Preview Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

April 18, 2010
Just a quick preview first drive of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze was enough to confirm that GM’s biggest challenge won’t be meeting or exceeding the competition, but sweeping away all those past perceptions of GM small cars.

Among GM’s homegrown compacts, the Cavalier was always a step behind the competition, while the current Cobalt, which the Cruze replaces, was reasonably comfortable and fuel-efficient but never a standout in most other respects.

To put it bluntly, it simply didn’t have the zippy yet refined feeling that a lot of today’s most acclaimed compacts like the Mazda3, the Volkswagen Jetta, the Honda Civic, or even the new Suzuki Kizashi or Kia Forte, all manage to some degree.

The Cruze, thankfully, finds that mojo without busting our bums in the process or giving up any features. And, as we’ll tell you more about below, it’s looking to be a product that will emerge near the top of the segment in every category.

But the 2011 Cruze doesn’t break entirely free from one mold: Its exterior is a little conservative, almost a little homely, and looks more like a blunted Malibu than it probably should. While most people will likely agree that the exterior styling of the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus, expected early next year, is a lot more visually exciting than that of the Cruze, a quick drive of the Chevy’s new compact sedan is all it took to convince us that it will be a very strong contender, and perhaps superior in many ways.

Although Ford is planning a true world-car approach with the 2012 Focus, with very few differences between U.S. versions and other international versions, the Cruze builds on GM's Delta II platform—an all-new project started in 2006—but varies the formula a bit depending on the market. In a platform that’s birthed slightly different models for South Korea, China, Europe, Russia, and more than 60 markets in all. North America is actually the last market to get its version, and the version built in Lordstown, Ohio will benefit from all the improvements made so far, plus some special improvements for our market for improved refinement, performance, and safety.

The interior, thankfully, bears very little semblance to that of the Cobalt, and while we saw it as a bit conservative in some of the combinations shown at auto shows, it’s grown on this reviewer and feels very functional and stylish; you can even see a little influence, in the design of the center stack, from the much-acclaimed Cadillac CTS interior.

While we can’t say anything at this time about fit and finish, as the vehicles we drove were pre-build prototypes (though in final form for powertrain and chassis tuning), it looks like the new Cruze will indeed be a significant step ahead; high points included the nice padded dash materials, grippy rubber-nubbed climate control and audio knobs, and excellent high-contrast color screen with the nav system.

Better MPG from a turbo

The new 2011 Chevy Cruze will have a two-engine lineup. Offered on the entry-level Cruze LS model will be a new 1.8-liter version of the well-established Ecotec family, but standard on most Cruze models, including the new Cruze Eco as well as Cruze LT and LTZ models, will be a 1.4-liter ‘Ecotec’ turbocharged four-cylinder engine, making 138 horsepower and getting better fuel economy than the base engine. This engine feels stronger than its power rating might suggest, as its peak torque is 148 pound-feet, produced at 1,850 rpm. There’s more low-rpm torque than the 2.2-liter base Ecotec four in the Cobalt (and its peak torque is nearly the same).

The engine starts without even a shudder—either an advantage of smaller displacement fours or a testament to GM’s mounts—and feels absolutely monkish at idle. Throttle response is quick, and the engine doesn’t ‘hang’ in the higher revs when shifting.

The powertrain is nice. Really nice. There’s lots of available torque, coming on strong beginning just above 1,500 rpm, and the quite low first gear provided with both transmissions makes it feel really quick from launch—quicker than its estimated nine-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 quick and there’s always more power on tap if you need it.

Keep the accelerator to the floor, and the 1.4T really comes into its own around 3,000 rpm and the power builds all the way to the 6,500-rpm redline (actually, there’s a very abrupt 6,200-rpm fuel cutoff).

Curiously, that fastest acceleration time in the Cruze comes from the Aisin six-speed automatic. The manual-transmission model should take around ten seconds to 60 mph. 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 makes it almost feel like 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.

Cruze models with the automatic transmission also get a neutral idle feature that automatically disengages the torque converter when sitting at stoplights in Drive—helping to boost mileage a bit in stop-and-go driving.

Responsive and Saab-like

A manual transmission is only offered on base 1.8-liter LS and 1.4T Eco models. In the 1.4T Eco model, Cruze fuel economy tops out at an impressive 27 mpg city, 40 highway, due in part to an especially tall sixth gear, helping to yield cruising range of more than 500 miles. The very hard-driven Eco test car had been averaging 27 mpg out at the proving grounds, according to the trip computer—not bad at all for a car that will exceed 3,000 pounds.

The manual gearbox in the Cruze Eco has rather long throws but feels quite precise, with clear, neat gates (it uses triple-cone synchronizers in the lower gears) and a clutch pedal that takes up nicely—though a little bit high on our potentially hard-driven test car. As such, the powertrain somehow felt very Saab-like (in the GM years), with the style of shift linkage combined with the seemingly tall third gear.

The naturally aspirated 1.8-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine is only offered in the base LS—likely the choice for fleets—making 136 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 126 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm. Based on its specs, it’s not likely to feel nearly as peppy as the 1.4-liter, and GM confirms that its fuel economy won’t be as high. But it shouldn’t be too much slower; thanks in part to a two-stage variable intake manifold, the 1.8-liter engine does make 90 percent of its torque from 2400 rpm up to the 6500-rpm redline, GM says.

The Cruze, overall, feels nimble and quite light in ordinary handling, with good on-center feel, and only in the harshest transitions did we wish for a little more weighting from the electric power steering (EPS) system. It’s mounted directly on the rack, not on the steering column like some units, which aids steering feel according to engineers. We did notice a difference between the test cars we drove but were told that it’s due to wheels and tires, which vary significantly across the line. While we’re not sure which brands or models will be actually installed in the Cruze yet, the popular 2LT with Touring Package had 18-inch Michelin Pilot HX rubber, while the LTZ had the basic Firestone FR 710 16-inch combination and the Eco model was shod with 17-inch Goodyear Assurance tires with forged alloy wheels.

Not entirely independent, but responsive

In front, the Cruze has struts, decoupled for different spring and damper mounting points, and in back GM opted to forgo an independent suspension for a beam-axle setup using a rigid hollow tube, supplemented by a Watt’s linkage (two diagonal arms that connect the edges of the axle to a mid body mounting point) that helps reduce body motion and helps keep the rear wheels following the front ones. It’s the first application of this arrangement in a compact car.

To fit the varied expectations of buyers in this class, Chevy is offering the Cruze with a choice of two different suspension tunes. LT models get 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. The base Touring suspension Base Cruze models get discs in front and drums in back, while all models with the Sport chassis (except the Eco) get four-wheel discs.

The Eco model offers most of the attributes of the Sport suspension, but omits the Watt’s linkage in back and has rear drum brakes (a decision that saved a lot of money but added only a few pounds). Eco also uses a different tube that’s thinner, lighter, and made of a different material.

We had a chance to drive the Cruze models versus a Toyota Corolla XLE and a Honda Civic EX—both 2009 models with automatic transmission. While we couldn’t do any instrumented testing, the Cruze 2LT—the closest match to both of those models—was noticeably faster than the Corolla while being much more isolated from road and engine noise compared to the Civic. On GM’s jarring Milford Proving Ground roads, it handled as well as the Civic, too.

The Cruze incorporates a long list of refinements that reduce interior noise—including triple door seals, acoustical materials in the headliner, nylon baffles in the body panels, and special measures to reduce vibration in the engine, transmission, and exhaust. And the Cruze has the first use (at least in its class) of air shutters that let cool air in when needed for cooling but otherwise shut to aid faster warmup.

Eco model targets the budget green crowd

As our companion site Green Car Reports has detailed, the engineering team pulled out nearly all the stops to cut weight in the Eco model, which targets shoppers who are looking for good fuel economy and perhaps have other green motivations but don’t have the budget for a hybrid. Changes include thinner steel panels, smaller welds, and reduced flanges at welded joints, altogether reducing weight by about 25 pounds. And to help aerodynamics, the Eco has a lower ride height (about the same as the Sport models), a rear spoiler, a larger front air dam, and a underbody air diverter, among many features that aid aerodynamics and reduce drag. GM is anticipating a coefficient of drag of less than 0.30.

The Eco model is slightly noisier inside, but true eco-minded drivers are less likely to notice the suspension differences. The Eco gives up the Watt’s linkage, and there’s noticeably more body motion during hard cornering over choppy surfaces.

From a safety perspective, the Cruze will be a huge improvement versus the Cobalt and in terms of equipment will leapfrog nearly all the competition. Ten standard airbags will be included on all Cruze models, including rear side thorax bags plus front knee bags, which are both standard firsts in this class. Electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution are also included. So is an automatic crash notification system, along eith a break-away pedal system to help reduce foot injuries in frontal impacts. GM is anticipating top five-star results and ‘good’ ratings in all major U.S. crash tests.

More safety features, more interior space...and legroom for Lutz, Wagoner or Whiteacre

With regard to interior space, the Cruze clearly trumps the Civic, and even beats the roomy Corolla. It will be classified by the EPA as a mid-size car, and although the cabin isn’t as wide as a mid-size sedan there’s a surprising amount of fore-aft space. GM went out of its way to accommodate drivers of wide-ranging sizes, so the steering wheel tilts and telescopes to a wide range, and the seat goes farther back than any other compact car this 6’6” driver can remember. It truly is the best small car for legroom, likely topping the VW Jetta.

And it probably helped to have vice chairman Bob Lutz, former CEO Rick Wagoner, and current CEO Ed Whitacre around—they're all well over six feet tall.

The standard manual seat in the Cruze is height and tilt adjustable, with a simple racheting action that’s not unlike what VW has used for many years now, while 2LT and LTZ models come with a power driver’s seat. Backseat legroom is quite ample, but it does depend on how much legroom the front occupants need.

The trunk is a huge 15.4 cubic feet—as large as many mid-size cars, with no odd contours—and on models without the spare there’s a large underfloor storage compartment.

So to run through the possibilities, all 2011 Cruze models include keyless entry, power accessories, air conditioning, a six-speaker sound system with auxiliary input, and a six-month subscription to OnStar’s Directions and Connections services. Above the LS, the 1LT adds chrome wheels and power rearview mirrors, while the 2LT brings 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, cruise control, a USB port, Bluetooth, remote start, and steering-wheel audio controls. The Eco model slots above the 1LT but doesn’t include all the features of the 2LT. Then the top LTZ includes 18-inch flangeless alloys, four-wheel discs, automatic climate control, heated mirrors, rear park assist, and an upgraded gauge cluster and interior trims. Heated front seats will be included as part of a Touring Package that’s optional on the 1LT.

If the 2LT sounds like your pick, you’ll have no problem finding it. The 2011 Chevy Cruze 2LT altogether will make up about 70 percent of sales volume, GM says.

Production will start in August, with the first models reaching most dealerships in September. The Eco model will arrive later in the year.

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