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First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

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After decades of low expectations for affordable compact sedans, the market for plain, stripped-down products is simply withering away. Shoppers might be happy with a small car, but with a new generation and more tech-savvy comes less of a willingness to skimp on everything else.

And for some of the best evidence of this market change, there's no better place to look than to Detroit and Dearborn, where GM and Ford, this year and next, are readying a new generation of small cars. And these world-designed, U.S.-built mainstream 'C-segment' offerings—the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and the 2012 Ford Focus—are no longer going to be followers. They're both looking like they'll suddenly be some of the best offerings on the market.

While the verdict is still out on the Focus, we've just returned from our first official drive in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, and we can say that Toyota had better watch out. If GM can get shoppers into Chevy dealerships for a test drive, by golly it's going to leave them positively gobsmacked.

The exterior is perhaps the weakest part of the Cruze presentation. There's nothing awkward or hideous about it; it's just plain and comes across as conservative from most angles. Some might like it as the design makes no pretense; there's no overwrought combination of creases and curves; just nice, soft surfaces, an arched roofline, a traditional three-box sedan profile, and a front and rear appearance that's clearly derived from the larger Malibu.

Positive influences inside

Inside, the exterior makes more sense (it affords lots of room), and we really liked how the beltline wasn't ridiculously high; it leaves enough of a greenhouse to enable a good view all around—and not instill a sense of claustrophobia to shorter occupants. The design of the interior has a little more of a wraparound cockpit feel than you'd expect from a basic sedan and, if you squint just a little bit, bears something in common—particularly in the design of the center stack—with the Cadillac CTS and SRX. Looking a bit closer, you might see similarities both to current and former Saab models and to the new 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, particularly in the way the audio controls are laid out. The steering wheel, too, has a thick feel and nice tactile audio controls.

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Comments (4)
  1. Impressive new offering from GM in my favorite size of car, the compact size. Good looking, if somewhat conservative looking, body design. Sounds as if it's somewhat sporty in it's handling and the interior and gadgets are a-plenty enough inside to satisfy most of us. If it only starts at $16,995 and goes up quickly from there, I think Chevy has a good new car here that will help them sell to the masses in a manner most pleasing to them.

  2. We have had this car in australia for nearly 12 months now. In a recent comparison it finished about 4th or 5th, lower than the current Ford Focus. Its nothing special.

  3. Considering it's a Chevrolet one can't get too excited about it. It's just that comparing it to what they've put out of late(the Cobalt, for example)Cruze is a real step up outta that. That's all I'm sayin'. And a lot of the American people are still trying to save the American car companies so they'd look at a new Chevy compact before looking where they should look, a new Mitsubishi Lancer. Therefore this pup will probably sell well in the U.S., I'm thinkin'.

  4. This is my experience after driving the brand new Chevy Cruze 2LS automatic. It's not a good experience while driving in slow moving traffic. Got back pain after 150 miles of drive in the last 2 days. Automatix gear shifting is horrible, and the car jurks like crazy leading to back pain. Right arm rest is not big enough. If we move the driver seat all the way back, maybe you can keep your edge of the L-bow of your arm on the rest. Breaking is not good. Looks good, not one of my worst driving experience. Only after 50 miles/hr the car drives good. But what to do with my right arm...maybe I have to hold the it above all the through the drive.

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