Why the Chevrolet Cruze Beat the Ford Focus

Cruzefocuslead
Philip Couts doesn't normally buy compact cars. The 53-year-old mechanical engineer downsized from his usual midsizer last August to Chevrolet's latest commuter car, the Cruze, to help save gas on his 22-mile commute between two Chicago suburbs. Except for a few small things — the seat bottoms could use more cushioning and he's not quite getting 30 mpg — Couts describes himself as "happy" with the car, a decked-out LTZ trim with leather seats and a turbo engine.

Couts shopped the Cruze against Ford's redesigned Focus, but the Ford had a smaller trunk, he says, and the Ford dealer wouldn't budge on pricing. Couts drove home in the Chevy.

Two redesigned cars — the Cruze for 2011 and the Focus for 2012 — signal ambitious hopes for their automakers. GM sells the Cruze in six continents; Ford says it developed its latest "global" Focus with a database of adults across North and South America, Asia and Germany. But here in the U.S., drivers like Philip Couts aren't alone. Year-to-date Focus sales are barely outpacing last year's aging model it replaced. The Cruze, meanwhile, has become Chevrolet's second-best-selling model, beaten only by the venerable Silverado pickup. It topped the Focus by more than 36,000 units over the past six months.

Why did the Cruze win? It's a tale of timing and supply — and the competition is far from over.

CruzeFocus

The New Year
In January 2011, the redesigned Cruze had been on sale for three months with a robust 76-day supply to start the year. Commuter-car shoppers could choose between the Chevrolet and more than 10 sedan competitors, ranging from an excellent Hyundai Elantra to a weak Toyota Corolla. The redesigned Honda Civic and Ford Focus were still months off.

It's no wonder, amid the thicket, that Ford was discounting the outgoing Focus up to $3,000. GM, by contrast, had only financing deals on the Cruze. The 2012 Focus wasn't due until April. By the time it arrived, the Cruze had mounted a clear lead — 50,205 sales through March, to the old Focus' 37,071, according to Automotive News data.

Arrive the Focus did — to supply problems as Ford struggled to transition its Wayne, Mich., assembly plant from SUV to small-car production. Through the crucial summer selling months, Focus inventory plunged to less than 22 days. Chevy dealers had a nearly 40-day Cruze stock in June and July — a huge advantage, given the Cruze's Japanese competitors were all but run dry by Japan's March earthquake. By the end of August, Cruze sales totaled 169,427. Ford had moved just 127,006 Focuses.

Focus inventory improved to 33 days for September on the way toward a 74-day October stock. With the 2011s gone, Ford pulled back incentives to discount financing and some scant bonus cash, similar to GM's Cruze incentives. Parity had arrived.

Still in the Woods
Supplies in hand, the Focus gained steam. Chevrolet sold 7,788 more Cruzes in September than Ford sold Focuses; in October, the gap narrowed to 1,909, but autumn brought more trouble. Consumer Reports dinged the Focus' reliability in its October reliability survey, citing problems with the car's dual-clutch automatic transmission. Somehow the Cruze, which had even worse reliability in the magazine's surveys, escaped with little press. Helped by catchy marketing — Advertising Age named the Cruze one of America's 25 hottest brands, riding a $1.1 billion wave of Chevrolet media spending in 2010 — the Cruze stayed ahead, selling 45,630 from September through November. In the same span, Ford sold 34,430 Focuses.

But Chevrolet's lead was shrinking.

Today, Tomorrow
That brings us to now. Through November, Chevrolet sold 215,057 Cruzes; Ford moved 161,436 Focuses in 2011. It's all but assured the Cruze will win the year. It's a rare occasion. Through the Focus' U.S. tenure, GM has served up a litany of Chevrolet competitors: the Cavalier, the Cobalt and now the Cruze. In 11 full years of sales, the Focus beat its Chevrolet counterparts seven times.

The Cruze's dominance is narrowing, but it may hold on yet. At 91 cubic feet, the Focus has the smallest cabin among a dozen cars in its segment, something that won no fans in Cars.com's Under 20/Over 35 Shootout. The Focus ranked third, one spot behind the Cruze, in our small-car affordability index. The Cruze earned a five-star overall rating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's more rigorous crash tests; the Focus got four stars.

The Focus is a year newer than the Cruze, and most versions get better overall gas mileage. Given supply and incentive parity, will Chevrolet hang onto its lead through 2012?

Comments 

sheth

This Cruze/Focus sales competition is one more example of how auto journalists are nearly clueless about what consumers want. Last year EVERYONE (and I mean everyone) was predicting that the Cruze would fall way short of the Focus in consumer appeal and in sales. Why? Mostly based on things real car consumers dont care about: curb weight, the fact that the Cruze went on sale in early 2009 in other markets and the prediction that the Focus would be a far better handler. Both cars are nice but consumers care about price, the smoothness of the drives, SPACE, availability and price. The Cruze is pricey, but the Focus costs even more if you load it up with luxury/tech features. Focus is small and the DCT has not gotten rave reviews from consumers or the press. The DCT isnt as smooth as a regular auto and even though the press has beat up on the Cruze's automatic it doesn't seem like consumers have a problem with its performance. This posting seems to be inferring the Focus will assume its rightful place in 2012 but it fails to mention a few improvements to the Cruze. Mileage is up by 2mpg on automatic versions with the 1.4T, the nav system is cheaper, disc brakes are now standard on the LT, push button start was added and a manual is now offered on LT models with the 1.4T. Two of the biggest crtiticisms of the Cruze in the first year were the lack of a manual on anything but the base model or ECO and the MPGs that trailed some competitors by as much as 4mpg. The only Focus model with a real mpg advantage over Cruze is the FE model at 28/40. The manual focus gets near worst in class mileage and the higher level Focus gets 27/37 which is basically a tie with the 26/38 of the Cruze. Of course the Cruze ECO exceeds the mpgs of any Focus.

Al

Great points Sheth. I test drove a Cruze LT with the Turbo in it after the car first came out. I was not impressed with the transmission. I would love to give the car a try though, with a manual transmission. I may just do that soon. I did think the car was a little noisy, and seemingly short on rear leg room when I had the front seat where I would need it to be. I'm glad cars for both company's are selling at a relatively brisk pace without big incentives!

Rich

I’m a Ford fan but I think the Chevy has better styling than the Ford. Although the Chevy looks a bit familiar, maybe even dated (hello, Malibu), the Ford looks pinched, small and overworked. What’s with that ugly front end, Ford?

sheth

Al:

Cruze has more rear seat room than the Focus. They are compacts so niether car has stretch out room in the rear. I drove the Cruze briefly at the GM Main Street event and I didnt notice anything notable about the automatic- but the drive was brief. The Focus' DCT has been criticized in almost every review. DCTs generally arent as smooth as TC automatics in city driving. The Focus and Fiesta are amongst the first high volume vehicles with DCTs.

The focus is more aggressive looking but in the real world people do care about trunk space, price, ride quality, etc. and the Cruze does well on those fronts. On top of all that, contrary to media hype the Cruze handles nearly as well as the Focus. The base Focus interior without MFT (which many say should be skipped) is also not as nice as the Cruze interior. The regular focus has totally different buttons and a much smaller screen on the center stack- it looks like the Fiesta inside.

Ziggy

What did Phillip drive prior to buying the Cruze?

Derrick G

Let's not forget that the Cavalier and Cobalt were not pleasant cars. They felt cheap. The Cruze does not. Predicting Cruze sales vs. Focus based on how the Cavalier or Cobalt did probably isn't very sound.

sheth

correct Derrick, but that didnt stop people from assuming the Cruze wouldnt thrive in the market based on past GM efforts. They failed to note that unlike past GM compacts the Cruze was heavily developed in Europe and Asia. That virtually guaranteed it would be capable of standing up to the top global compacts. The Cruze hs nothing to do with the Cobalt or Cavalier- and the Cobalt wasnt even a terrible car, just a dull car.

cody

i traded in my prius for a cruze eco w/6sp manual this past summer and have absolutely loved it. it doesn't quite achieve the mpg my prius did, but it's so much more fun to drive and it cost less (i got a great trade in on my prius).

over 10k miles of driving (mostly commuting to and from work with some long trips (100+ highway miles)) i have averaged 37mpg. i have achieved over 40mpg on the highway trips.

i test drove a cruze lt with the 6sp auto twice over the two days that i was debating the purchase. i did not like the way the auto raced to the highest possible gear to achieve maxmimum fuel economy. when more power was needed, it seemed to take a second to figure out which gear i needed based on my throttle input...it might have 'learned' that after a couple thousand miles of driving. i think a cvt would probably be the better choice for these smaller 4-cylinders...but i know most people think they don't like cvts.

the manual transmission makes the 1.4L turbo a blast to drive. i can shift as quickly or hold gears as long as i like. i would recommend it to anyone looking for a fuel efficient and FUN large-ish compact car.

Liger

Excellent article. I really enjoyed this information, I am looking forward to more posts like this one.

jstant01

I know this article is about the Cruze/Focus, and I too agree with many of the comments here - especially regarding the Focus' styling. It does look very overworked.

I wanted to respond to the comment about a CVT, though. I had a Nissan Altima as a rental for a few days recently. Like all Nissans, it has a CVT. I found that I actually liked the transmission - a lot. It was mostly city driving, with a few brief stints on the highway. Acceleration was VERY strong, and the car basically runs at about 1100-1200rpm, all the time, except for when extra acceleration is needed.

I think if more people would drive a CVT car and get used to it, they'd probably end up liking them more. At least, that was my experience.

Uk Diesel Driver

Interesting difference between the US and the UK...

No one drives a Cruze over here and the Focus is much, much, much more popular...

George

About 70% of the US water supply is fluoridated, while only 10% of the UK has water fluoridation.

Tony

Not many people are watching soccer in US
And in UK not many people watching American Football

Jim

Drove a Focus in LA last month for several days. The transmission was horrible. One passenger asked if there was something wrong with it.

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