By Alex Kramer
Introduction by Francis Cebedo:
For the longest time, it seemed like GM and other US makes looked at small cars as poor man’s cars. They saw them as cars for the entry-level buyer, the fresh college grad, the lower income bracket, the people who had no appreciation for automobiles. The great minds and the engineers always went into the Cadillacs, Corvettes and the Silverados.
That thinking was wrong then and it is even more wrong now. Small cars have always been appreciated by the drivers with an eye for fashion, performance, ergonomics and agility. And it was simply the choice of some folks who could afford most any car but they just wanted a smaller car like a Mazda Miata or a Mini Cooper.
But now, the world has turned. Small cars have become essential, eco-friendly and significant social statements. Some folks have given up their cars altogether and many now want smaller cars to reduce their footprint and use of resources in this world.
GM, was caught with their pants down in this paradigm shift so they have rallied to build smaller cars. One of the first cars they’re delivering is the Chevy Cruze. It is an attractive looking automobile starting at $16,720, urged on by 138 hp. It is a strong statement that announces that Chevy is here to play and compete in the very important and timely small car market.
- Little turbo engine is surprisingly gutsy with some nice torque
- Smooth, balanced, and quiet ride
- Roomy, upscale interior
- Stylish, eye-catching exterior
- Potentially excellent fuel efficiency
- many, many available configurations
- the home team has come to play
- Acceleration isn’t terribly quick
- Real world mileage might not be so great
- Houndstooth cloth pattern in base model LT is hard on the eyes
The small car bandwagon must be really picking up steam. Even General Motors, who has long neglected small cars, seems to have noticed that this is one of the hottest segments of the market. Rather than simply issue an updated version of its decent but uncompetitive Cobalt small sedan, we will soon be getting the Chevrolet Cruze, a car that GM claims will actually compete with the likes of Civic, Corolla, and Focus.
To meet this expectation, the Cruze was designed around five key attributes: an upscale presence, segment leading fuel economy, exceptional safety, superior ride and handling, and outstanding quality and durability. After an extended test drive north of San Francisco, through scenic Marin and Sonoma counties, we are pleased to report that GM has met these goals and potentially has a winner on its hands.
Like most automobile manufacturers, Chevrolet has fortunately realized that small doesn’t have to mean cheap, ugly, and no-frills. If anything, customers downsizing from larger cars will expect a higher level of style and quality, and more standard features. Luckily, even at first glance the Cruze is a dramatic improvement over the Cobalt in terms of appearance and presence.
When we first arrived in San Francisco, it so happened that one of the Cruze test cars was parked next to a previous generation Acura TL. To our surprise, the metallic red colored Chevy looked every bit as stylish and sophisticated as the much more expensive Japanese luxury sedan. The Cruze even bears some resemblance to the TL’s little sibling, the TSX, which is pretty good company to keep.
The interior is equally impressive, especially in top-level LTZ trim, which features plush heated leather seats and automatic climate control as standard equipment. Even the cloth seats found in lower trim levels are comfortable and appear well made, and there isn’t a bit of shiny hard plastic to be found. Interior room is quite good, especially for front seat passengers, and there is ample trunk space.
For folks looking to fully outfit the Cruze with the latest electronics, several premium options are available, including a Pioneer audio system and an in-dash navigation system with 40-gigabyte hard drive. The RS appearance package is also available on LT and LTZ trim levels to help dress-up the exterior a bit more, adding unique front and rear fascias, as well as fog lights and a small rear spoiler.
To achieve its stated goal of high fuel efficiency, Chevrolet has taken a decidedly unconventional approach to the powertrain, at least for American cars. Although a 1.8 L 4-cylinder engine will power the base LS model, all other models feature a small 1.4 L turbocharged engine. Co-developed with engineers from Saab, GM’s former subsidiary, this engine puts out 138 hp and an impressive 148 lb-ft torque, with full torque available from a low 1850 rpm.
Two transmissions will be available, a 6-speed manual and a 6-speed automatic, although the manual will only be available on the base model and the Cruze Eco, which will use modified gear ratios to squeeze out a bit more mileage. Unfortunately, production samples of the Eco are still unavailable and our testing was limited to the turbo engine mated to the automatic transmission.
Out on the road you’d be hard pressed to notice that there is a small turbo under the hood, as there is no lag or excess noise. The ample torque is noticeable, especially when climbing a grade in top gear, but passing or accelerating hard requires a downshift or two. Luckily the engine is willing to rev and the transmission features manual shifting, so despite not being super quick, the Cruze is still fun to drive fast.
Whether people are willing to stay off the gas enough to see the fuel efficiency benefits of this small engine remains to be seen. With very careful driving it should be possible to get into the 35-40 mpg range, especially for those who buy the Eco model, which features low weight forged wheels, low rolling resistance tires, and sliding vents in the front of the car to improve airflow.
Responsive handling and a smooth, quiet ride are also key design goals for the Cruze, and we have to admit this is where the car really shines. According to Chevrolet, 30 acoustical treatments are applied to the car, including sound-dampening material applied throughout the body structure, sound-absorbing foam that is used to full various hollow portions of the body, and even an acoustic laminated windshield. Hydraulic bushings are also used in the suspension to help soak up small bumps in the road. The result is one of the quietest and smoothest compact cars we’ve ever been in.
Although we didn’t have enough time behind the wheel to fully test the car’s handling, a few dozen miles spent on backroads snaking through the wine country revealed that the Cruze is also quite competent in the corners. The LTZ model in particular has some sporting potential and features a tuned suspension, low-profile Michelin tires mounted on 18” rims, and four-wheel disc brakes, all of which combine to give the car ample grip and stopping power.
Building a safe small car is also a primary concern for Chevrolet and the Cruze comes with a host of standard safety features, including a whopping 10 airbags, StabiliTrak electronic stability control, and a rollover sensing and protection system. GM’s OnStar system is also included and now features Injury Severity Protection, a feature that helps OnStar advisors alert first responders when a crash is likely to have caused serious injury.
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