2012 Chevrolet Cruze Expert Review:Autoblog
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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
Chevrolet's mainstream, high-volume compact car was derisively referred to as the Cadavelier not so many years ago. It was considered one of the most uninspired entries from any automaker in the segment. The Cobalt was a major step forward, but still wasn't near the top of its class. In the words of soon-to-retire General Motors vice-chairman Bob Lutz, the Cobalt was developed under the old philosophy of making cars "good enough."
Under Lutz's tutelage, GM's product development team has shifted to a philosophy of making its products "Best in Class." Transitions like this don't happen overnight, though – especially in the car business with its long lead times. While some would argue about whether GM's newest offerings are segment leaders, there is no doubt that almost every recent GM introduction has made tremendous progress.
GM will launch a replacement for its one-and-done Cobalt later this year in the shape of the new Chevrolet Cruze. We were invited to the GM Milford Proving Ground to learn more about the Cruze and get a first drive on the track. Read on to find out if it indeed has a shot at being best in class.
Ever since we first saw the Cruze just before the 2008 Paris Motor Show, GM has been saying that it is not a direct replacement for the Cobalt since it is larger and more upscale than the outgoing compact. In fact, the Cruze is less than one inch longer than the Cobalt and an inch taller. The biggest difference lies in its wheelbase and width, where the new sedan has an advantage of 2.4 and 2.8 inches respectively. Chevrolet will promote the Cruze as offering near mid-size space in a compact package with a compact price.
The Cruze is built on GM's new global compact platform (a.k.a. Delta II), which it shares with the Opel/Vauxhall Astra, the Volt, upcoming models including the Orlando and the next-generation Opel Zafira. Development of this platform was truly a global effort, with work being conducted around the clock from 2006 onward in South Korea, Germany and the United States. The Cruze is already on sale in more than 60 countries after launching in South Korea and China in late 2008, and it will go on sale in North America in the fourth quarter of this year.
The Cruze engineering team focused on several areas during development including refinement, safety and efficiency. We'll be taking a closer look at the safety story in a separate, more in-depth piece, but the car has been designed to meet all divergent safety requirements for each market in which it's sold and does so with one common structure. Crash tests in the Korean, Chinese and European NCAP programs have all yielded five star safety ratings, with the European Cruze scoring best-ever results in its segment in the EuroNCAP. The Cruze is also the first compact with 10 standard airbags, including front knee airbags and even rear seat outboard side airbags.
Remarkably, it does this without getting ridiculously heavy or resorting to the thick visibility-sapping pillars found on the Buick LaCrosse. GM has not announced the weight of the Cruze, but one engineer did say that loaded models would be in the 3,375-pound EPA test weight class, so that would likely put it somewhere between 3,125 and 3,375 pounds. The new body structure is also substantially more rigid than previous Delta platform vehicles. It now has a natural frequency of 42 Hz in bending and 40 Hz in twisting, an improvement of between 10-to-40 percent.
GM offers several different engine and transmission options for the Cruze in other markets, but the U.S. model will be the first to be equipped with six-speed units across the board. The new in-house developed-and-built M32 six-speed manual (below, left) will see its first application in the compact, as will an all-new six-speed automatic. The new 6T40 automatic transmission (below, right) is particularly compact and will eventually find its way into smaller GM cars around the world.
On the engine side, North America will only be getting the 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine, which is standard in the base LS model, and the new 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder for the LT, LTZ and ECO models. While both produce similar power (136 horsepower for the 1.8 and 138 hp for the 1.4), the smaller turbocharged engine has a substantially fatter torque curve hitting 148 pound-feet at 1,850 rpm (123 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm for the 1.8) and staying there throughout most of its operating range. (Update: The 1.4-liter turbo uses port fuel injection rather than direct injection. GM was able to meet its performance and efficiency targets for the engine without the extra cost of DI. GM engineers don't rule out using DI on future iterations of the engine.)
The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine (below, right) also has some interesting design features. Unlike many modern engines, it retains a cast iron block. However, this is a thin wall casting that has almost no weight penalty over an aluminum design because it doesn't need any cylinder liners. As you go to smaller engines, the benefits of the lighter material shrink because of the extra material that must be added for durability reasons.
Engine weight is also kept down by using a composite intake manifold and a single-piece cast aluminum front cover with an integrated water pump. Parasitic losses are reduced by using a variable displacement oil pump to only produce as much oil pressure as needed rather than building excess and then using a bypass to bleed it off. Instead of a traditional screw-on oil-filter, the 1.4 has a cast-in housing with an integrated cooler and a replaceable paper cartridge filter that comes out from the top. This reduces oil spillage during changes and has less waste material during disposal. The manual-equipped 1.4-liter model also gets a dual mass flywheel, which helps to dampen vibrations from the four-cylinder engine.
The Honeywell supplied turbo itself is integrated into the exhaust manifold to minimize energy loss and lag, which helps with the engine's responsiveness. Coolant flow is maintained through the turbo bearing area after engine shutdown to prevent the oil from cooking and prematurely destroying the turbo.
The Cruze's front suspension is a fairly conventional MacPherson strut setup, but the electric power steering (EPAS) is now rack-mounted rather than column-mounted for better feel. Hydraulic bushings are used in the lower control arms for better ride and isolation and hydraulic load-bearing engine mounts are also used to keep noise and vibration from being transmitted into the passenger compartment.
At first glance, the torsion beam rear suspension looks pretty unimpressive, but chassis engineers have incorporated some interesting features. Because the Delta II platform is designed to be sold in markets around the world with various bodystyles, flexibility was needed to tune the suspension for various applications. A typical torsion beam setup has a lateral V-shaped beam joining the trailing arms. The Cruze (and other Delta models including Astra and Volt) has a steel tube with a pinched central section, and GM uses a patented helical welding process at the outer ends to connect the beam and control arms.
The beam itself provides the roll control function of an anti-roll bar. By varying the thickness of the steel in the tube, the engineers can adjust the car's rear roll stiffness. The tube can also be rotated for different vehicles to change the orientation of the pinched section. By doing this, the roll steer effect of the rear axle (the angle of the wheels as they move up and down that affects the handling of the car) can be changed. A Watts link has also been incorporated to help manage the lateral position of the wheels, the first such application with a torsion beam axle in a production car. A lateral link from the rear end of each trailing arm is attached to the central crank mounted to a sub-frame. As lateral loads build, the linkage puts a counter-acting force on the opposite wheel to keep the whole setup centered under the car.
Minimizing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) was also a top priority throughout development of the Cruze. Along with the usual array of sound-deadening mattes, the engineers have also used features typically found on more premium cars like acoustical windshield glass and triple door seals. During the body build process, expanding foam is injected into hollow sections of the doors and body structure. When the body goes through the curing ovens after painting, the foam expands to fill those areas so that it can dampen out vibrations.
GM provided three Cruze models for us to drive at the Milford Proving Ground ,along with a Toyota Corolla and two Honda Civic sedans for comparison. One Cruze was a loaded LTZ model with the six-speed automatic transmission, 18-inch wheels and sport suspension setup. Another was a mid-level 2LT automatic with 16-inch wheels and touring suspension, while the third was a manual transmission Eco model. All were powered by the new 1.4-liter turbo. These were engineering development cars and didn't necessarily have all the final trim and graining in the interior, so we'll withhold final judgment on interior fit and finish until we can get our mitts on a production example. We were told, however, that the NVH package and mechanical bits were pretty much finalized on these cars.
Given the relatively modest growth in external size, the Cruze is quite roomy inside, now being classed as a mid-size car by EPA standards. Four adults can easily fit comfortably in the front and back. Like most other recent GM cars, the front seats are quite comfortable and supportive with adequately long seat cushions for decent thigh support.
While fit and finish on our test cars wasn't representative, the layout was. The arrangement of controls is very good, with knurled rubber coatings on the big round knobs for the audio and climate controls. The gauges are large and legible and a full driver information display sits in between the speedometer and tachometer, just as it does on other GM vehicles.
We were allowed to lap the ride-and-handling loop at Milford in all of the cars as well as check out acceleration and braking in the vehicle dynamics area. The first car we tried was the Eco model, which GM expects will get a 40 miles-per-gallon highway rating from the EPA. In addition to a lowered ride height and some weight and aerodynamic tweaks, the ECO also gets different gearing than other Cruze models. Typically with these fuel economy specials, the gearing is set up just for maximum efficiency and acceleration is leisurely. However, the Cruze engineers actually opted for a shorter first gear ratio (4.273:1 vs 3.818:1 on the base model) in order to provide better off-the-line performance. Third through sixth gears are all taller than base models, as is the final drive ratio to provide lower engine speeds when cruising.
The Cruze Eco feels surprisingly responsive accelerating away from a start and driving around at urban speeds. Most drivers won't find this car at all unpleasant to drive on a day-to-day basis. The manual transmission was also a pleasure to use with slick transitions from gear to gear and no notchiness at all. The clutch take-up was also smooth and progressive. The broad flat torque curve of the turbo engine is something that American drivers will appreciate, making the 1.4-liter engine feel like a significantly larger engine.
The roughly three-mile long Milford ride loop consists of a variety of turns and surfaces, including smooth asphalt and concrete, rumble strips, railroad crossings, humps and dips and broken pavement typical of some of the worst of Michigan roads. One series of right-left-right curves features some very rough, bumpy pavement that can easily upset a car while cornering. The Cruze took everything we threw at with aplomb. The suspension kept the rubber on the road through those rough pavement corners and soaked up everything without a hint of stepping out or excessive vertical motions.
This particular series of corners illustrated the biggest dynamic difference between the Cruze and its competitors. In the same section at similar speeds, the Honda's multi-link rear suspension always seemed to step sideways while the Corolla had under-damped vertical motions. The Cruze was also much better isolated than the other cars. While we could hear what was going on below, the noises were much more muted, providing just enough feedback to act as a warning signal while still allowing a conversation in normal speaking voices.
It was also a real pleasure for us to see the progress being made with newer low rolling resistance tires. Not that long ago, putting such tires on a car would result in handling that felt like you were constantly driving on ice. By contrast, the Cruze Eco always felt confident and in control. The new rack-mounted EPAS system provided a good balance of steering effort whether maneuvering at low speeds or cornering near the limit of adhesion.
Similarly, everything else was quieter in the Cruze – including engine and wind noise. This was particularly true compared to the Civic. Winds were gusting about 25-30 mph during our evaluation and the Civic was shockingly loud inside. By comparison, the Cruze was downright serene. Even though the interior materials of these prototypes was not fully representative, it still looked far better than the interior of the Corolla, which reminded us more of recent Chrysler vehicles than the high-quality cabins that Toyota built its reputation on.
Back on the dynamic front, the two other models we drove exhibited similar handling characteristics to the ECO with the touring suspension 2LT being marginally softer and the sport LTZ having slightly more precise steering response and feedback. The biggest difference from the manual-equipped Eco we drove was the new six-speed automatic transmission, which shifted seamlessly and never exhibited any abrupt behavior. The only real complaint we could make was a bit of sluggishness off the line.
This lag was only momentary and most drivers are unlikely to notice. In fact, it's not much different from what we've experienced in many recent cars that have Normal and Sport shift modes. The Normal mode is typically tuned to maximize EPA numbers with slightly less aggressive throttle and transmission response, while Sport modes typically leap off the line a bit faster. Unless you floor the accelerator, you are unlikely to notice anything untoward.
One additional feature new to the 6T40 automatic is an idle-neutral mode. When the vehicle comes to a stop, the transmission automatically goes into Neutral and then re-engages the gear when the brake is released. This reduces load on the engine, adding another incremental improvement to fuel economy. We looked for any signs of this shifting when driving and were unable to detect the transmission's activity.
Overall, our brief exposure to the Cruze showed us that General Motors is serious about being best in class in the compact segment. At first blush, the Cruze has all the makings a huge improvement over the Cobalt, and memories of the Cadavelier will hopefully soon fade. The biggest problem for the Cruze will likely be the new 2012 Ford Focus, which we haven't driven yet. The new Focus is a bit smaller than the Cruze, although is also aiming for a class-leading interior and its styling is arguably more exciting than the Cruze. Regardless, we think there's plenty of room in the compact segment for both cars to succeed, perhaps at the expense of Toyota and Honda.
New Car Test Drive
Improved fuel economy.
The Chevrolet Cruze is an excellent choice among compact sedans. It's the best small car GM has offered in North America in decades. More important, it's among the best cars in its class.
Fuel economy is improved for 2012, and the list of standard equipment has grown longer, especially in the mid-range LT level. Otherwise, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is unchanged from 2011.
Launched as a 2011 model, the Cruze replaced the sturdy but boring Cobalt, and represented a great leap forward in technology, features and appeal. The Cruze was developed jointly by GM tech centers in Asia, Europe and the United States to battle compact competitors such as the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte, the best Volkswagen Jetta in years, and perennial leaders like the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Toyota Corolla. The Cruze holds its own with all of them, and surpasses many in key areas.
Cruze is conservatively styled, to be sure, but in our opinion it's a well designed, handsome car. Its interior is one of the roomiest in its class, with acceptable space for four adults, and it's also one of the nicest. By the quality of materials, fit or function, it surpasses nearly all its competitors. Its trunk is also one of the largest in a compact sedan.
The 2012 Cruze is offered with a choice of two adequately powered engines: a 1.8-liter four-cylinder and 1.4-liter four-cylinder with a turbocharger. As with most cars in this class, the Cruze is front-wheel drive. Both the manual and automatic are 6-speed-transmissions, which is rare in this class. The automatic offers some high-tech features that help conserve fuel.
Fuel economy for the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is an EPA-rated 26/38 mpg City/Highway with the 1.4-liter engine with manual or automatic transmission. With the 1.8-liter engine the government rates it 25/36 mpg with the manual, 22/35 mpg with the automatic. The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco rates 28/42 mpg with the manual, 26/39 mpg with the automatic.
The Chevrolet Cruze might be the smoothest, quietest compact offered in the United States. Ride quality is outstanding, yet the car is nimble, balanced and handles exceptionally well. Its steering is powered by electricity to save fuel. Underway, the steering feels sharp, with decent feel. The Cruze comes standard with a long list of safety features, including advanced electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, and a full complement of 10 airbags. There are knee-protection airbags for front passengers, side-impact airbags for rear passengers, and head-protection curtains with rollover deployment. Every Cruze comes with GM's OnStar telematics system, including a six-month subscription for automatic accident response and other services, a great safety feature.
Among the 2012 Cruze models, the Cruze Eco delivers the best fuel economy. Its aerodynamic features, including grille vanes that close at highway speeds, help it slip through the air more easily, and it weighs more than 200 pounds less than other models. To achieve its superb fuel economy, however, the Cruze Eco sacrifices performance, resulting in slower acceleration, longer stopping distances, and poorer handling than the other Cruze models.
The Cruze LTZ comes swathed in leather and loaded with technology. The Cruze LTZ is available with a full-feature navigation system, rear park assist, concierge services, premium Pioneer audio and remote starting. A loaded LTZ will crack the $26,000 barrier, however, at which point the Cruze makes less sense for many buyers, unless they seek a smaller, fuel-efficient car loaded with the latest features. For that kind of money, the alternatives include larger, very nicely equipped midsize sedans such as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata or Nissan Altima. We think the midrange Cruze LT hits the sweet spot in this class.
In short, the Cruze deserves to be on the list for anyone shopping for a fuel-efficient economy car.
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is available in four model levels, with a choice of four-cylinder engines and either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.
Cruze LS ($16,720) is powered by 1.8-liter inline four delivering 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, with a standard 6-speed manual. Cruze LS comes with air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, floor mats, and six-speaker audio with single CD, an auxiliary jack and XM satellite radio. The standard wheels are 16-inch steel.
Cruze Eco ($19,245) is optimized for fuel economy. It's powered by a smaller, 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that delivers the same 138 hp as the base engine, with an increase in torque to 148 lb-ft. It's lighter than other Cruze models, with aerodynamic aids that make in slipperier through the air, and low-rolling-resistance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels. The 2012 Cruze Eco comes with Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB port, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.
Cruise LT ($18,475) is powered by the same frugal turbocharged engine plus body-color power side mirrors and all the new goodies that have been added to the Cruze Eco. Sixteen-inch machined-face alloy wheels are standard on 2012 Cruze LT models. The 2012 Cruze LT is available with a revised 2LT option package ($2,130) with leather seating surfaces, a six-way power driver seat, heated seats, remote vehicle start, a sport-tuned suspension (new for 2012) with 17-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, and four-wheel-disc brakes.
Cruze LTZ ($23,110) comes standard with the automatic transmission and the contents of the 2LT package plus automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, ultrasonic rear-parking assist, and 18-inch alloy wheels. The 2012 Cruze LTZ also comes standard with fog lights, keyless entry and keyless start.
Cruze RS is an LTZ with an RS Appearance package ($595), which includes unique bumpers, rocker moldings, and a rear spoiler. A similar package for the LT2 ($695) adds all that plus fog lights and racier instruments. Navigation ($995) is available for LT2, LTZ, and Eco. Other options include a 250-watt Pioneer audio system with nine speakers ($445), a power sunroof ($900). LT2 buyers can also choose keyless access ($300). The Eco and LT1 can be spruced up with a Driver Convenience Package ($495) that includes a six-way power driver's seat, rear park assist, and remote start. (All prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
Safety features include front, side-impact and knee-protection airbags for front passengers, rear side-impact airbags and full cabin head-protection curtains with rollover deployment. GM's OnStar telematics are standard, with Automatic Crash Response and other services free for six months. Other standard safety features include Stabiltrack electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), front seatbelt pretensioners, daytime running lights (DRLs) and the federally mandated tire-pressure monitor.
The styling of the Chevrolet Cruze is handsome and nicely proportioned.
The Cruze is large, as compact cars go. Measuring 181.0 inches bumper-to-bumper, on a wheelbase of 105.7 inches, the Cruze is slightly larger than most of its competitors, including the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and the all-new 2012 Ford Focus.
Cruze is more angular than other recent Chevrolet sedans, including the popular Malibu. Its front end mimics the Volt plug-in sedan with a prominent Chevrolet Bowtie logo. The headlight housings are large, sweeping upward and around the front edges of the car.
The roofline arcs subtly from its steeply raked windshield through fast-sloping rear pillars, creating a generally sporty profile. Its wheels are pushed out to the corners of the car, with minimal overhang. No, this compact sedan doesn't break new ground or wow with its curves. But it's tidy and quite confidant looking, and the package generates a feeling of quality and solidity. Wheels range from 16-inch steel with plastic covers on the base LS to spoked 18-inch alloys with low-profile tires on the loaded LTZ.
The Cruze Eco is a slightly different beast, because it's designed to be Chevrolet's conventional-engine fuel economy leader. The differences start with 42 steps intended to trim weight, right down the size and location of welds in the body. As a result, the Eco tips the scales at 3,009 pounds, or 214 pounds less than the mid-level Cruze LT. Cruze Eco adds a host of aerodynamic tweaks, including some adapted from the Chevrolet Volt. These start with active grille shutters that close at higher speeds, blocking much of the grille surface when the cooling demands of the engine allow it, and smoothing air flow over the front of the car. The Eco also sports a lower front air-dam extension, plastic panels that cover large portions of the underbody and a carefully crafted rear spoiler. It's finished with low-rolling-resistance tires on specially designed rims. That means a bit less braking performance or grip through the corners, but it also means less friction when the Eco is cruising along for better fuel economy.
The Chevrolet Cruze is roomy inside, with ample dimensions in most directions. The cabin is finished nicely with quality materials. Sound deadening measures result in quiet operation. Overall, the Cruze cabin delivers an excellent balance of quality, coziness and space to breathe.
Cruze is near the top of the class for the look, fit and feel of the materials inside. The seams join with tighter tolerances than those in many other cars, including some of those a class or two above. The textiles and plastics are rich, appealing and nicely grained, and the metallic trim looks good. The fabric used for the door inserts matches that used on the seat cushions, and it flows from the doors across the bottom of the dash. It's unique, and visually inviting.
The leather upholstery that's optional is thick, yet supple, and stretched tightly over the seats. The headliner is form fit with a soft, sturdy knit material, and it's only the outer layer of five in the roof's insulation. About the only thing not up to snuff is some hard plastic at the bottom of the door pillars, and while no one will look at it much, it's stands out as sub-par because everything else is so nice. The front-seat adjustments in the Cruze allow occupants to find the right spot quickly and easily. The optional power controls for the driver are just as easy to use, and the tilting seat bottom has more range, from steep angle to nearly flat, than one finds in some luxury cars. There's plenty of fore-aft travel for drivers well over six feet tall, with even more front headroom. If anything comes up short, it's width. Published figures rank Cruze at the top of the class in front hip room, but the center console is on the wide side. Larger drivers who drive with their legs splayed may find their outer thighs or knees rubbing on the dash or door panel. You can drive better with knees closer together, anyway, a position that's better for braking and downshifting.
The steering wheel is thick and grippy; with the optional leather, it feels great in the hands. The wheel tilts and telescopes in all models, and we applaud Chevrolet for adding redundant audio controls on its right spoke on all but the base LS. The cruise-control switches on the left spoke are the best in the business. There's an on/off master switch and a big cancel button, sandwiching a thumbwheel that flicks down to set or add speed, and up to resume or reduce speed.
Gauges are big and crisp, illuminated with ice-blue LED lighting. With the RS appearance package, they're trimmed with chrome and covered with bezels that make them pop even more in darkness. The tachometer is located on the left and the speedometer on the right, with smaller fuel and temperature gauges in the middle. Underneath the smaller gauges, a digital display shows current gear, direction of travel, and a host of options for vehicle or travel information. It's easy to cycle through the choices with a toggle on the turn signal stalk, and just as easy to set preferences for automatic vehicle locking and the like. Again, it's impressive in a compact.
The center stack of switches looks great, though a bit complicated at first blush. In fact, it's rationally laid out and easy to learn. There are four large, primary knobs for volume, tuning, fan speed and temperature, each ringed with a nice rubber surround. They turn with a satisfying feel that conveys the amount of adjustment just by the amount of movement. Other switches are pushbuttons, with entertainment and information high, between the dash vents and just below a large display screen. Climate controls are at the bottom. There's a single, large pushbutton to cycle through all the various airflow-direction options.
GM's so-called favorite button is handy, even if it takes a bit of mental adjustment to shake preconceptions about conventional AM/FM presets. This button allows the driver to cycle through five pages of six preset stations. But rather than being organized by AM, FM or another frequency band, each page of favorites can store any station available. That means you can store an AM news or talk station in the same page as your favorite satellite TV channels and FM music stations, enabling quick switching among them. The local traffic feed from satellite is thrown in for good measure. Conventional thinkers can still set each page to AM, FM or satellite, if that feels better.
Storage space inside the Cruze is adequate, if not overwhelming. There's a handy covered bin in the dash above the center stack. It can keep a phone, wallet or remote stored out of sight, and it's lined with rubber to minimize sliding. The pockets at the bottom of the front door panels are decently sized, but the hard plastic generates an annoying sound when a CD case slides forward under braking. The glove box is fairly spacious, but the console box is fairly small, with enough room for an MP3 player when it's plugged into the port inside. There are two cupholders in the center console.
The rear seat isn't fancy, but it's roomy and impressively supportive. The cushions for outboard passengers are carved, countered and bolstered almost as much as the front seats in some inexpensive cars. The downside is that the third space in the middle is narrow and flat, and not well suited for anyone past age seven or eight. This is really a four-passenger car. The outside passengers, though, will find plenty of headroom and decent legroom, with enough space under the front seats to easily accommodate large feet.
There's a power point for rear passengers on the back of the console, but no air vents. Those in back will have to rely on the center dome light, because there are no reading lights, either. The fold-down center rear armrest stops exactly at the height of the armrests on the doors, so elbows can rest evenly. The armrest has decent cupholders for those in back, but storage space is limited to fist-sized bins at the bottom of the doors and map pockets on the front seatbacks.
The trunk offers plenty of space. With 15 cubic feet of volume, the Cruze trunk matches the best in class, with substantially more room than what's available in the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla (12.5 and 12.3 cubic feet, respectively). The opening is large, and the trunk lid parks straight up and well out of the way.
The rear seatbacks fold easily to expand truck space, but the bottom cushions are fixed, so the expanded surface is not entirely flat. The height of the pass-through space limits the size of objects that will slide through, and there are no tie-down points to easily secure something that might turn into a weighty projectile in a sudden stop. There are hooks for a cargo/grocery net just inside the trunk opening.
The Chevrolet Cruze is a product of joint engineering among GM tech centers around the world, and the co-operation shows in the way the Cruze performs. It isn't perfect, but the Cruze moves Chevrolet to the front of the small-car pack.
In many respects, particularly measured by interior comfort and overall refinement, the Cruze performs a class above the compact-sedan standard. We can't say that about its engine and transmission performance, however. Cruze's powertrain isn't glaringly weak, but it's not one of the highlights in its dynamics portfolio.
The Cruze is available with two four-cylinder engines, and both have most of the latest control, durability and maintenance-reducing features, including fully variable timing for both intake and exhaust valves. The base engine displaces 1.8 liters, producing 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. The upgrade engine is actually smaller, at 1.4 liters, but it's equipped with a high-tech integrated turbocharger.
The turbo engine generates the same 138 hp. It does produce an additional 23 lb-ft of torque, but that in itself doesn't seem enough to offer a choice. So why the second engine? We're not sure either, but we can guess. The 1.4-liter four generates its power using a bit less fuel. It's one reason the Cruze Eco model is EPA-rated at 28 mpg City, 42 Highway, with the manual transmission, and 26/39 mpg with the automatic. Those are the best Highway ratings for any compact with a conventional gasoline engine, and better than most subcompacts.
Both transmissions have six forward gears. That's rare in this class, and another contributor to Cruze's overall fuel economy. The 6-speed automatic is technically advanced for a conventional torque-converter automatic in this segment, with GM's ActiveSelect manual-shift feature and a control program that unobtrusively puts it in neutral when the car is idling, even when the gear selector is in Drive. That, too, helps save fuel. We found the 1.4-liter turbo engine does an adequate job of propelling the Cruze. It's impressively smooth and reasonably quiet, even when working hard, and at 75 mph hour on the freeway, it's only turning about 2800-2900 rpm in top gear. The power comes on fairly low in the rev range, and then evenly all the way to redline. You don't have to wait until it's screaming at 6000 rpm for it to demonstrate any gumption. We'd guess that maybe 80 percent of typical drivers will be satisfied with its performance in daily use.
The dissatisfaction comes for that percentage of drivers who more than occasionally like to accelerate full bore, or drive harder than normal commuter-grade travel, and not just because the Cruze is slower than most cars in this class. On paper, it accelerates from 0-60 mph in the high 8-second range, which is not quick but probably quick enough for most drivers. Our complaint is more about how hard the engine is working in the process, and how you really need to keep it floored to get this car to go. It may also be that, because the Cruze is so well sorted in other respects, it could handle a lot more power.
The 6-speed manual transmission works fine, with a firm, smooth, shifter and gear ratios well suited to maximizing the limited power.
The automatic, though, has a similar bi-polar character as the engine. It works great when you're going at a relaxed, fairly casual pace, but not so well when you really step on the gas. As a full automatic, the transmission's shifts are positive and impeccably smooth. If you step on the gas just a bit to gain speed around a dawdler, it will shift down one gear smoothly, deliver a moderate bubble of acceleration, and then find top gear again as quickly as it can. But if the road opens up through the countryside, with nice curves that mean slowing fairly hard and then speeding up again, the automatic is less co-operative. Perhaps to maximize fuel economy, Chevrolet engineers seem to have programmed it to always seek the highest gear mechanically possible. The Cruze automatic doesn't like to shift down more than one gear at a time, and it won't unless you floor that gas pedal. And once it does downshift, it's most concerned with getting back up into sixth gear as soon as it can. In such circumstances, the manual-shift feature is the preferred choice, and it works almost surprisingly well. The shifts are quite quick, but still smooth, and the transmission will hold the chosen gear at fairly high rpm.
One important way the Cruze surpasses much of its competition is in its tight, ultra-solid body/frame structure. The Cruze unibody has as much extra-high-strength steel in key locations as any car Chevy has built, according to engineers. It has earned the highest scores in government-mandated crash tests in Europe, and Chevy says it expects the same in the United States. More to the point, the solidly built body provides a solid foundation for a lot of good things that make Cruze pleasant to drive.
Interior comfort is one of them. Very little vibration finds its way into the Cruze cabin, and it's one of the quietest compacts we've driven, even with its little, hard-working engine. Moreover, the noise passengers do hear is the sort that tends to be less obtrusive, like the crack of tires on pavement seems. There is very little wind noise, and not much of the high-pitch mechanical or vibration buzz that can come across as white noise.
The solid body also contributes to excellent ride and handling. Even without a fully independent rear suspension, something that can make cars of this type jittery and prone to bounce in the rear, the Cruze's ride is nearly flawless. It absorbed mid-winter potholes with the aplomb of a luxury sedan, without a lot of bounce-rebound-bounce, or anything close to mushiness or float. In total, this compact leads the pack in ride quality, but it isn't sluggish.
In wintry weather we found the Cruze stellar, even with its standard all-season tires. Its lithe, balanced quality helps the Cruze on slippery roads, because if the driver is reasonably smooth, there won't be any squats, dives or side-to-side body swaying that can shift weight, upset traction and make the car harder to manage, as if there were a giant bowling ball rolling around in its shell. Traction control takes care of modulating the gas pedal. The driver just steps on it, and the electronics allow the Cruze to accelerate as fast as it can accelerate, given the traction available. The electronic stability control helps the driver stay ahead of the game, and it rarely lets anything get to the point where the Cruze might spin or swap ends.
When the pavement dries and the road clears, the Cruze can be good fun to drive, though more so with the manual transmission, as mentioned. Its power-steering pump runs on the electrical system rather than by drawing its power directly from the engine, and it's reasonably well sorted. It requires almost no effort to turn at low speeds, but resistance builds somewhat as speeds increase. The steering is also fairly quick, to the point that a driver might have to correct and re-adjust the car's trajectory through a curve, because the wheel was initially turned too much.
Overall, we'd rank the Cruze as a fine handling car. The nicely controlled body motion that helps in sloppy conditions applies on warm, dry pavement as well, at much higher speeds. At a more urgent clip, the Cruze maintains the poise it exhibits in a blizzard, with nothing jerky or surprising in its reactions. And there is quite a bit of lateral grip in the upgrade, low-profile tires, so it holds the pavement nicely though a fast curve. No real complaints about the brakes either. The pedal can seem a bit grabby when first applied, but the driver gets the hang of things in short order. The anti-lock brake system (ABS) manages full-panic stops nicely, and smoother, steadier braking quickly becomes a breeze.
The Cruze Eco's outstanding mileage ratings will no doubt appeal to many compact drivers. Though we haven't had a chance to drive one, experience suggests that there will be at least a slight payback for the higher mileage. The Eco's so-called green tires will be harder, less sticky, than those on other models, and that could adversely affect both ride and handling. The Eco may prove at least a bit less responsive than other Cruze models. Everything about designing a car is a compromise.
Perhaps more significantly, the Eco's weight-reducing measures could influence overall performance, and not from the safety perspective. Chevrolet engineers have trimmed weight from the Eco's body by using thinner steel blanks and fewer, smaller welds in strategic locations. They've probably trimmed some of the sound-insulating material, and all that could affect the Cruze's excellent structure and noise and vibration control. Shoppers are encouraged to drive both the Eco and other Cruze variants before buying.
The Chevrolet Cruze is among the best of the compacts. Measured by features, mileage and ride-handling balance, or interior noise, space and quality, the Cruze matches or beats the best. It falls off a bit in power or engine performance, and it gets pricey at the high end of the model range. The Cruze LS and Cruze LT offer the best value.
J.P Vettraino filed this report from Detroit; John F. Katz reported from south-central Pennsylvania.
Chevrolet Cruze LS ($16,720); Cruze Eco ($19,245); LT ($18,475); LTZ ($23,110).
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($1,185); 2LT Package ($2,130) includes six-way power driver seat, heated front seats, leather seating surfaces, remote vehicle start, sport suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels.
Chevrolet Cruze LT ($18,475).
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