And for some of the best evidence of this market change, there's no better place to look than to Detroit and Dearborn, where GM and Ford, this year and next, are readying a new generation of small cars. And these world-designed, U.S.-built mainstream 'C-segment' offerings—the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and the 2012 Ford Focus—are no longer going to be followers. They're both looking like they'll suddenly be some of the best offerings on the market.
While the verdict is still out on the Focus, we've just returned from our first official drive in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, and we can say that Toyota had better watch out. If GM can get shoppers into Chevy dealerships for a test drive, by golly it's going to leave them positively gobsmacked.
The exterior is perhaps the weakest part of the Cruze presentation. There's nothing awkward or hideous about it; it's just plain and comes across as conservative from most angles. Some might like it as the design makes no pretense; there's no overwrought combination of creases and curves; just nice, soft surfaces, an arched roofline, a traditional three-box sedan profile, and a front and rear appearance that's clearly derived from the larger Malibu.
Positive influences inside
Inside, the exterior makes more sense (it affords lots of room), and we really liked how the beltline wasn't ridiculously high; it leaves enough of a greenhouse to enable a good view all around—and not instill a sense of claustrophobia to shorter occupants. The design of the interior has a little more of a wraparound cockpit feel than you'd expect from a basic sedan and, if you squint just a little bit, bears something in common—particularly in the design of the center stack—with the Cadillac CTS and SRX. Looking a bit closer, you might see similarities both to current and former Saab models and to the new 2010 Chevrolet Equinox, particularly in the way the audio controls are laid out. The steering wheel, too, has a thick feel and nice tactile audio controls.
The backseat is what reveals the Cruze as a compact, not mid-size, sedan. It's not nearly wide enough to fit three adults comfortably across, and two adults just barely fit, with headroom a little right for taller occupants and legroom a little harder to get into than it should be, and that's mostly the result of the surprisingly short back doors. With the front seats all the way back, there's not much legroom, but in a moderate position there's plenty. The trunk, however, is a huge 15.4 cubic feet, with a large underfloor compartment on most models.
The Cruze is being launched with two different engines and two different transmissions. 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. GM also assures that the 1.8-liter engine makes 90 percent of its torque from 2400 rpm all the way up to its redline. Both engines can be had with a six-speed automatic or six-speed manual.
While 1.4T models will begin to trickle out this next month, the 1.8-liter models won't be out until October. All the Cruzes we drove this past week, in Washington, D.C., surrounding suburbs, and Virginia countryside, were LT or LTZ models with the 1.4T engine and the six-speed automatic transmission.
Don't let 1.4 liters scare you away
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.
Over 35 miles of driving on congested freeways and urban streets leading into Washington, with plenty of stop-and-go and rapid takeoffs—a "hard commuting," worst-case scenario that's bound to be on the low side—we saw about 24 mpg from the trip computer. Otherwise we saw readings in the upper 20s in about 150 more miles of mixed driving.
Just as in the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, which colleague Marty Padgett drove for the first time this past week, the 2010 Chevrolet Cruze doesn't have an independent rear suspension. Increasingly so, that's re-becoming the norm for small cars, 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. That's too bad, as the steering 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 just a bit of feedback from the road.
Soft, secure, serene
From the moment you set out, with all the windows rolled up, it's readily apparent that while it's no frisky Mazda3 or Mitsubishi Lancer rival the Cruze feels more mature, and like a much more expensive car. Sure enough, it's been muted with measures like triple door seals, acoustical headliner materials, nylon baffles in the body panels, and special mounts and other measures throughout powertrain components, but it altogether comes across as a mature, comfortable sedan. The rather soft, absorbent ride also fits that personality.
We drove three different test Cruzes—two LTZ models and one LT2—and on one of the LTZ models we noticed a pronounced difference on how it responded to full throttle, hesitating for a moment and balking to downshift. It's quite possible the transmission hadn't yet recalibrated to our more abrupt driving style. Other than that, we only noticed a few minor ergonomic issues: Namely, that the climate controls felt awkwardly low, and my knees nudged them either when driving or in the shotgun position.
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. We got a chance to use the latter for help in finding our way back into the city after making a wrong turn and found the service, in which an operator answers and beams navigation directions to the car, tremendously useful. Once the directions are in, the vehicle will correct if you miss another turn.
Mid-range LT models add items like a USB port, Bluetooth, and remote start, while the LTZ, which we spent the most time with (ours stickered at less than $23k) gets automatic climate control, heated mirrors, park assist, and a snazzier gauge cluster, as well as optional heated seats. A real screen-based nav system is also on offer.
Overall, at a starting price of just $16,995, the new Cruze delivers the refinement that was missing from the previous Cobalt, but it still lacks the zippy driving feel that might win some shoppers over. Perhaps that will be yet to come in a new SS.
The 2011 Chevy Cruze certainly isn't a car that will set your heart racing, but it manages to combine the refined ride quality and tactile interior of a Volkswagen Jetta with the no-nonsense, space-efficient packaging of the Toyota Corolla or Hyundai Elantra. Count us as extremely impressed.