First Drive: Chevrolet Cruze Prototype

The folks at Chevrolet aren’t hiding from the truth. They know that the Cobalt (and Cavalier before it) never met the small-car standards set by the likes of the first-generation Ford Focus, the Honda Civic, and the Toyota Corolla. Now Chevrolet is aiming to establish its car as the segment standard with the all-new global compact car, the Cruze. We recently drove several preproduction cars to preview the Cruze that will go on sale this fall. While our testers’ interiors weren’t ready for a showroom, the chassis and engine tuning were representative of production cars.

Two engines, one horsepower rating
Chevrolet will sell the Cruze with a choice of four-cylinder engines. Buyers choosing the entry-level LS trim receive a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder while the other trims use a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. The engines put out the same power, rated at 138 hp, but the uplevel engine should offer substantial fuel economy benefits. There are also improvements in drivability, as the turbo 1.4-liter offers an additional 23 lb-ft of torque and peak power and torque numbers that occur at lower revs.

The optional six-speed automatic does a great job managing the small-displacement engine. In an effort to make the Cruze feel peppy, the transmission will allow relatively high rpm at mild throttle openings. During mild acceleration, we sometimes saw 4000 rpm. Fortunately, the iron-block engine with twin variable cam timing feels comfortable and smooth when it revs. However, the Cruze is sluggish when taking off from a stop. Engineers say the 148 lb-ft of peak torque occurs at 1850 rpm, but it takes more than that – about 3000 rpm – before the Cruze really feels energetic.

A chassis for comfort
The suspension uses a typical small-car setup with a MacPherson arrangement up front. The U-shaped rear torsion beam features a Watts link for lateral locating duties. Driving the ride loop at Milford proving ground, the Cruze demonstrates excellent damping characteristics like the Honda Civic that GM has on hand, but with better body control.

A sportier suspension, standard on LTZ trims and optional on 2LT cars, lowers the ride height by 10 mm and stiffens the springs by 15 percent. The Cruze, though, won’t be confused with more dynamic competitors like the Mazda 3. The Chevy’s chassis sits firmly on the comfort end of the spectrum. Steering is assisted by an electric motor mounted on the rack and the setup provides even feel at all speeds and steering angles. The effort, however, is very light.

Eco trim boasts 40 mpg on the highway
In addition to Chevy’s LS, 1LT, 2LT, and LTZ trims, the Cruze will offer an Eco model that provides better fuel economy. The engine is the same 1.4-liter turbocharged unit, but aerodynamic aids, gearing changes, and special tires reduce the vehicle’s overall energy consumption. With a manual transmission, Chevrolet expects the Eco to return 40 mpg on the highway (city fuel economy hasn’t been announced). Aerodynamic drag is reduced by lowering the front fascia, closing off some of the front air ducts, adding a rear deck lid spoiler, lowering the suspension ten millimeters, and smoothing airflow with more underbody panels. An active shutter in the lower grille opens and closes to minimize drag while allowing air to flow of the radiator when necessary. The vanes remain open until the vehicle hits 40 mph. When decelerating, the shutter reopens when the Cruze dips below 34 mph.

The short shifter of the six-speed manual provides delightful low-effort, precise gear changes. The Cruze Eco also gets unique, lightweight forged aluminum wheels, but it borrows its low rolling resistance 17-inch Goodyear Assurance tires from the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car. The Eco model will also be available with an automatic transmission, but that Cruze will have slightly lower fuel economy than the manual car.

Can you really call this a compact?
The Cruze is wider, taller, and more than 3.5 inches longer than the Honda Civic, and those exterior dimensions allow Chevrolet to claim best-in-class interior space. GM’s Bob Lutz calls it a compact and a half while the government classifies the Cruze as a mid-size sedan based on the interior volume. Regardless, the Cruze drives with the manageable feel of a small car. The driver’s seat provides a comfortable amount of space and good visibility, while the rear has ample head and legroom. To address complaints from their earlier research, engineers are modifying the rear seat cushion and backs to add more padding and bolstering for American buyers.

The cockpit features a sleek wrap-around dash with attractive and functional controls while our LTZ and 2LT preproduction cars were trimmed with rich two-tone dashes and leather seats. Smart use of piano black accents and faux brushed-aluminum imbue the Cruze with an ambiance that is decidedly upscale. The materials, finishes, and style are gigantic improvements over both the outgoing Chevrolet Cobalt and cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Both those competitors, though, should be due for redesigns in the next few years, and Ford has already shown the interior of the next-generation Focus, which can go head-to-head with the Chevy. The march toward upscale content in smaller, cheaper cars continues, and the Cruze will offer Bluetooth, leather, heated seats, and a navigation system with 40 gigabytes of hard drive storage space. Stability control, traction control, and ten airbags (two front, two knee, four side impact, and two side curtains) are standard on every Cruze.

The standard – for now
As our drive was an early glimpse of what we’ll see in dealerships this September, Chevy hasn’t provided all the key details on the Cruze. Some of those specifications – like fuel economy and price – will be a critical factor in the Cruze’s success. However, it’s clear that GM has delivered a vehicle that finishes ahead of the competition in terms of powertrain refinement, ride quality, and interior style. When the Cruze heads into production, Chevy will have the best compact for mainstream buyers, but it’s still unclear if the company met its goal. Did Chevy leapfrog the next generation of small cars or did they merely beat the aging stars? We’ll have to wait for the first rival – the Ford Focus due in January – before we can say.

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