For a long, long time, it seemed that domestic automakers gave scant concern to compact cars, instead focusing their resources and energy on higher-margin vehicles like 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) once again professed their dedication to building small that cars buyers will actually want.
One of the first is the Chevrolet Cruze. Granted, that may sound outrageous given the car’s ignominious bloodline (Cobalt, Cavalier, Chevette, Vega, Corvair). One thing that helps is that the Cruze in not just an American offering: it launched more than a year ago in Europe, followed by rollouts in Korea and China, and this fall comes to North America as well as Eastern Europe and South America. It will be sold in 270 countries in all, and in most of those places, 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. For instance, one North American exclusive is the volume engine, a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. (A 136-hp, 1.8-liter normally aspirated four-cylinder powers 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 the outgoing Cobalt’s 2.2-liter unit. 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 (Chevrolet estimates a 0-to-60-mph time of 9.1 seconds). Throttle response isn’t exactly eager, but the turbo comes on stream quickly and the boost is seamlessly integrated. In all but the Eco model, the 1.4-liter is paired with a six-speed automatic transmission. This gearbox is extremely well mannered; you see shifts in the movement of the tach needle more than you hear or feel them. Move the lever into the manual gate for manual shifts; there are no paddles.
The Eco model additionally offers the 1.4-liter with a six-speed manual (that combo likely will be more widely available next year). The Eco version sheds a few pounds with lighter-weight components (rear suspension pieces, wheels) and options restrictions. It also benefits from low-rolling-resistance tires and aerodynamic aids. EPA figures aren’t yet in for the Cruze, and Chevrolet is unwilling to provide its own estimates. It makes one exception, though, predicting that the Eco with the manual will get 40 mpg on the highway-which is a real accomplishment for a car of this size.
The Cruze is somewhat larger than the Cobalt, chiefly in width (almost three inches) and wheelbase (2.4 inches), less so in height (one inch) and length (0.5 inch). The cabin feels wide, and outward visibility, event to the rear, is good. The dash looks quite nice and has fewer buttons than the recent GM norm. Leather upholstery is available, which is good because you’ll want to upgrade over the standard cloth. The front seats are firm, with prominent lateral bolsters that might be uncomfortable for larger drivers; six-way power adjustment (with manual recline) can be had on all models but the LS and the Eco. Rear-seat legroom is improved by nearly two inches over the Cobalt; a six-foot passenger can sit behind a six-foot driver, but space is only adequate. The rear seat cushion, though, is high enough off the floor to offer good under-thigh support, which is not the case in some much more expensive General Motors cars (Cadillac CTS, we’re looking at you).
As for the Cruze’s ride quality, Caddy comparisons are actually more apt than comparisons with the Cobalt. First of all, the car is quiet, with road and wind noise well suppressed. The turbo four’s engine note isn’t melodious, but you hardly hear it below 5000 rpm. We drove a 2LT with the optional sport suspension and seventeen-inch wheels, as well as an LTZ, in which the firmer chassis is standard, as are eighteen-inch aluminum wheels. The Cruze was responsive through the two-lane curves of Virginia horse country, and bump isolation was very good. The electric power steering, however, is overboosted, particularly at low speeds. Torque steer, happily, is a non-issue.
All this goodness doesn’t come cheap — or at least not free. The base LS may be only $605 more than the Cobalt LS, but the Cobalt’s even-cheaper model is missing. And as you climb the price ladder, the premium escalates — a 2LT, for instance, is $21,395, versus $18,560 for a Cobalt. However, the Cruze has more equipment and leaves the Cobalt in the dust, particularly its chassis and powertrain. It is a welcome, and long overdue, change in small-car execution from General Motors.
On sale: September 2010
Base price range: $16,995-$22,695
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 16-valve DOHC I-4
Power: 138 hp @ 4900 rpm
Torque: 148 lb-ft @ 1850 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 181.0 x 70.7 x 58.1 in
Wheelbase: 105.7 in
Legroom F/R: 42.3/35.4 in
Headroom F/R: 39.3/37.9 in
Cargo capacity: 15.4 cu ft
Curb weight: 3300 lb (est.)
EPA fuel economy: N/A