For a long time, domestic automatkers gave scant concern to compact cars, instead lavishing attention on higher-margin pickups, SUVs, crossovers, and big cars. Recently, however, spurred by escalating CAFE standards and shifting buyer preferences, American automakers (well, Ford and General Motors, at least) seem to have gotten small-car religion. Executives are professing their solemn dedication to bringing compelling, desirable small cars to the U.S. market.
One of the first is the Chevrolet Cruze. Yes, we realize this sounds heretical given GM's decades-long habit of peddling outdated and outclassed compacts, usually with the all-too-necessary assistance of hefty rebates. But redemption is at hand.
It probably helps that the Cruze is not solely an American offering. The car launched more than a year ago in Europe and will be sold in some 130 countries total. In most of those markets, a car of this size is a much more esteemed machine than has been the case here.
Although a global vehicle, the Cruze is customized for each region. One North American exclusive item is our volume engine, a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (there's also a 136-hp, 1.8-liter normally aspirated four in the base LS sedan). Developed in Europe and first seen in the Opel Astra, the 1.4-liter's output, 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, is actually a bit less than that of the outgoing Cobalt's 2.2-liter four-banger. But this turbo has the drivability of a much larger engine. Peak torque is available from only 1850 rpm, so you rarely have to wring it out. The Cruze isn't terribly fast (Chevrolet estimates a 0-to-60-mph time of 9.1 seconds), but the turbo comes onstream relatively quickly and the boost is seamlessly integrated. In all but the Eco model, the 1.4-liter is paired with a six-speed automatic. This gearbox is extremely well mannered; you see shifts in the movement of the tach needle more so than you hear or feel them.
The Eco and the LS additionally offer six-speed manuals (other 1.4-liter models likely will have it next year). The Eco version sheds a few pounds with lighter-weight parts (wheels and rear suspension pieces) and options restrictions. It also benefits from low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic aids. EPA figures aren't yet in, but Chevy is predicting that the Eco with the manual will get 40 mpg on the highway-a real accomplishment for a car of this size.