• Dec 14, 2010
Better, But Plenty of Room For Improvement

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT - Click above for high-res image gallery

The Chevrolet Cruze has the potential to succeed for two key reasons: 1) The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are nearing the end of their product life cycles, showing some crow's feet around the eyes, and 2) GM now has the wherewithal to create a small car that shows its actually understands small cars.

If you consider this rare moment in time, it's the perfect opportunity to pull a few hundred thousand buyers into GM showrooms for a closer look. Is the Cruze the car that will finally establish a strong relationship with entry-level buyers, or is it just another joker card in GM's deck?

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Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

Approach the Cruze from any angle and it's clear there isn't much in the way of historical lineage in this exterior design. There's no Cobalt in those scowling headlamps; you won't find a trace of Cavalier in the aggressive bodyline from the A-pillar to the trunk. Wasn't there anything worth saving from Chevrolet's previous small cars? In a word: no.

The Cruze tricks the eye with large visual cues. Look at the headlights (both wide and incredibly long from tip to tip), arch of the greenhouse (tall and extending so far back it finishes its line behind the rear wheels) and big, bubbly rear taillights (again, wide, wrapping around the body). Message received. My, what big ears you have.

The design plays well from a few angles. The sun arc of the roof and the rear deck communicate a friendly confidence. It's around front that the whole thing changes. The high angled headlights rip into the bodywork and come to point about 1/3 of the way up the front wheel wells – Lady Gaga's eyeliner pencil in full dress regalia. There's nothing subtle about it. In fact, save for the Camaro, it might be the most aggressive face on a Chevrolet to date.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT side view2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT front view2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT rear view

The angled, flying V language of the headlights extends to the interior, which is the car's pièce de résistance. This is a high contrast to the Cavaliers and Cobalts your ex-girlfriend drove. Those seats, those door panels, those headliners. Friend of Autoblog and Winding Road Editor Seyth Miersma once said that "every Cavalier and Cobalt [he'd] ever been in smells like a bag of McDonalds." We're happy to report that the Cruze seats have little to no scent at all, which seems to be the after effect of GM's silent race to produce clean, healthy interiors.

Olfactory aside, how good is the interior? Our own Zach Bowman, writing in the car's initial first drive in July, went full zealot: "it's fantastic," "looks gorgeous" and "we love it." When he wrote that the car was "Lexus-quiet," Chevy even picked the line up to use in its TV spot.

He was right about noise. With the parallel improvements in engine smoothness and an obvious increase in sound deadening materials, there's hardly any engine sound at idle. Note the laminated windshield and hydraulic engine mounts. Chevrolet is wisely keeping pace with the market as opposed to current segment competitors. Even as recently as five years ago, small cars like the Nissan Sentra were regarded as vaults of solitude. Now that car (or the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla) seems comparatively noisy when matched against the new Cruze. This pertains both to idle noise and noise at speed; one contributing factor is that the Corolla, Civic and Sentra don't offer six-speed automatics.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT headlight2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT logo2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT wheel2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT taillight

But while Zach had the benefit of reviewing the full monty LTZ trim at launch, this time we were stuck with the more proletariat 1LT (starts at $18,000 and as-tested was just over $20,000 – the estimated thick part of the bell curve for Cruze sales). Where the Cruze does differentiate is that it's offering a lot of features – Bluetooth, USB port – on even the lowliest trims. Typically cars in this segment offer those on pricier trims. An outdoor billboard for Cruze running in Los Angeles last month read: "Welcome to Featurepalooza."

The problem with the Cruze's interior is actually the part that GM seems to be most proud of: the shiny, "luxury" look of the instrument cluster (even in LT trim there is a rather expressive Y-shaped piece of piano black plastic). It's not clear to me there is a critical mass of people within the Cruze team who understand restraint. Speaking with one Chevy rep about the car recently, the phrase "one look and this interior is going to knock their socks off" was uttered. Is that what great interiors are all about?

Perhaps in the fleeting moments you get to sit in your friend's uncle's Ferrari, shock and awe are expected. But we're willing to put forth the notion that great interiors actually aren't overwhelming upon introduction. They are learnable, reliable and subtle. In the defense of the people putting together the Cruze, they likely spent a lot of time looking at the Cobalt and this assortment of materials is a reaction to that. The Cruze couldn't be further away from the Cobalt in terms of the five-second gut check.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT interior
2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT front seats2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT rear seats2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT trunk

A week with the Cruze revealed that the average user would find some detail-level frustrations. From a usability standpoint, we were frustrated by a lock/unlock switch (it simply didn't work) and some of the placements of everyday plugs and switches. For example, the 12-volt plug-in is located down near the cupholders, about mid-thigh next to the driver. This is convenient for a cell phone charger but difficult for a GPS or radar detector. What's the perfect place to put one of these? Hard to say, but this isn't it.

Space and roominess is good, however. The driver has plenty of room for his knees and front and back passengers can get full circulation through their extremities even after an hour or two in the car. The dramatic, sloping arch of the roof has little to no effect on ingress or egress, too – a welcomed surprise.

Quality of interior bits as well as fit and finish could be better. While there are parts that feel like some of the best stuff in the segment (the weight, circumference and materials used on the steering wheel, for example, or the "deluxe cloth" seats with their clever pattern), others reveal inconsistencies or poor manufacturing (the plastic insert in the cell phone cubby was already warping and didn't fit in its place).

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT gauges2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT digital readout2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT stereo controls2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT door panel

The different plastics on the door and dash are a neapolitan of textures and tones. Where one seems appropriate (the grey section in the middle), others feel cheap (the pebble grain section). To weigh the inside of the Cruze in total is a bit like handing a magazine to your friend across the aisle: "Skip the beginning, except the photo shoot with Josie Maran, but make sure you check out the Klosterman piece on copper thieves in Mexico, then read..." and so on. Unfortunately, cars aren't consumed like magazines. You have to live with the whole thing, reading all the articles in unison.

The 1LT Cruze is the cheapest of the trims that gets you the 1.4-liter turbo (the base LS starts with a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated four). All come with six-speed transmissions (the manual six-speed is available on the base LS and ECO trims). Safety wise, traction and stability control come standard on all models; four-wheel disc brakes are standard on the LTZ and optional on the 2LT (few cars in this segment offer discs at all four corners; the Suzuki SX4 is one rare example).

With the Cruze (and Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and the coming wave of newly developed small cars in the post Mini era), it's clear that table stakes for small cars have gone up significantly. But does that make for a better driving experience?

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT engine

In as much as your small car probably won't sound like a hornet in a tin can, yes. It's quiet, goes, turns and stops. However, we found it doesn't do any of these things superbly – with the exception of noise, which it suppresses like a padded cell. For a $20,000 small car in this segment, the Mazda3 is lighter and quicker, any number of cars have a more direct steering feel, and many of the sub-3,000-pound cars provide more confidence under braking (Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra). No Cruze engines feature direct injection, either, something that leaves GM holding its hand a bit in comparison to its competition. Do buyers in this segment understand and demand direct injection? That's unlikely today, but as the rest of the competition trains its audience through advertising, GM will have to upgrade.

At all speeds other than highway travel, the six-speed transmission occasionally loses faith in itself. It hunted up and down to find the right gear like Wylie E. Coyote attempting to run in two directions at once. If the first wave of the non-hybrid mpg race will be remembered for six-speed gearboxes and direct injection engines, the next wave will hopefully bring about the unity of all these disparate technologies. Three- and four-speed transmissions might be out of favor for their inefficiency, but you could hold your coffee in your lap.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT rear 3/4 view

The transmission isn't the engine's fault, however. The 1.4-liter turbo is a nice piece (and would be nicer if it weren't in a car that weighed about as much as a Chevy Colorado) and spools up relatively quickly. Where previous GM fours droned below your foot like you were strangling an old whale, there's little to report about the new Ecotec engine because it's actually quite difficult to hear. That awful sound is gone.

Right now the Cruze is a sitting duck for improvement: a B student that's finally moved up from a failing grade. A mid-cycle refresh with specific attention paid to some of the quality and interior shortcomings would put the car squarely in the running with other cars in the segment. Right now, though, it's fair to say that the new Cruze is better than the Toyota Corolla in just about every way, save for some philosophical internal struggle it's having with its design.

That's both saying a lot and saying very little. The Corolla is a perennial top seller despite its weaknesses. If what the people really want is a Corolla, then Chevrolet seems to have built a nice one.

Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      Kevin Fielder
      • 3 Years Ago
      Bought 2011 cruze had 3months , hit a racoon,my car still not fixed been at dealers for 5 weeks. picked up for 2 days out of the 5 weeks,service department thought they knew what was wrong and overrod codes now moter gone, buyer beware... merry ho-ho
      • 4 Years Ago
      The problem with the Chevrolet Snuze is that it is pitched against a competition that doesn't exist anymore - 1990's Toyotas and Hondas. I say this because clearly the exterior is pure SNUZE - it is a box with enough caricature Chevrolet bits to remind us that no one at Government Motors has any clue as to modern design. We've seen this face so often, that the look just seems awkward here. The grill is too high on the front end (that small slit shouldn't even be there from a design standpoint for balance). The car everywhere is has been done by Toyota for over a decade. Slap on some tail lights borrowed from circa 2002 and you have what Chevrolet, without any shame, passes off as a new car. Meanwhile, the new Hyundai Elantra is looking all sleek and beautiful and will instantly render the Snuze a mere fourth choice on a list after Focus, Elantra, and Civic.

      Government Motors' people get all excited about interiors these days after they figured that after 1980 they didn't have to worry about them. Pardon us while we find your glee and pride a bit too late to be taken seriously. And while the Snuze has a few months on its own against ancient competitors, it isn't setting the world on fire in sales. Locally these pieces of road vomit are gathering dust. In another six months once there are Focus and Elantras to enjoy, Snuze promotions will need $4k on the hood to move these things.

      I love how Autoblog glossed over the fact that has been offered by other reviews (the other reviews probably actually drove the car). The 1.4l turbo is as gutless an engine as you could contemplate in a new small car - this is a trick you'd expect from Government Motors thinking that adding a turbo to an engine so undersized for the vehicle would fool people into thinking this is one hot momma. Unfortunately the Snuze is a 400 pound momma pulling cheetos out of rolls of fat on a 100 degree Georgia Summer day - sticky, icky, and going nowhere fast. Reviewers who have actually driven the 1.4 note it is lethargic and can barely be called acceptable in today's world - but Government Motors benchmarked a 1980 Chevrolet Chevette automatic and are more than impressed that they knocked off 11 seconds in 0-60 time (having rented one of those slugs, I know from experience that the Chevette automatic took 20 seconds to get to 60 mph - we ran stopwatch on it). But the problem again with the new Snuze is that the competition isn't selling Chevettes - they are selling more competent and better vehicles - and - not only will they out accelerate a Snuze turbo (or 1.8l dunderball), they will out handle it and out ride it.

      The Snuze is good enough to be better than a Cobore. But the old Ford Focus was better than a Cobore. The issue now is that the Snuze is so unprepared for the modern car sales battle that it is an utter embarrassment to the class - unless you are considering a Toyota Corolla. Don't think for a minute that Ford, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, or even Toyota will be tearing apart a Snuze to find out the secret to its success. Since there isn't any success, there is no need to find the secret that never existed.

      Chevrolet Snuze. A half assed effort by a company that hasn't the balls to build a world class car and which hasn't the brain power to know what that means.
        • 4 Years Ago
        From what I've read, it is slower than most or all manual versions of its base engined competitors. Most reviewers just don't test automatics though, so it is tough to tell where it stands compared to those. Hopefully we see a dual-scroll turbo or DI within two years, that would help the put the power situation at or above the base power of everyone else.

        It does handle better than its competitors though, and people will buy slower cars that handle better. I know because I did it with my last car, although that car still packs >60% more power than the Cruze. Just stuff the VAG 2.0L turbo in there, then I'd consider it. Here's hoping the Kizashi gets that engine!
        • 4 Years Ago
        Dude, looking at your comment ratings I have just one piece of advice for you, courtesy of Mr. Mark Twain;

        "Better to keep one's mouth shut and allow others to think you the fool than to open it and remove all doubt."
        • 4 Years Ago

        Thank you. You just made my day.
        • 4 Years Ago
        It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. Better to assume you are a moron and occasionally surprise yourself.

      • 4 Years Ago
      Since they're cheaper? Because I just built a 2011 Civic Sedan EX-L, starting price of $24,705, and I can get it up to $32,906 with most of the options checked off.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Just give us (USA) the damn hatchback and quit f'n around.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Typical Lordstown Assembly fit and finish. Sigh.

      I hope they're bringing us the new Astra as a Buick - and I don't mean the Verano.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Who in the segment offers direct injection?

      Hyundai I think, and they didn't offer it until after the Cruze was out.
      Not Ford. Not Honda. Not Toyota. Not Chrysler. Not Kia. Not Mitsubishi. Not Mazda (except for the Mazdaspeed3).

      I find it hard to believe you can mark a car down for not offering what virtually no one in the segment offers.

      I'd love to see a close-up of the cell phone cubby to be sure, but GM often puts in removable liners in these type of closures in their cars, so they do "warp" easy, but all it requires to fix them is to take them out (perhaps clean them, that's why they are removable) and put them back in straight.

      I think given how much the Cobalt interior was picked on, having a "knock your socks off" one in this one was a good choice. I sat in one and was very impressed. Look at this interior, you're getting that for $18K. Other companies don't even offer anything other than their highest specced models for review (or if they do, AB doesn't review them) and this one still hangs with the others we see.
        • 4 Years Ago
        There's no EcoBoost in this segment.

        Gloria, the Focus isn't out yet. You cannot buy it.

        But let's say the Focus were out already. So that's one car in the segment that offers DI. Good on them for offering it. But then are these sentences from the review true?

        'No Cruze engines feature direct injection, either, something that leaves GM holding its hand a bit in comparison to its competition. Do buyers in this segment understand and demand direct injection?'

        If only one car in the segment offers, then no, clearly buyers do not demand DI. And it doesn't leave GM hold its hand at bit if only one competitor has DI. Clearly in this segment DI is not de rigeur yet and so marking GM down for not having it is nit picking at best. Especially considering at this time NO competitor has DI!

        AB is putting on expectations that are not reasonable just so they have something to complain about.

        And when the Focus comes out and it sounds like a jalopy at idle due to the DI, will we see "it's noisy at idle" like the "it's quiet at idle" we see for the Cruze? Time will tell, won't it?
        • 4 Years Ago
        The EcoBoost engines are direct injected...
        • 4 Years Ago
        The 2012 Focus is in production right now. It has a DI 4cyl engine. It will be available for sale, within a month or so.

        So yes, there will be a C-class car with standard direct injection. As a matter of fact, all engines for the Focus, will be direct injected. Along with a DCT transmission.

        Thus, the cost cutting wonder will only be toward the top of the heap for a couple of months.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Elantra doesnt have DI, only the sonata has that. Hyundai said they had to keep costs down but may add it later. Corolla, Sentra, Jetta nor Civic have DI and considering Jetta is new I wouldnt expect to see DI in any of those cars soon. The author was fabricating a weakness for the Cruze.

        You are right about the lined cubbies in GM cars- the rubber mat is removable and likely was just out of place. Its not a fit and finish issues at all. The interior is fine as evidenced by all the comments here and other reviews. The review is BS.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I don't think the Jetta is DI either unless you get a Diesel or one of the forthcoming GTI-versions.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I think the person who wrote this piece talks from both sides of his mouth. In all, I take it he dislike the Cruze. Reading a long confusing article will not make me dislike the Cruze. I drove the Cruze, Corolla, and Honda Civic back to back, and I found the Cruze to be a much better car in every segment!
        • 4 Years Ago
        The Cruze is MILES ahead of the Cobalt. There is absolutely no denying that.

        I really do think that people who compare this to the Civic are forgetting one key bit of information. The 8th generation Civic was released in mid 2005, meaning it has been on the market for going on 6 years. It was also likely that the Civic had been in development for at least two years prior to 2005.

        I certainly hope that Chevrolet can release a better vehicle that is substansially newer (7 years) than the Civic.

        Bad comparison.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Where's the SS version?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Either late next year or early 2012 is my prediction. Don't know why they don't have one already considering the Cobalt SS Supercharged came out right at the same time the Cobalt was introduced.
      • 4 Years Ago
      I like it and a lot of the underhood tech (Ecotec engine, integrated oil filter) though it seems a bit too pricey for what it is and also lack of a 5-door option would stop me from serious consideration.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Just bought a new Cruze RS a week ago and have been having a ball putting it through it's paces. Very impressed. I wasn't even considering the Cruze but it caught our eye and we agreed to take it for a spin. Came back with a smile on my face and then my wife drove it and said "this is the one I want" . Very nice Chevrolet, keep up the good work. The car is very quiet and nicely responsive. We tried the Mazda first and thought it was too noisy and buzzy. Then drove the Focus and it just felt cheap. The gas mileage appears great but we haven't had it long enough to judge yet.
      • 4 Years Ago
      This car is going to sell very well to the "cars are transportation appliances" set. The same group of people that normally would drive Corollas.

      The upcoming Focus will probably sell more to the "I need a fun small car" crowd... the type that in years past would have picked a Civic.

      Either way, this is a "Perfect Storm" (in a good way) for Detroit to get back in the small car game. Their Japanese competition is older, people are giving American cars another look. If they can lock-in new buyers now and keep them happy, they have the potential to keep them for years to come as loyal buyers.

      Don't F it up!
      • 4 Years Ago
      This is a mistake on Chevy's part. The Cobalt looked interesting for 5 minutes when it was new simply because it was new. This car will end up being the same. It looks ok now, but it will quickly become stale. I think the new Focus stands a much better chance. It looks sportier, looks like it cost at least twice as much as it actually does, and it has Ford quality, which lately has been above everyone else.