The 2011 Cruze is the all-new compact sedan from Chevrolet; it replaces the Cobalt, a just-good-enough car that seemed to appeal to rental car companies rather than retail buyers. But Chevy's got a plan in place to avoid the Cobalt's fate: The Cruze is designed to leapfrog the competition in terms of features, safety, and perceived value. Can the Cruze pull it off? Or is this just another ho-hum compact from Detroit? Read on. Price range $16,995 - $27,120, EPA fuel economy estimates 22-28 MPG city, 35-42 MPG highway.
First Glance: A car or a bribe?
To say that the new Chevrolet Cruze is a nicer car than the Cobalt it replaces is really no big deal; back when I was a kid, I built forts out of blankets and rocking chairs that were nicer than the Cobalt. No, the real question is how the Cruze will stack up against the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. And that's an issue that's not as simple as it seems. Designing a nicer car than the Civic or the Corolla isn't terribly difficult, but most people don't buy Civics and Corollas because they are nice cars. They buy them because the Honda and Toyota badges are about as close as you can get to a guarantee of quality and reliability.
There's a perception among many buyers that Japanese cars are simply better than American cars, and no matter what the domestic automakers do, it seems we simply aren't willing to cut them a break. The folks at General Motors know this -- despite what many pundits say, GM really is run by some very smart people -- so they've resorted to a new tactic with the Cruze: Bribery.
Let's say you're one of those people who thinks Japanese cars are better. (If you're not, I can save you some time: The Cruze is nicer than the Ford Focus and the Dodge Caliber, so you may as well just go ahead and buy one.) What would it take for you to take a chance on a domestic car? GM seems to be hoping that the answer is to shower buyers with value. I've used the phrase "a lot of car for the money" before, but GM has taken this to a whole new level with the Cruze.
In the Driver's Seat: Fantastic features, unbeatable safety
$16,995 buys a Cruze LS with all the basics (power windows, mirrors and locks, air conditioning, and a CD player), but what's really impressive is the list of standard safety equipment: Antilock brakes, electronic stability control, and ten, count 'em, ten airbags. Besides the usual six (dual front airbags, front-seat-mounted side (torso) airbags, and two-row side curtain airbags), the Cruze gets back-seat-mounted torso airbags and driver and front passenger knee airbags (very important -- the underside of the dash can bash up your knees something awful). That's a commitment to safety that none of the Cruze's competitors can match.
More and more automakers are offering high-end options on their smaller cars, but they are generally reserved for top-of-the-line models. Not so the Cruze: Features like Bluetooth, an auto-dimming rear-view-mirror, and navigation can be had on the mid-level $18,895 Cruze LT, and those who do go for the top-of-the-line $22,695 Cruze LTZ will find an automatic transmission, heated leather seats with driver's power adjustment, and automatic climate control, all standard. This is the sort of feature spread we're used to seeing on mid-size cars like the Toyota Camry and the Chevy Malibu, but not on compacts like the Cruze.
The Cruze is available with several interior color schemes; I sampled two. First was this four-tone extravaganza from a top-of-the-line LTZ. The variety of colors overwhelmed my senses a bit, but the materials are nice and I appreciated the effort. I was much happier with this all-black interior from a mid-level Cruze LT. Black is generally my least-favorite interior color, but I really liked the knit-pattern fabric panels on the dash, which look nicer than the acres of plastic found in most compact cars. (Of course, we'll have to see how they hold up over time.)
Most of the Cruze's interior space is devoted to the front seats, which are supportive and offer lots of stretch-out room; the back seat is adequate, though not particularly generous. But the trunk is huge: At 15.4 cubic feet, it puts the Civic and Corolla to shame and even bests the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra.
On the Road: High tech, but to what end?
While the cheapest Cruze (the LS) is powered by a conventional 1.8 liter engine, the Cruze LT, LTZ and Eco models are powered by an innovative (and tiny) 1.4 liter turbocharged four-cylinder. Both engines put out 138 horsepower, but the turbo 1.4 develops 148 lb-ft of torque, or pulling power, versus 125 for the 1.8 liter engine. But while the 1.8 is EPA rated for 22 MPG city and 35 MPG highway, the torquier 1.4 is rated for 24 city/36 highway -- and those are automatic figures, by the way. The Cruze compares favorably with competitors like the Toyota Corolla (26/34) and Honda Civic (25/36), but it's not the same league as the new-for-2011 Hyundai Elantra (29/40). The Cruze Eco (separate review here) is rated for 28 city/42 highway, but comes with a 6-speed stick; the Elantra generates its best numbers with an automatic.
In terms of power, the turbo 1.4 is on par with its rivals; the automatic car's 0-60 time of 10 seconds won't set the world on fire, but it's right in the same ballpark as its competitors. The engine note is an uninspiring buzz, but it's quieter and more refined than the Honda Civic, and the Cruze's 6-speed automatic is noticeably smoother than the Honda's 5-speed.
In fact, refinement is the ace up the Cruze's sleeve. When there's a price target to be met, sound insulation is often the first thing to go, but not in the Cruze. The Cruze's ride quality and quietness exceed what I expect from a $28,000 mid-size car, let alone a $17,000 compact. And handling is as good as one could ask from such a humble vehicle; accurate steering and sharp responses make it a steady companion on a curvy road.
Journey's End: Is it enough?
Chevrolet has indeed delivered a very nice car. The Cruze offers levels of refinement, equipment and value that easily meet or beat its Japanese and Korean rivals. And the Cruze's level of safety equipment simply blows away the competition, especially Honda, which only offers electronic stability control in the most-expensive Civic models.
The 1.4 liter turbo engine is certainly innovative, and it does deliver comparable power and better fuel economy than its rivals -- at least it did until the 2011 Hyundai Elantra showed up. Actually, the Elantra is probably the Cruze's best rival (and its biggest problem). Like the Cruze, the Elantra delivers class-up amenities, and it gets even better fuel economy using less complicated technology. For those who prefer to buy domestic, the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus will also offer superior fuel economy, and first reports are that it's a lot more entertaining to drive.
Overall, the Cruze is an excellent vehicle, and proof that General Motors is capable of doing outstanding work in an inexpensive car. But will that be enough to lure buyers away from the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla -- or the Hyundai Elantra? Only time will tell. If you're looking for basic transportation that will get you to work on time, it's hard to argue against the proven reliability of Japan, Inc. But if you aspire to something more than hard plastic and basic amenities, the Cruze is a real treat, and a lot of car for the money. If you're willing to give American automakers another chance, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the Cruze. I sure was. -- Aaron Gold