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 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.