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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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