Americans vs. Small Cars

Timing is everything. Americans have had plenty of chances to turn to small, fuel-efficient cars. Unfortunately, every time they did, they hated what they found.

Who remembers the first Arab Oil Embargo of 1973? Fuel shortages and fist fights at gas stations scared U.S. drivers into considering small cars like the Chevrolet Chevette, Honda Civic, Dodge Colt, Toyota Corolla, Ford Pinto, and Plymouth Cricket. While easier on gas, to a vehicle these cars were cramped, homely, slow, noisy, and cheap. Economy cars from the 1970s were miserable exercises in transportation.

It's no wonder that when fuel got cheap again, American drivers returned to their standard V-8 powered cars and trucks. For the money, the bigger traditional American vehicles made more sense.

Until now.

After generations of neglect, General Motors and Ford Motor Company have finally gotten their collective engineering and manufacturing acts together to offer American drivers small cars worth owning.
  • Image Credit: General Motors & Ford

Meet The New Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus

Chevrolet introduced the 2011 Cruze at December's Los Angeles Auto Show. The 2012 Ford Focus made its worldwide debut today (January 11) at the North American International Auto Show held in Detroit.

Together, these cars offer American drivers small cars they can live with. While much differentiates the Chevy from the Ford, one word aptly applies to both: substantial. These are not cheap looking, feeling, or driving cars. Each has a solid presence born from the minds of eager designers and clever engineers who knew they were working on cars that will help make or break their makers.

While AOL Autos has not driven either car, it's clear that the new Cruze and Focus are ready to do battle in America's showrooms. The Chevrolet goes on sale in the U.S. late this year, with the Focus following early in 2011.

Based on what you see on the following pages, which do you want to drive most?
  • Image Credit: General Motors

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Chevrolet learned a few things when they launched their new Malibu as a 2008 model. Perhaps the most important was that people like cars that look more expensive than they are. The Malibu has been a hit for Chevy. Like the Malibu, the Cruze looks handsome, rich, and bigger your mind thinks a small car should.

The Cruze is already a hit outside the U.S. It's been on sale in Asia for more than a year, and European production started in 2009. U.S. production begins in Lordstown, Ohio later this year. There will be three different trim levels; LS, LT and LTZ. We like the look of the 18-inch aluminum wheels fitted to the LTZ best.

Dimensionally, the Cruze is larger than the outgoing Chevy Cobalt and most of the other cars it will compete against. Main adversaries -- in addition to the new Ford Focus -- include the Toyota Corolla (new in 2009) and the Honda Civic (will be all-new for 2011).

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Acres of hard, poorly-fitting plastic used to define economy car interiors. Not so anymore.

Looking inside the new Cruze, it's roomy cabin is fully modern. Aluminum finished accents and bold use of color stand grab your attention. The interior's sweeping cockpit design uses high-quality soft-touch plastics and fabrics. Everything fits as it should with clean, even panel gaps.

Ten standard airbags provide impressive occupant protection.

In addition to ample room up front, those in the rear seats enjoy over 36 inches of legroom and 54 inches of shoulder room. This is 5 inches more than the outgoing Cobalt sedan, and used to be a competitive measurement for a mid-size sedan.
  • Image Credit: General Motors

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

The Cruze's Vehicle Line Director, Chuck Russell said, "The key to a high-quality car that works for different worldwide markets is having bandwidth in the car's structure to meet driver demands and crash regulations everywhere we'll sell it."

What Russell means is that the 2011 Cruze was engineered from the beginning for the entire world with no compromises. The Cruze's chassis was designed to handle the speeds of the German Autobahn, and its strength allows for super tight exterior panel gaps of just 3 mm because the structure is so strong.

American-market engines include two fuel-efficient four-cylinder options, a 1.8-liter with 136 horsepower and a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine with 138 horsepower. Automatic and manual six-speed transmission are available with both engines. Chevrolet promises at least one of these powertrains will deliver 40 miles per gallon highway mileage.

Dynamic safety features like electronic stability control, ABS and traction control are all standard as per new federal safety standards.
  • Image Credit: Ford

2012 Ford Focus

More aggressively styled than the Chevrolet Cruze, the all-new Focus is based on Ford's globally-developed C-Car platform. (Cars of this size are generally talked about as C-Segment vehicles by industry insiders). Ford will begin building two different body styles of the new Focus at a plant in Wayne, Michigan that used to build full-size, gas-swilling SUVs.

After receiving rave reviews for several concept cars including the Iosis (shown at the Frankfurt, Germany motor show in 2005), Ford developed an exterior style they're calling "kinetic design form." Their goal was to make the car look as if it's moving, even when parked. The 2011 Ford Fiesta is the first Ford to bring kinetic design to the U.S.

The Focus's exterior design is sporty, especially as applied to the five-door hatchback. But the sedan is certainly not staid and stuffy.

The Cruze and Focus are nearly identical in length and height. The Focus is an inch wider, but the body rides on a 104.2-inch wheelbase compared to the Cruze's 105.7-inch spacing.
  • Image Credit: Ford

2012 Ford Focus

The new Focus gets a sporty, sculpted new interior. There will be several trim levels, including the range-topping Titanium edition (shown) that is already popular on several of Ford's European models.

At first glance, you might not notice the groundbreaking technology. As on the current Focus, Ford's Sync technology (developed with Microsoft) is optional.

The 2012 Focus offers Sync along with the all-new MyFord Touch system that provides special steering wheel controls and a multiple LCD screens designed into the car's interior.

“This isn’t a new dashboard or a new instrument cluster or an interior redesign,” said Derrick Kuzak, group vice president, Global Product Development. “MyFord rethinks how information is presented to drivers and how drivers are able to personalize the way they relate to the information or entertainment the car makes available to them. It puts tremendous power at the hands of Focus owners.”
  • Image Credit: Ford

2012 Ford Focus

Like many manufacturers, Ford is using advanced engine technologies such as direct fuel injection to simultaneously improve horsepower and fuel economy. The new Focus will be powered by a 2.0-liter four cylinder that produces 155 horsepower, 15 more than the current Focus.

A six-speed manual transmission is standard. The only automatic is a six-speed Ford calls the PowerShift. The transmission is technically a dual-clutch design similar to those used on sports cars from Porsche, Audi, Ferrari, Lamborghini. The PowerShift provides the easy operation that comes with traditional automatics (there is no clutch pedal) with the efficiency and responsiveness associated with a manual. Ford claims a 9-percent increase in fuel economy just from the PowerShift technology.

Highway mileage for the new Focus will exceed the current models 35 mpg by a significant margin.

We expect that Ford will continue to deliver cars that are exciting to drive, and we'll bring you a drive report as soon as we get behind the wheel.

2012 Ford Focus

Like when the New York Yankees play the Mets, the Cruze vs. Focus makes for a great cross-town rivalry … especially when the battle happens in Detroit.

The bigger story is that both cars will compete against other C-Segment competitors. The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are perennial members of the 10-most popular cars in America. Vehicles like the Subaru Impreza, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, and Suzuki SX4 each offer product advantages that the newest Chevy and Ford must overcome.

Time to see whether they can do it.
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