The Chevrolet Cruze four-door sedan previewed a new design direction in 2011; now, it's a well-known and accepted shape on U.S. roads. The exterior is straightforward and handsome without being jaw-dropping, but it's behind the wheel that you'll sense the true sea change in quality, engineering, and design that the Cruze embodied.
Chevy saved its best efforts for inside the car--where buyers actually spend their time. Four years later, the interior is still better than the average among compact cars, with high-quality materials giving a solid, upscale impression. The two-tone treatment is especially good, with tan or grey seats and door panels accented by the black of the dashboard, and just the right hint of matte silver trim. It looks like something you might find in a car costing $10,000 more.
The Cruze doesn't try to outdo the Hyundai Elantra or Ford Focus on the outside, although its confident exterior lines are a huge step ahead of its predecessors, the cheap and apologetic Cobalt and (going further back) Cavalier. The roofline arches back to a short trunk that holds far more than you might think. The proportions are good--long hood, short trunk--and its smooth sculpting is pleasant and won't age quickly, even if doesn't turn many heads.
Visually, the Chevy Cruze is only slightly smaller visually than the redesigned 2013 Malibu, a "mid-size" sedan that's suffered in the market for lack of rear-seat room. Its beltline is lower and less upswept than the Malibu's, too, giving it decent outward visibility these days.
Fit and finish have been excellent on every Cruze we've tested, and there are a lot of smart design touches: knobs with rubber ribs that make them easier to grip and padding in the right places--though we found the sliding elbow rest on the center console bin didn't extend far enough forward. The upholstery has a high-quality feel even in low-end cars, and the exposed stitching on the optional leather upholstery again conveys the impression of value and luxury.
The wraparound instrument panel, with a mild version of Chevy's classic "twin cockpit" layout, pulls off the difficult trick of being stylish and functional. It's nicely detailed and pleasant to look at, and its areas of hard plastic don't look downmarket as they do on some competitors. The central vents in the dash flank the vertical console, and everything's easy to reach.
If you want a dash of sporty, the RS Appearance Package adds racier front and rear plastic fascias, a rear spoiler, "aero" rocker moldings, and front fog lamps. Inside, it provides backlighting in an icy blue, along with chrome accent rings around some controls, and opaque bezels for the instrument clusters. It changes the ambiance of the car without affecting the mechanicals--which stay stock--and can be ordered as an option on the LT and LTZ trim levels.