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.