Chevrolet Cruze — A small friendly boulevard cruiser

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Like the 2008 Malibu that set new standards for Chevrolet in the mid-sized sedan segment, the 2011 Cruze easily reaches new heights for the brand in the compact sedan class.

Malibu was heaped with praise during its introduction in 2007 and it has for the most part lived up to its billing. The public has embraced the conservatively styled sedan with their pocketbooks and it has stood the short test of time against such vaunted competitors as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima.

The Cruze is clearly a step above the Cobalt it replaces and a giant leap from the last-generation Cavalier, which took its final inglorious bow in 2005.

Without going too far out on a limb, we can say the Cruze is the best compact sedan to ever wear the bowtie emblem.

Its attributes are several.

Topping our list is the well-made and very attractive cabin. Fit and finish are as good as it gets in the segment. Textures are pleasing. Knobs are soft to the touch and impart a substantial feel. The glossy black insets, the brushed-aluminum trim and the blue backlit gauges all speak of substance beyond the price point of the car.

We like the two-cowl dashboard design stylists picked up from Chevrolets of yore. It is used effectively in the Malibu and serves the Cruze quite well, too.

We think Chevrolet’s gauge layout is among the best in the segment. With the exception of small notches to show where the climate control and headlight knobs are set, we had no objections. We particularly like the information readout between the speedometer and tachometer which features a digital readout of the speedometer.

Another plus is the small sedan’s quiet interior. No, it doesn’t approach Lexus library quiet levels, but its solitude is commendable for the segment with road and wind noises well muted. We’ve always felt a quiet interior gives a vehicle a well-built (i.e. luxury) persona.

Exterior styling is also on the positive side. Chevrolet designers have taken the safe route and they have done a creditable job in creating an attractive, but conservative stance that should wear well over the decade. We like it when manufacturers push the design envelope and get away with it (Hyundai Sonata and Elantra, for instance), but there’s something to be said for staying on the safe side, especially when it’s done as well as the Cruze.

Yet another plus is size. Although backseat legroom is slightly tighter than a couple of rivals, the Cruze is spacious lending to adequate room for a family of four. And it’s a segment leader in trunk size with 15 cubic feet available. Many mid-size cars have less space.

Cruze features a comfortable and pleasing ride, not as stiff as many compact offerings and certainly not as stiff as Chevrolet engineers would lead us to believe. While a suspension tuned to the stiffer side of the equation is more to our liking, we think that a majority of Cruze buyers will find this sedan softened up to their everyday tastes.
The Cruze is aimed directly at comfortable on-road cruising.

We could not help wishing for perhaps a bit more sporting nature, however. In a drive through the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angeles, the Cruze with the 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged engine matched to its standard six-speed automatic transmission proved adequate, able to hold speed on some steep inclines.

But it was on the twists and turns that the true nature of Cruze was revealed. Too soft, too much body roll, and too many squealing tires on rather benign turns telling us without question that Cruze is not a small Euro sports sedan nor even sporty.

The Cruze comes in five trim levels — LS, LT1, LT2, top-line LTZ, and a high-mileage manual transmission Eco (28/42).  Starting at $16,995 including destination charge the base LS is offered mainly to get people into the showroom to purchase one of the higher trims. It’s outfitted with an impressive list of standard features including power windows and doorlocks, air conditioning, a six-speaker audio system with CD and satellite-ready radio, four-wheel antilock brakes, traction and stability control, and 10 airbags. It comes standard with a six-speed manual.

Probably the two most popular models, the LT1 and LT2, start at $18,895 and $21,395 respectively.

All but the base model come with the aforementioned 1.4-liter turbo four. The base engine is a 138-horsepower normally aspired 1.8-liter four. The differentiation in the two engines seems to be in fuel economy and torque with the turbo model developing 25 more foot-pounds at 148; and that makes a sizeable difference.

It’s with the engine (turbo/automatic) that we have just a hint of disappointment. While relatively fuel efficient at 24mpg city and 36 mpg highway (we averaged 27 mpg in seven days of driving), it needs to be pushed to clear 60 miles an hour in the lower ranges of 9 seconds. That kind of performance was good a decade ago, but in today’s rapidly evolving performance-plus-gas-mileage world, it is average at best.

Serious merging and passing will mean keeping the pedal to the metal.
And to get the most of the engine’s output, it needs to be kept spinning at higher rpm, which translates into a noisy buzz that somehow Asian manufacturers have managed to eliminate from their tiny power-plants.

Under routine driving conditions such as floating down the highway or cruising stoplight to stoplight, the Cruze offers satisfying performance. It also offers excellent around-town handling with a parking-lot friendly turning radius of 35.7 feet.

Our LT2 test car with a six-speed automatic and leather-appointed seats was equipped with everything we think the customer shopping in this segment would desire. A couple of options including the $695 RS appearance package and $395 17-inch wheels brought the price to $22,910.

The Cruze is arguably the best small car Chevy has ever built. And it is indeed worthy of consideration when shopping for a small sedan. But the problem for Chevrolet is the competition. Compact cars are getting better and such offerings as the all-new Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic are game changers.

Base price: $16,995; as driven, $22,910
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4
Horsepower: 138 @ 4,900 rpm
Torque: 148 pound-feet @ 1,850 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: six-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 181 inches
Curb weight: 3,206 pounds
Turning circle: 35.7 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.4 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 36 mpg highway, 24 mpg city
0-60: 9.2 seconds (MotorWeek)
Also consider: Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic

The Good:
• Handsome, well-executed interior
• Large trunk for segment
• Nice array of standard features

The Bad:
• Engine noisy at higher rpm

The Ugly:
• Lackluster acceleration