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.

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