.4cubic feet, dwarfing the Focus' 13.8, the Civic's 12.0 and theCorolla at 12.3. View a full comparisonand you'll see the Cruze beats the competition in many seatingdimensions. What the figures don't reflect is how far back thefront seats travel, which gives the front seats more legroom thanthe numbers suggest — and gives the whole car moreflexibility. My test cars' driver's seats had a power controlcombining fore/aft and height adjustment, plus a manual backrestrelease lever that's way too far back and gets jammed against theB-pillar if you have the seat scooted back appreciably. There's nosign of a lumbar adjustment, but I didn't miss it, and I found theseat quite comfortable overall. I suspect some occupants might findthe bottom cushion hugs the hips too much, but the seat isn'totherwise overly bolstered.
The manual front passenger seats had a fore/aft handle in frontand no less than three levers on the outboard side for height,bottom-cushion tilt and the aforementioned too-far-back backrestlever. You hardly ever see this much adjustability in a manualdriver's seat, much less a front passenger's.
The Cruze has a comfortable ride, a nice compromise betweenworld-car firmness and the softness of some American-market cars.My test cars had 17- and 18-inch wheels, and I didn't feel asubstantial difference in ride firmness between the two. It'slikely the standard 16-inch wheels with their higher-profile tireswill ride softer, but you'd be wise to drive with the differentsizes before making any decisions.
The Cruze's drivetrains mark a change in how automakers powertheir cars, for a couple of reasons. Where simple engines areusually the staple and turbocharged ones are a high-level upgrade,the Cruze's turbo-four will be the volume seller and the plain1.8-liter could become little more than an afterthought. Also, todate, automakers have used turbocharging — sometimes combinedwith direct injection — to split the difference between powerand efficiency, mostly bringing to market some strongfour-cylinders, V-6 engines as powerful as V-8s, V-8s as strong asV-10s and so on. Chevrolet's 1.4-liter turbo is exactly what we'vebeen waiting for: technology making a tiny engine powerful enoughand exceptionally efficient.
Exactly how efficient the Cruze will be remains an openquestion, as EPA estimates haven't been released yet. The mostChevrolet can say is that the Eco version will hit 40 mpg inhighway driving — and that's with a manual transmission. Wecan assume the regular trim levels won't be too far behind; Chevysays the Cruze should be a class leader.
With this efficiency comes decent power. Chevrolet predicts thelongest zero-to-60 mph time for the turbo engine at 10 seconds inthe manual Eco trim level, which is tuned for efficiency. Otherversions shave another second or more.
The Cruze feels notably quicker than the ultra-efficient FordFiesta, which is a substantially smaller model rated from 28/37 mpgto 29/40 mpg depending on equipment. Once the Cruze gets rolling afew miles an hour from a standing start, the engine starts pulling,giving you good acceleration at low engine speeds where you need itmost. The power rating is 138 horsepower, just 2 hp more than thebase 1.8-liter, but the torque is 148 pounds-feet (versus 123). Theengineers say the torque hits its peak at 1,850 rpm and stays flatclose to 6,000 rpm, and that's how it feels to the driver. As youget close to the tachometer's redline, the tug seems to taper offand the engine starts to sound buzzy, but overall the refinement isgood. As I mentioned in my Buick LaCrosse four-cylinder review,GM's Ecotec engine family historically hasn't been a paragon ofsmoothness and silence, but it's clearly improving.
The six-speed automatic is pretty smooth on the upshift, but Isensed some lash — basically some slack — in thedrivetrain in the first car I drove. It was less pronounced in theothers, so it might have been because these were early-productionmodels. More prevalent was a hesitation in dropping down to passinggear 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 testcars.
For this reason, it's possible the transmissions didn't knowwhich way was up, but I've been criticizing GM for thischaracteristic in its six-speed automatics — both front- andrear-wheel-drive applications — since their introduction, soI 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 selectorto the left and pushing it forward and back. Here, too, there wassome delay, and it seems to step down multiple gear changessequentially rather than jump directly from, say, 5th to 3rd.
The Cruze takes to the curves ably, with a competent suspensionand good body control. The electrically assisted power steering isa far cry from GM's early efforts, which located an assist motor onthe steering column rather than the rack. The feel is much morenatural and well tuned for all speeds.
Critics will focus on Chevrolet's use of what's arguably asemi-independent rear suspension rather than an independent design,a variation on a torsion beam supplemented by a Z-link Watt'slinkage, which keeps the suspension centered. At Cars.com we focuson the results, not the formula, and the Cruze behaved quite wellin spirited driving on normal roads. I wouldn't call the Cruze'shandling exceptionally sporty like that of the Mazda3, but thefoundation for sport tuning is clearly there. A track test will bethe final arbiter, but most people don't drive on a track, so I'llsay the mission has been accomplished. The compact rear suspensiondesign is partly responsible for the large trunk and accommodatingbackseat.
I rode around in the backseat and was impressed with the ride,which can vary from the front, especially in a small car. Thoughthe long front-seat travel can make the backseat legroom appearlimited in photos, it's actually quite good. Most drivers and frontpassengers don't need that much legroom and can share.
It was reasonably easy to converse with front occupants, thoughoccasionally some noise crept in. The cabin is quiet overall, whichmade a couple of sounds stand out: There's some wind noise alongthe B-pillars when you hit and exceed 60 mph; this might actuallybe from the side mirrors, but I really heard it right next to myhead when driving. The tires also tended to sing on groovedpavement and rumble on coarse asphalt. I detected no realdifference between the 17-inch Continentals and the 18-inchMichelins, both all-season tires.
The Cruze features 10 standard airbags: two frontal and two kneeairbags for the front occupants, seat-mounted side-impact airbagsfor all four outboard seats, and a pair of curtains that cover theside windows. Also standard are antilock brakes and the StabiliTrakelectronic stability system with traction control. Front disc andrear drum brakes are standard, and rear discs can be had on the LTZor as an option on the LT.
Chevrolet provides OnStar as standard equipment with six months'free service, after which a subscription fee applies. Rear sonarparking assist is a notable safety option. For all the standardsafety features, see the Safety and Security section on the Standard Equip. & Specs page.
Standard features on the base LS trim level include the manualtransmission, air conditioning, an analog auxiliary input for MP3players, three months of XM Satellite Radio service, and powerwindows and locks with remote keyless entry.
The 1LT adds the turbo engine and automatic transmission. The2LT adds alloy wheels, a heated power driver's seat, leatherupholstery throughout, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shiftknob, Bluetooth, a USB port for controlling an iPod through thestereo, steering-wheel stereo controls and remote engine start.
The LTZ adds 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, automaticclimate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear parkingassist.
The parking assist can also be had as an option. Some otheroptions include a Pioneer premium stereo and a navigation systemwith a hard drive that can store MP3 files and allows you to pauseand resume a radio broadcast.
Cruze in the Market
One of the highest compliments you can pay a car is to say itfeels more expensive than it is, and that's the case with the Cruzeversions I drove. Note that I'm tempering the praise because theminimum base price of the trim levels I tested was $20,675.
Chevrolet learned its lesson with the Cobalt, and the Cruze ismore than simply competitive in its class — as any new modelmust be to draw buyers until its next redesign. Whenever a newmodel debuts, we look at its long-term prospects, and ourpredictions depend on how well the vehicle covers the basics. Itneeds a solid structure, passable and not trendy design, usableinterior space and a competent suspension. These are all thingsthat can't be changed — at least not easily — until thenext redesign, which is years away.
Any problem a shopper might have with the Cruze — perhapsnot enough power, not sporty enough handling, the wrong mix offeatures — can be addressed practically at any time with anew engine or engine tuning, more aggressive suspension rates or areworking of the feature packaging. For too long, GM sloggedthrough with a value proposition based on things like extra spaceand low price. The Cruze is a balanced package offering a lot ofeverything. This is exactly where Chevrolet needs to be.