Better, But Plenty of Room For Improvement

2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT
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.

Related Gallery2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: Review
2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT2011 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT

Photos copyright ©2010 Steven J. Ewing / AOL