The Cruze offers two different engines. Entry-level Cruze LS models will come with a new 136-horsepower, 1.8-liter version of GM's well-established Ecotec family, while the rest of the lineup—including LT and LTZ trims—will come with a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbocharged four. This engine makes a modest 138 horsepower but also turns out a stout 148 pound-feet of torque at a low 1,850 RPM. Both engines can be had with a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual.
In an age where turbochargers have come to mean "high performance," this lineup requires a little psychological recalibration. While the 1.4T isn't really more powerful, and it's probably only slightly more responsive, it's considerable more fuel-efficient, taking advantage of the smaller displacement when you don't need it.
The 1.4T might be the smallest-displacement four you can recall in decades in an American-built car, but it's a flexible, docile engine that always seemed to manage to churn out more torque than we expected. Once started, it settles to a very smooth, quiet idle, and throttle response is quick. We especially appreciated the nice, linear—almost German—feel of the throttle, which was a refreshing change of pace compared to the on/off, touchy accelerators we've noticed in many small cars of late. The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and has a very low first gear for quick takeoffs, with a wide span resulting in a very deep overdrive sixth. There aren't any paddle-shifters, but there's a manual gate.
From the 1.4T, there's lots of available torque, coming on strong beginning just above 1,500 RPM, and with the low first gear, it comes across as really quick from launch—faster than its estimated 9-second 0-60 time might suggest. Meanwhile, GM has calibrated the throttle to be very linear-feeling; it's possible to drive the Cruze 1.4 very economically, but throttle response is speedy and there's always more power on tap if you need it.
Curiously, the fastest acceleration time in the Cruze comes from the Aisin six-speed automatic. The manual-transmission model should take around 10 seconds to 60 mph, due to its taller ratios (designed to hit that EPA 40-mpg highway figure). 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 resembles 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.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze handles responsively in normal driving, though small-car enthusiasts probably won't find the sort of satisfaction they seek from a nimbler car. The Cruze doesn't have an independent rear suspension. Increasingly so, that's becoming the norm for small cars once more, and as GM has shown here, it doesn't sacrifice much. With the help of a Watt's linkage, which helps keep the rear tires fully in contact with the road even when the surface is choppy, the Cruze feels confident around tight bends, though with a bit of body lean that discourages much enthusiasm. The steering itself is excellent; with a rack-mounted electronic power steering system, the 2011 Cruze steering has a nice, settled feel on center and gentle load-building off-center, a little light but with a bit of feedback from the road.
To fit the varied expectations of buyers in this class, Chevy offers the Cruze with a choice of two different suspension tunes. LT models pick up 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. Base Cruze models come with discs in front and drums in back, while all models with the Sport chassis (except the Eco) claim four-wheel discs. If you live in a hilly region, you should probably opt for the Sport setup.