Chevy Cruze to become the compact of the future
Detroit’s history will cruise down Woodward Avenue on Saturday (though this rolling party has been revving up for weeks). Detroit’s future, however, arrives in October with Chevrolet’s big-little compact, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. Make no bones about it, this car carries General Motors Co.’s future in its 15 cubic-foot trunk.
Sure, the extended-range electric Chevy Volt has had 1,500 days of publicity without actually being up for sale yet, but the Cruze is where the low-rolling resistant rubber meets the pavement. (The Volt’s tires debut on the Eco Cruze this fall, before the Volt.)
The Cruze will do more to help the environment, do more for consumers and do more for GM’s bottom line than the Volt will for a generation (note: car generations are kind of short).
More importantly, for the first time since, well, since GM tried selling small cars, the Cruze is the best compact car available. Don’t take my word for it, go drive one.
Here’s what you’ll find: A well-appointed interior, a gutsy little engine, smooth acceleration and a surprisingly quiet and elegant ride. It’s the people hauler for the masses.
Raising the bar wasn’t difficult. The Cobalt, the tiny compact the Cruze replaces, was what people bought because it was on sale or they had some sort of employee discount. The Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla decimated the Cobalt in annual sales — because they were better cars.
That was then. Now, the Cruze doesn’t raise the bar, it sets it. A true global vehicle, the Cruze grabs influences from GM’s designers and engineers from around the world, which might explain the awful spelling.
I’ve test driven the Cruze a number of times as Chevy wanted to tout different development phases on the vehicle over the past year. The most recent test drive was in Washington, D.C., where we were put in the completely ready as the consumer is gonna see ’emCruzes. (Unfortunately, the 40 mpg Eco Cruze was not available for testing.)
The turbocharged 1.4-liter Cruze LT with a sport package sat shining just off Dupont Circle, calling my name.
For the most part, this car needs that compact context. Just like the Civic and Corolla — the big wigs of the compact world — the Cruze was designed as stylish transportation. It’s not a sports car.
It’s better. It combines form and function with a lot of space inside.
The Cruze maintains that Chevy dual cockpit approach, but with a much more open area. The dash curves around nicely to the doors and the instruments and controls are all within easy reach of the driver. The center stack is busy with buttons around a center circle that controls the stereo. But everything feels right and it’s comfortable.
There’s also lots of technology, such as the optional Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free cell phone operation, USB audio input and steering-wheel mounted controls. Even the base model, which starts at $16,995, includes an auxiliary jack, remote keyless entry, XM Satellite radio and GM’s OnStar turn-by-turn navigation.
While high tech enough to please most young buyers, its creature comforts will please consumers downsizing to a smaller vehicle. Things like navigation, ultra sonic park assist and a 250-watt stereo are amenities people appreciate.
Big on the inside
But the bigger story is the back seat. Unlike other compact cars, the Cruze doesn’t feel very small. There is 35.4 inches of legroom in the second row. That’s like business class.
The Cruze gets down to business with its performance, too. The base model comes with a 1.8-liter I-4 engine that produces 136 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque.
No, you’re not going to set Milan Dragway on fire, but it will get you to work on time. Final EPA mileage figures have not been released, though Chevrolet says the Eco Cruze will hit 40 mpg.
In a nod to that particular model, it is not simply a stripped down version of the Cruze. Chevy has added new features to the Eco Cruze, which starts at $18,895. They include different carpet and a front grille that can open and close to improve the aerodynamics. This model won’t be available during the initial launch but arrives a few months later.
The 1.4-liter turbo I-4 is a great little engine, producing 136 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It’s small, efficient and provides plenty of power.
Driving through the hills of Virginia outside of D.C., the Cruze never seemed to want for power. The six-speed automatic transmission was very gentle, clicking through the gears quietly and with certainty.
The ride and handling were both crisp and comfortable. Some of the biggest improvements over the Cobalt are evident in the Cruze’s ride. It feels and sounds like a more expensive car. Wind noise is considerably less and road noise was very little.
The suspension seemed to enjoy aggressive driving, keeping the Cruze firmly planted on the road and the rack-mounted electric power steering was direct and provided a confident return to center.
Fast, powerful look
In a parking lot of big compact players, the Cruze stands out. For the most part, compact styling has come up short. But that may also suggest that many of these buyers aren’t looking for steep windshields, hard edges and hood scoops. No one can look at any Corolla built between 2000 and 2010 and say, “I bought for its styling” with a straight face.
You could, however, say that with the Cruze, especially if you add the $695 RS appearance package, which includes a new front and rear fascia, rocker moldings, fog lamps and a rear spoiler. It just adds a better look to the Cruze, which looks nice to begin with.
There’s a fast look to the Cruze, in part because of the way the headlights stretch so far back into the quarter panels. The big dual grille and big wheels (up to 18 inches) all add to its powerful stance. The Cruze is also 70 inches wide, which adds to that balanced look.
In 50 years, I don’t think the Cruze will be celebrated along Woodward Avenue — at least not for the reasons people might think.
No, this Cruze will be recalled as the quintessential car that showed the world, and by the “world,” I mean Americans, that when it comes to small cars, Chevrolet could deliver.
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