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.

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