Keep the accelerator to the floor, and the 1.4T really comes into its own around 3,000 rpm and the power builds all the way to the 6,500-rpm redline (actually, there’s a very abrupt 6,200-rpm fuel cutoff).
Curiously, that fastest acceleration time in the Cruze comes from the Aisin six-speed automatic. The manual-transmission model should take around ten seconds to 60 mph. But the six-speed auto is no punishment here for enthusiasts; it shifts quickly and has been calibrated to convey a more direct powertrain feel that makes it almost feel like a dual-clutch unit at times. Slide the shift knob over to the side and there’s a manumatic gate (but no paddles or buttons). Within reason, this unit will stay in whatever gear you want and won’t force a downshift when you floor the gas.
Cruze models with the automatic transmission also get a neutral idle feature that automatically disengages the torque converter when sitting at stoplights in Drive—helping to boost mileage a bit in stop-and-go driving.
Responsive and Saab-like
A manual transmission is only offered on base 1.8-liter LS and 1.4T Eco models. In the 1.4T Eco model, Cruze fuel economy tops out at an impressive 27 mpg city, 40 highway, due in part to an especially tall sixth gear, helping to yield cruising range of more than 500 miles. The very hard-driven Eco test car had been averaging 27 mpg out at the proving grounds, according to the trip computer—not bad at all for a car that will exceed 3,000 pounds.
The manual gearbox in the Cruze Eco has rather long throws but feels quite precise, with clear, neat gates (it uses triple-cone synchronizers in the lower gears) and a clutch pedal that takes up nicely—though a little bit high on our potentially hard-driven test car. As such, the powertrain somehow felt very Saab-like (in the GM years), with the style of shift linkage combined with the seemingly tall third gear.
The naturally aspirated 1.8-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine is only offered in the base LS—likely the choice for fleets—making 136 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 126 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm. Based on its specs, it’s not likely to feel nearly as peppy as the 1.4-liter, and GM confirms that its fuel economy won’t be as high. But it shouldn’t be too much slower; thanks in part to a two-stage variable intake manifold, the 1.8-liter engine does make 90 percent of its torque from 2400 rpm up to the 6500-rpm redline, GM says.
The Cruze, overall, feels nimble and quite light in ordinary handling, with good on-center feel, and only in the harshest transitions did we wish for a little more weighting from the electric power steering (EPS) system. It’s mounted directly on the rack, not on the steering column like some units, which aids steering feel according to engineers. We did notice a difference between the test cars we drove but were told that it’s due to wheels and tires, which vary significantly across the line. While we’re not sure which brands or models will be actually installed in the Cruze yet, the popular 2LT with Touring Package had 18-inch Michelin Pilot HX rubber, while the LTZ had the basic Firestone FR 710 16-inch combination and the Eco model was shod with 17-inch Goodyear Assurance tires with forged alloy wheels.
Not entirely independent, but responsive
In front, the Cruze has struts, decoupled for different spring and damper mounting points, and in back GM opted to forgo an independent suspension for a beam-axle setup using a rigid hollow tube, supplemented by a Watt’s linkage (two diagonal arms that connect the edges of the axle to a mid body mounting point) that helps reduce body motion and helps keep the rear wheels following the front ones. It’s the first application of this arrangement in a compact car.
To fit the varied expectations of buyers in this class, Chevy is offering the Cruze with a choice of two different suspension tunes. LT models get the Touring chassis; 2LT and LTZ models get the Sport chassis, which has about a 15-percent increase in spring rate, retuned dampers, and a ride height that’s nearly a half-inch lower. The base Touring suspension Base Cruze models get discs in front and drums in back, while all models with the Sport chassis (except the Eco) get four-wheel discs.
The Eco model offers most of the attributes of the Sport suspension, but omits the Watt’s linkage in back and has rear drum brakes (a decision that saved a lot of money but added only a few pounds). Eco also uses a different tube that’s thinner, lighter, and made of a different material.