2011 Chevrolet Cruze: First Drive

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It's hard to overstate the importance of Chevrolet's new Cruze global small car, which will eventually be sold in 60 markets around the world, arriving in the U.S. this September. With strict fuel economy rules on the way, GM needs a small car that can run with the best in the segment, and after driving a few preproduction examples of the Cruze, I think Chevrolet has such a car — and more. The Cruze offers sprightly performance; a hushed, relatively roomy cabin; impressive handling poise; and a bit of fun when equipped with the six-speed manual transmission and the optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Cruze2

Chevrolet hosted journalists at its Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan to drive the Cruze, and it said the cars on hand were 85 percent to 90 percent representative of the upcoming production model. The final tuning of the mechanical components is mostly done, but interior fit-and-finish issues were still being addressed.
 
I had the chance to take brief drives in three versions of the Cruze: one with the Touring suspension and an automatic transmission, another with the Sport suspension and an automatic, and a Cruze Eco with the six-speed manual. All of the cars were powered by the turbo 1.4-liter four-cylinder. (A 1.8-liter four-cylinder is standard.)
 
Cruze3
One of the most impressive qualities of the Cruze is its quiet cabin, which does a good job isolating you from outside noises. It's so quiet, in fact, that I found myself going faster than I thought because I wasn't hearing the kinds of noises that usually remind you of your speed. The suspension is impressively quiet, too. It doesn't exhibit any noisiness when traveling over bumps like some systems.
 
Like its big brother, the Chevrolet Malibu, the Cruze also strikes a nice balance between ride comfort and handling. The Touring suspension is taut, but it's not overly sensitive to road surfaces to the point that you feel every little imperfection, which is sometimes what it feels like when driving a car like the Honda Civic. The Cruze's suspension also does a good job managing the car's rebound when traveling over a big dip in the road. The Sport suspension, which features 15 percent higher spring rates and a 5 millimeter lower ride height, felt slightly firmer, but the car’s 18-inch wheels could have played a role, too.
 
Cruze4
I liked the smooth-revving turbo 1.4-liter four-cylinder, which is rated at an estimated 138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm and 148 pounds-feet of torque at a low 1,850 rpm. Interestingly, there's nothing in the driving experience that would make you think there's a turbo under the hood — there are no characteristic sounds of a turbo spooling up or a noticeable boost in power at a certain engine speed. In reality, it feels quite a bit stronger across its rpm spectrum than its small displacement would suggest, and when teamed with the six-speed manual I tested in the Eco model, it transforms the Cruze from a relatively engaging small car to one that could be an enjoyable companion on a winding back road. The clutch pedal is light and the shifter features short — if slightly murky-feeling — throws. The Eco model is around 125 pounds lighter than a regular Cruze, which helps it get a 40 mpg highway rating but provides performance benefits, too.
 
However, the Cruze's power-steering assistance struck me the wrong way. The high level of assistance is nice to have when maneuvering at slow speeds, as you would around a parking lot, but I wish the amount of assist dropped off more as you gained speed. The car responds nimbly, but the steering is so light that it seems like if you sneezed too hard you could send the Cruze off course.
 
As for the front seats, I didn't have trouble finding a comfortable driving position, and I'm 6-foot-1. Backseat room with the front seat adjusted for me was passable as far as legroom was concerned, but headroom was good. There isn't much thigh support for taller folks because you sit with your knees elevated.
 
Cruze5
As with recent redesigned versions of the Malibu sedan and Equinox small crossover, the Cruze makes Chevrolet a contender in a segment where it had previously been an afterthought. The question, though, is how long it will stay that way. Ford has an impressive-looking redesigned Focus that's scheduled to arrive in early 2011, and a thoroughly redesigned Civic can't be far behind.
 
Though it's never a given that a redesigned version of an existing car will be better than the current one, that's often the case, and that will put more pressure on the Cruze in the years to come. Right now, though, it performs like a car that other automakers in this class should be benchmarking. Considering where Chevrolet has been in the small-car segment in recent memory, that's a remarkable accomplishment.

Comments 

kj

Yeah, this car looks nice. I just don't believe all the hype with any small Chevy car anymore. Looking way back Chevy had the Chevette, Citation, Cavalier, that were allegedly offered the same quality as Toyota and Honda brands. They were dead wrong, Then the Cobalt came along and it too was junk compared to the Corolla and Civic. So why would any of us believe GM has turned a new corner in quality and that the Cruze is going to be better than any past Chevy models. I’m just not a believer.

Happymantis

I'm on the fence when it comes to the Cruze, I'm sure its better than the Corolla, which was a big disappointment to me as a long time Toyota buyer, but I'm not so sure against the Civic. In any case, I wish GM the best of luck!

bowrider

I like it. I just think GM started tooting its horn a little too soon with the Cruze. And, why do they keep changing the names of their cars - Cavalier, Cobalt, now this.

Belly

I really wish this car looked better. The front end looks like something that came out 5 years ago.

Its a mismash of blocky shapes without the aerodynamic looks of a Civic or Focus.

Unless the Focus is a real loser on all other fronts, I would take it over the Cruze.

jstant01

Looks like and sounds like a decent contender. I'm sure it will do well in traditionally strong GM-areas, like where I live in Michigan. The upcoming Focus looks a lot better though, and it offers a hatchback option and more trim lines (I think). If the Focus has comparable fuel economy and pricing, I think it will do much better. Look at Ford's results today - I've been saying for a long time, GM/Chrysler execs totally ignored the fallout from the bailouts. I live in a GM/UAW stronghold, and long-time GM loyalists/former employees are buying Fords.

Tony

This car looks like Hyundai/Kia of 5 years ago. But those companies went on to more modern designs. So, aesthetically, Cruise doesn't bring anything new. It will not be noticed on the road.

I would hold off any hype about any new car.

GR

When this thing finally hits the streets here, it's going to look like an OLD Malibu.

Nic

I'm sure enterprise will be excited about a new rental in their fleet. And I also think the name change is harmful. It should always be the Calvalier.

DonB

The Cruze looks great. The advantage it has over the Civic is that the Civic is now an older design and is nearly due for replacement. It's showing its age a bit, while the Cruze is new and exciting.

william borner

It looks exactly like my chevy cobalt wha's the difference

Tony

I guess, DonB is in outer world. Civic actually has a modern design as it is. We just got used to it but one has to admit that Civic is not your mainstream (Corolla) design.
This Cruise has new design. OK. But the direction is pretty old. The only part that is gets popular right now is rounded roof. But the front, side and rear - all from the old books. Also, save for the roof, it looks like Corolla from the side.

Style

It's Cruze...got it?

Cruze
Cruze
Cruze
Cruze

Ziggy

yawn...reminds me of a Saturn.

Zax

I wouldn't consider buying a GM car especially now that we find out they lied about paying back the Fed loan. Taking tax payer money from one loan to pay back another tax payer funded loan is not a legitimate payback. Sham on Cars.com for not reporting this as many other sites are all over it. GM still can't be trusted.

Zack

The cruze is going to turn some heads. Looks better than any VW or audi. I especially like the Honeywell sourced turbo, which is built into the exhaust manifold for better efficiency and less turbo lag. Interior space is almost midsize. It looks like GM has decided to build a more than competitive product.

Chuck

I heard the same hype about the Cobalt and we all know what a disappointment that turned out to be. I hope the Cruz is the real contender.

mike

ford has the highest quality rating of any,over 90%. (check the record) Gm and toyota has way below 45% crysler is even lower.ford makes a better car and pickup yes even better than toyota. check their own record the other car makers know that ford is better quality than theirs.

Zax,
Shame on you for not reading KickingTires every day
http://blogs.cars.com/kickingtires/2010/04/how-did-gm-pay-off-the-loans-early.html

We were on that right away, as the Detroit papers covered it well.

You're also just plain wrong.

They didn't lie.

What did they do?

Well, the federal government bought an ownership stake in GM and then it loaned them money to exit bankruptcy. It took the money for that ownership stake and put it into an escrow account for GM to use in case it had more problems after bankruptcy. Think of it as a big piggy bank if that helps.

But GM had no problems after bankruptcy and had to access the piggy bank one way or the other, it was technically their money. So instead of taking all that money and spending it on R&D or expansion, they paid back the outstanding loan and interest early. So no big interest payments later. Think of it as paying off your credit card balance in full instead of paying interest.

Where does that leave the U.S. taxpayers/govt? Exactly where it was before they got the loan paid back, with an ownership stake in GM in exchange for the piggy bank. But now they have the loan money back and an ownership stake.

They spent over $40 billion for that ownership stake. Analysts say the stake is worth about $30 billion now. No IPO has been offered yet. But basically if one was offered today you'd be out $10 billion.

These are all simplified numbers etc. and I'm sure they're not exact, but the U.S. govt. spends $10 billion pretty easily and overall this is a drop in the bucket to the banking scandal. And there are a lot more folks on main street with jobs from GM than Goldman Sachs.

My prediction is that GM won't offer an IPO until it knows whatever it is will pay back the govt stake in full or more. But things could still turn south.

Thomas M.

GM knows their taking of tax payer funds has hurt their reputation and that's why they are running the deceptive ads. The WSJ had the best analogy in stating that GM used one credit card to pay off another credit card. Running those commercials is disingenuous at best as they would have been better off just keeping their mouth shut.

PS Their CEO should not be doing commercials as he does anything but inspire confidence...then again GM still has that tired Buick brand...

Tony

If we own the GM, we should be able to get one of their cars at its cost, no?

J

Looking forward to the 2011 Civic redesign to kick this out of the league.

Style

Looking forward to the day where you don't make everything into a pissing contest.

Talley

As C&D said about the Cruz, it's an impressive car for GM but not for Mazda, VW, and Honda. I don't think the competition has anything to worry about as GM is still learning how to crawl.

Looks to be a great contender to replace the cobalt.

d

Avis currently has exclusive rights to rent the Cruze...& has anyone seen how much they charge??!! C'mon....avg $85-110 day!! No thanx....

It seems like the Cruze will offer some stiff competition, finally!

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