We demand more from our beer, too. Not the Automobile Magazine staff we, but the America we. There haven't been this many breweries operating in the United States since the late 1800s, and while overall beer sales were down in 2010, craft-beer sales climbed eleven percent. This is how we weave a tour of great breweries into a search for great small cars. You shouldn't drive crappy cars, and you shouldn't drink crappy beer. Michigan, with the fifth-largest brewing industry in the country, obliges. Our resident beer expert and senior web editor, Phil Floraday, theorizes that craft brewing thrives in regions with certain geographic characteristics -- something about four seasons and access to water. We'd add that a blue-collar mind-set and a seriously unstable job market probably helps, too.
Financial difficulty seems to have worked surprisingly well for General Motors, too, which emerged from bankruptcy with a compact car that can finally be taken seriously. For starters, the company with notoriously bad interiors now rivals Hyundai for the best among this group. The Chevrolet Cruze's cabin is pleasantly designed, with impressive build quality and fabric inserts that guard against plastic monotony. The center stack is user-friendly and has far fewer buttons than is typical for GM's new products. Only the seats, which have a bottom cushion that lacks thigh support and is too flat and firm for long trips, leave us wanting.
Under the hood, Chevy uses the smallest-displacement four-cylinder here, with a turbocharger bolted on to produce 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque from 1.4 liters. Despite torque peaking at a low 1850 rpm, it takes a lot of revs to accelerate the 3102-pound Cruze both in casual city driving and spirited back-road bombing. The Cruze feels like the slowest car in our group, but on the highway, the engine hums along with a quiet, refined, and effortless lightness.
Any virtue of the engine, though, is quickly erased by a six-speed automatic transmission that, bewilderingly, alternates between painfully slow and painfully harsh shifts. With the gear selector pushed into the manual shift gate, you can count out loud, "one, two, three," before it completes a fifth-to-fourth downshift. Left to choose gears on its own, the transmission often delivers a clumsy clunk with each shift. And occasionally, the gearchanges are both sluggish and abrupt at the same time, with a pause followed by an unusually sharp kick as the next gear engages. In the fuel-economy war, the Cruze is a letdown. EPA-rated at 24/36 mpg city/highway, the one-year-old Chevy's gas mileage is already near the tail end of the pack.