Road test: The compact and competitive Chevrolet Cruze

The Chevy Cruze won the AJAC car of the year for 2011 and is set to be GM's comeback success story.

February 23, 2011
by Tony Whitney and Tim Dimopoulos

FLEET MANAGEMENT, Jan-Feb 2011 Print Edition:

The Chevrolet Cruze is an important car for GM. It won the demanding Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Car of the Year competition for 2011, and it marks the first time in recent memory that GM has made a compact car that competes with the likes of a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.

GM has sold scores of these cars worldwide, and in Canada, where compact cars outsell most categories, it’s sure to be a hit. The last time GM had a best selling compact car in the Canadian market was when the less-than-impressive Chevy Cavalier ruled the compact car roost between 1990 and 1996. It was, in fact, the best-selling car in Canada during that period and the Cruze may just propel Chevy back to top spot if initial sales numbers are any indication.

The Cruze replaces that long-respected fleet standby the Chevrolet Cobalt, so it’s bound to merit close scrutiny by fleet managers.

The Cruze falls into the world car category, which means it’s built and sold all over the planet—in 60 countries, no less. According to GM, the Cruze was created by a “global design and development team”. It’s very much an international effort and is built in GM plants in some surprisingly diverse locations, including Australia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Russia, South Korea and Thailand.

The Canadian model will come from a US plant. It’s available only as a sedan in North America right now, but Europe and other markets will be able to buy a perhaps more practical five-door hatchback version. Other variations will likely come along and there’s even an electric Cruze being evaluated.

Some markets around the world have had the Cruze for a couple of years now so this is a proven product, well tested out in the field and often in regions where roads can be less well-maintained than those in Canada.

Global automobiles—and there are lots of them now—often seem to make their debuts overseas, so by the time they get to North America they’ve been pretty well evaluated in real world driving. According to reports, more than 270,000 Cruzes have been sold in markets around the world in less than two years—a great start by any standard.

Chevrolet confirms that some US$350-million was invested in new production facilities at the Lordstown, Ohio plant where the Cruze is being built. Before the car went on sale in Canada, it was subjected to more than six million kilometres of quality and durability testing and has achieved a five-star safety rating in every market where it’s sold.

The two-tone dash is stylish and controls are easy to find.

Taking on the competition

Very few GM products in recent history (and perhaps less recent history) have seen a more relentlessly focused development process. Chevrolet has even been competing with a three-car Cruze team in the prestigious World Touring Car Championship and this has probably influenced sales in Europe.

The Cruze competes in a busy market—the one that includes class leaders like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and a whole pack of others from automakers like Hyundai and Kia. By way of price comparison, a base Cruze costs $14,995, while a Civic goes for $14,990 and a Corolla for $15,450. It often takes a lengthy session with the spec sheets to discover which in any group of rival vehicles offers the best value.

What sets the Cruze apart from the Civic, Corolla and Mazda3 holy trinity? For one thing it’s noticeably quieter, especially at highway speeds. The 1.4 litre turbo engine is also noticeably very good on gas. As well, GM did not cheap out on the Cruze’s interior, with a standard trip computer and quality materals throughout.

Cruze styling is fairly clean and straightforward with no particular effort made to create anything radical or dramatic. It has a strong Chevrolet identity with the usual “bowtie” logo front and rear and the main aim seems to have been to design a car that would appeal to a very wide range of buyers from families, singles and seniors to fleet managers and people who work out of their cars. More than likely, sales will prove that this was the right decision.

It’s a very “slippery” look with few creases and protrusions. Inoffensive would probably best fit the Cruze styling philosophy, and fleet managers especially will warm to the car’s conservative lines. Even Chevrolet admits to “restrained use of exterior trim”. There are scenarios where an offbeat vehicle can fit in well with a specific business image, but in the main, discreet good taste is usually the watchword and on that point the Cruze delivers.

The Cruze is a little wider than most competitors and this gives it a nice stance on the road. For those who like to dress up their cars and add a little more sporty character, Chevrolet offers optional trim packages with revised fascias and rocker panel mouldings plus a rear spoiler, fog lamps and a more upscale instrument cluster (ask for the RS appearance package for LT or LTZ). With these add-ons, the car attains quite a racy persona, looking more like a sports coupe than a sedan.

The base engine is a 1.4-litre turbo.

There are four basic Cruze models and, as expected, lengthy options lists to customize whichever version is chosen. The base car is the Cruze Eco 1.4-litre Turbo, which as its name suggests, is aimed at buyers who place economy above other factors. More than likely, this is the Cruze that will be the major draw for fleet managers and other business users.

Next up the Cruze food chain is the Cruze LS, which uses a 1.8-litre Ecotec non-turbo powerplant. The top pair of Cruze variants are the high-content LT Turbo and the LTZ Turbo. Both use the Eco’s 1.4-litre turbo but come with a six-speed automatic transmission as standard. The two entry-level Cruze models offer both manual and automatic transmissions.

Chevrolet claims bragging rights for the only car in its segment with 10 standard air bags. In addition to the usual pair up front there are head curtain side air bags, front and outboard rear-seat side impact air bags and new knee air bags. Safety is also enhanced by electronic stability control with rollover sensing plus traction control and anti-lock brakes.

Interestingly, GM is the only automaker in North America to operate its own rollover test facility. It would be insensitive to say that this is a good car to have an accident in, but that’s more or less the basic philosophy behind the Cruze’s safety features.

Above average interior

The interior is nicely done with well-chosen materials, reasonably wide and comfortable seating, decent headroom even in the back, and a very modernistic and well-conceived instrument and control layout (LED lighting is used). It’s not a luxurious interior—the kind of ambiance you get with a Buick Regal—but it’s above average for its class and looks very durable.

For example, Chevrolet has made wide use of soft touch materials, which always seem to impart a feeling of  quality to any vehicle. Many cars in the compact class surround you with large areas of hard plastic, but the Cruze avoids this. Low gloss trim panels also help to at least give a notion of luxury, even if this is an inexpensive product.

The dash is a wraparound design and looks very stylish—especially with two-tone trim and the car’s satin chrome fittings. The window lifts and mirror controls on the driver’s side are especially well located and easy to get at.

A “driver information centre” is standard—a fairly rare feature at this price point. Even the base car has a six-speaker sound system with MP3 playback capability. There’s a USB port for iPod compatibility—almost a must with today’s vehicles, but still missing on many products. Spend a bit more cash and you can get a nine-speaker Pioneer stereo.

Available goodies include Bluetooth for mobile phones and other devices and a navigation unit, possibly the first extras a business buyer or fleet manager would choose.

For a product in its class, the Cruze is a relaxing drive, with a fair level of refinement and low noise levels, ironing out road variations with great poise. It feels like a larger car, which is probably exactly what Chevrolet intended.

Attention to detail abounds in this car. Chevrolet points out that the headliner cover is made from a knitted material that is part of a five-layer acoustical liner aimed at reducing noise in the passenger compartment.

Handling is good too—there was a time when twice the money wouldn’t buy you a sedan as agile as this Cruze. The electric rack-mounted power steering does a great job of combining lightness with feel. Surprisingly, there are three wheel diameter choices: 16-, 17-, and 18-inch.

If one factor marks the Cruze as a potential class leader it’s the amount of advertising that has accompanied the car’s launch—much of it very well conceived. All too often, GM has slipped a new model onto the market with little fanfare, resulting in weak sales. Some excellent GM products have made their debut backed by very feeble advertising campaigns, but not so the Cruze. Billboards, newspapers, TV, consumer magazines and business publications have all been used to get this product off to a really strong start.

The results will surely pay off and the Cruze will become a very familiar sight on Canadian roads.