Skipping straight to the specs charts for the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze could lead to a little confusion. There are two four-cylinder engines offered in the Cruze, but it's the smaller of the two that's the 'premium' pick. The base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine performs fine, though it's a little bit loud when pressed and you do need to rev it to move quickly. But step up to the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four (1.4T) that's offered throughout much of the lineup, as well as in the high-mileage Cruze Eco, and you'll find that it's not only smoother and more refined but produces more power down low and pairs well with the six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is offered, too).Entry-level Cruze LS models come with the 1.8, but the rest of the lineup—including LT and LTZ trims—will come with a 1.4-liter Ecotec turbocharged four. 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. It's also a flexible, docile engine that always seems 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 Aisin-built 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. Acceleration is actually a bit slower with manual-transmission models, due to the taller ratios (designed to hit that EPA 40-mpg highway figure).
If you seek a particularly nimble-feeling small car, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze probably isn't the best pick. It handles responsively in normal driving, though, with the help of a Watt's-linkage (non-independent) rear suspension, which helps keep the rear tires fully in contact with the road--even when the surface is choppy. There's also a fair amount of body lean to discourage much enthusiasm. But the steering itself is excellent; with rack-mounted electric power steering and nice weighting that gives it a light but secure feel on center.
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. Our recommendation: Go with the Sport setup unless you live around level terrain and straight roads.