GM has had a spotty history with smaller cars over the past 35 years or so. Its 1970s attempt, the Vega, was plagued with reliability issues stemming from an underdeveloped engine block and corrosion problems. The 1980s were no better, when the Citation (and its X-car brothers) became best remembered for massive recalls and a class-action lawsuit which ruined Chevy’s reputation for reliability (beyond its tarnished state). The Cavalier and Cobalt over the past years have been remembered as cheap transportation with little more than basic frills (although the Cobalt at least went fast with its SS turbo). However, the new Cruze, which has been on the market for a few years now, has quickly become a success, even outselling all of its competitors last month (and not for the first time). I’ve driven a few of them over the past 12 months and would like to share some thoughts.
The Cruze is up against very tough competition at this point. Ford put out a new Focus last spring (2011) and Dodge has just released the new Dart to positive press. The Corolla is a perennial profit-generator for Toyota (despite being quite outdated) and the Civic, despite some not-so-happy press, has still been selling well. Meanwhile, the Elantra continues to delight pretty much everyone and Nissan has just taken the wraps off the new Sentra. In July and August of last year, I took the wheel of various LTZ models (as well as one ECO) on some small autocross-type courses as part of GM’s Main Street in Motion program. I also took the wheel of a 2012 ECO in Fort Lauderdale early in this spring, which gave me a better look at the car on real roads.
The Cruze currently starts at $16,800 for a base LS model with the 1.8L I4 and manual transmission. The other engine option (which is also more popular) is a turbocharged 1.4L unit also found in the new Sonic. The Cruze has a high level of standard equipment and features options not available on the Cobalt which preceded it. Navigation is optional on the LTZ among others, while leather is standard on some models (the 2LT and LTZ). After 2011, Chevrolet expanded the availability of the 6-speed manual transmission with the turbo to the 2LT model and the 1LT model, in addition to the ECO. The ECO model in particular is the fuel miser of the pack, featuring unique lightweight chrome alloy rims and lower rolling resistance tires as standard equipment, along with an aerodynamics package to lower drag. All models except the base LS feature standard Bluetooth and a leather-wrapped shift knob. The 2LT and LTZ models have rear disc brakes, while all other models feature drums. The LTZ is only available with the automatic transmission, something to keep in mind.
Chevrolet, in fact, did not sell the Cruze in the United States until September 2010 despite being unveiled for the first time in 2008. GM bet the farm on the Cruze and it’s definitely worked well, as the new model has sold very well since its debut in the United States, having sold nearly 232,000 last year (more than double the Cobalt’s 2010 sales alone) and over 128,000 through July of this year. A hatchback is now on sale in Europe but thus far has not been sold here, and little word has been released about a hotter model to compete with the new Focus ST.
The quality of the Cruze is a clear step up from its predecessor, which was necessary for GM to compete in this crowded segment. The styling is less anonymous, much edgier, and more modern. Inside, the new design carries with it higher-grade materials and better build quality, with soft-touch surfaces and comfortable seats. There is more than enough room as well and visibility is good. The only complaints I’ve had in any of them has been that the gauges can be a little hard to read in bright sunlight (which Florida has far too much of in the first place). The interior feels more open than the Cobalt as well. It’s a step up from the Honda Civic, which is not as easy to decipher and suffers from a confusing instrument panel (which has the added bonus of forcing a driver to take his or her eyes off the road to read pretty much anything). The gauges are easier to read than the Focus at a glance, but not as readable as the Elantra.
On the move, the Cruze feels easy to drive, without any of the tinny qualities of its predecessors. It drives smoothly on city streets and highways, with a quiet ride and accurate steering. In normal situations, despite its small size, the 1.4L EcoTec turbocharged I4 never feels strained with the automatic transmission. Unlike previous GM autos, this one doesn’t work against forward progress and doesn’t lurch when changing gear, a welcome change. The tires on the Eco are not at all poor, offering enough grip and a cushier ride than those on the LTZ models. On the Main Street in Motion road course, I tried both versions back to back and found that there are indeed differences in overall dynamics. The LTZ has more grip around corners and feels livelier off the line than the Eco, but for most buyers, the differences are minute. In a straight line, the engine feels strong from a standstill, but not as strong as the Focus’s 2.0L unit. When tested against the Honda Civic (which was also on hand that day), both models felt heavier yet more secure. The cloth seats in the Eco trim are not as supportive as the leather chairs of the higher-end versions, but again, this may not be as big a concern to most buyers. Visibility is good. Unlike the Elantra, the Cruze does not float over larger road imperfections, a sign of a better-developed chassis. The steering along the road course is excellent Although it’s not as good as the Focus, it has more feel than the Elantra and the Civic. Body lean is expected but not overly irritating and the brakes are very consistent (but not as effective as those on the Focus).
Could the Cruze be better? Probably. That said, it is definitely a step up from the norm, and the fact that General Motors developed it as a global model proves how hard they can work to make the new small Chevrolet a big hit. From most standpoints, it has definitely experienced success. Is it better than the Corolla and Civic? In my opinion, it most definitely is. It may not have the economy of the new Elantra, it may not have the Focus’s handling, and it does not yet have the Corolla’s reputation, but for General Motors, this is Chevrolet’s best compact car in history. Over time, I am certain that the Cruze’s many positives will hopefully make the Citation, Vega, and Cavalier’s woes a distant memory.
-Albert S. Davis