First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Page 2

July 30, 2010
The Cruze's cabin is a very comfortable place to spend the daily commute or a long day on the Interstate, and it's amazing, for a small car, that this small sedan can fit even the largest or lankiest occupants. The standard manual seat in the Cruze is height- and tilt-adjustable, while the power seats on the LT2 and LTZ models we drove adjust to a wide range of drivers. And the legroom, in front, is phenomenal. GM (don't forget, current or former employer of Whiteacre, Wagoner, and Lutz, all tall) went out of its way to accommodate tall occupants, and even added two extra inches of front-seat travel (and the steering wheel tilts and telescopes in all trims), so that even this 6'-6" driver was challenged to push the pedals with the seat back all the way. The lower cushions provide more thigh support than those in most rival small-car models, and only the Volkswagen Jetta comes close for legroom.

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.

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