The Chevrolet Cruze is a fascinating car. Taking a niche in the midsize realm, but competing against Corolla and Civic rather than Camry and such, the Cruze is a relatively large car that has nimble handling, an upscale interior, a delayed-reaction powertrain.
The Cruze interior is considerably larger than that of the Civic, Corolla, and Focus; its trunk is far, far bigger than those competitors, too. What’s more, the interior looks a couple of price classes better, at least in 2LT form.
The two-toned interior with chrome accents is attractive and smart, while the sculpted exterior avoids both the economy look and “trying too hard” glitz. The seats are comfortable and supportive in front and rear, and everyone gets a six-speed automatic except for the two manual-transmission models (base and Eco).
Cornering is impressive; the Cruze is excitingly nimble, able to take hard turns that sports cars of a few years back would not be capable of. It can take hard turns over broken pavement while accelerating, without losing its grip; Stabilitrak rarely reared its ugly-but-lifesaving head during our tests. Yet, Cruze took ever-increasing angles and ever-nastier curves at increasing speeds without ever feeling as though it was losing its grip (or, more importantly, without actually losing its grip.)
At highway speeds, the interior had remarkably little wind noise, and the steering was tight and composed. The car still felt incredible stable and well planted, wthout even noticing the strong cross-winds that was blowing highway debris around as we rushed by. Chevrolet has really gotten this chassis right — good road feel, tight grip, and decent ride, with bumps and jumps cushioned but not deadened completely, and no “boom” from potholes and cracks.
Then, though, there’s the powertrain. Like Fiat and Ford (or Chrysler in the 1980s), GM is boosting its gas mileage by turbocharging smaller engines. The base Cruze has a 1.8 liter conventional four; every other Cruze has a turbocharged 1.4 liter powerplant. It boasts 148 lb-ft of torque, peaking at a low 1,850 rpm, along with 138 hp (the base 1.8 has just 123 lb-ft of torque). The engine is very small for a 3,200 pound car, and it shows; while sprints can be quick, helping 0-60 times, there’s a definite lag in the system, resulting in rubbery-shift syndrome. (The four-cylinder automatic Toyota Camry and other cars have the same problem.)
Hit the gas, and wait. From a standing stop, sometimes the car lurched forward, paused — feeling like it was jerking back — and then took off. On the highway, regardless of whether we manipulated the standard manual-override to be in a gear — at engine speeds from 2,000 up to 5,000 rpm — there was always that pause. The best strategy turned out to be planning a little ahead wherever possible and using part throttle, and waiting for the engine to catch up. But how else do you get a 3,200 pound car to get good gas mileage, without making it too pricey or using a diesel?
We’ve driven turbocharged cars before, of course. Waiting for the turbocharger to spool up is always an issue. But usually, the turbocharger isn’t so much a substitute for a standard engine, as a substitute for a performance engine (an exception would be the old 1980s Chrysler turbocharged minivans — which had about the same problem, though with the firm three-speed automatic, it wasn’t as much of an issue.)
During normal traffic, the Cruze cruised well enough; and it had more than enough gusto to get onto the highway, to travel at the fast speeds demanded of Route 80, and to pass without difficulty, if not with alacrity. Pure acceleration figures don’t show the hesitation. For many people it won’t be an issue, but with the Cruze’s enthusiastic chassis, it seems an odd problem to have. One hopes a Cruze SS will be coming soon to resolve it.
Having a manual transmission might help, at least by getting rid of the torque management and the added sponginess automatics bring — especially automatics tuned for comfort, as the Cruze’s is. (Hit the gas and you both have the turbo issue and the “slow, cushioned, torque-managed downshift” issue.) What’s more, it would allow instant downshifting and upshifting; using the manual control on the automatic carried a brief delay, during which one could hit the rev limiter with undesirable consequences.
There are just two ways to get the manual transmission in the Cruze: by getting the entry-level LS, which has the lower-power 1.8, or moving to the Eco model, which has the same six-speed manual as the LS, but with a higher overdrive gear, yielding 42 mpg highway ratings. The Eco can’t be purchased with four wheel disc ABS brakes, heated mirrors, automatic climate control, or some other options. We do hope to test a manual transmission version soon — and an SS version, since the chassis is ready for more power (GM has a very capable 2-liter turbo that would probably fit).
Acceleration falls well into the range of acceptable performance. Cruze has a stronger engine than Corolla, Civic EX, or Focus (particularly Corolla) when both horsepower and torque are considered — and with similar gas mileage (24/36 vs Corolla’s 26/34, Civic’s 25/36, and Focus’ 24/35.) Our gas mileage was generally not quite as good as EPA ratings, but better than we’d expect in a car of this size.
Controls are the usual GM mixed bag of inane ergonomics and sensible, clever touches. The stereo has two real knobs, and works about as you’d expect it to, with large buttons that are easily operated with gloves. The sound of the standard stereo in our 2LT was very good indeed, and the controls were intuitive with satellite radio neatly integrated (turning the tuning knob in satellite mode provided a list of stations by name, though the XM names are sometimes not especially descriptive.) Stereo separation was quite good, and there was enough bass for the music but not so much that everything was muddy.
The climate control was segregated in an area all by itself, with pushbuttons for the various vent modes and seat warmer buttons inside the fan and temperature control rings. Everything was easy to find and figure out by touch, and the air conditioner had its own separate button. Likewise, the shifter was smartly designed, with the manual override activated by shoving the shifter to the left and then moving it up and down; the gear is shown on the dashboard when moving manually, and, unlike the same system in the Regal, it acts quickly. Other center stack controls, for the vehicle preferences, power locks, hands-free phone, and hazards, are all easily found and in rational places.
The mess comes, as usual, with the steering column. Physically attractive and comfortable in the 2LT, it has a cluster of unusual and odd-feeling cruise control buttons (one must be pushed on the lower portion, the other must be pushed on the upper portion), with an odd-feeling, unusual up/down wheel replacing the coast and resume buttons; and you must push the wheel down to coast/set to start the system. The audio control on the right also seems odd: you’d expect the knob to be for volume, but it’s not, it’s for music source. Also, it’s not a knob, its another one of those “up/down switches that look like knobs.” (Engineers, feel free to email us with the correct word for this goofy device.) Volume gets a pair of smaller pushbuttons. Or, rather, a plastic piece that can be tilted to its top or bottom.
The trip computer control is the turn signals stalk, a little out of place from and shorter than other cars’ turn signals. A stalk most place on the left is on the right — the wiper/washer controls. Finally, the typical GM “we want you always to have the headlights on” switch is in its usual place on the dash; and as usual you have to turn it all the way to the left and let it snap back, each time you drive, to shut the automatic headlights off. (DRLs are, as usual for GM, integrated into the headlights, and are much brighter than they need to be for optimal effectiveness).
The car preferences, integrated into the stereo screen, are well designed and can be operated by a passenger. Yes, GM, we appreciate that you made the words for both stereo and preferences big enough for even older drivers to read without glasses.
The trip computer display sits between the gauges, showing distance, average speed, gas mileage, distance to empty, or oil life. It only displays one item per screen (e.g. gas mileage), leaving lots of empty space, except at the bottom where it shows the gear and compass heading. Turning down the rheostat (which looks like a knob but acts like an up/down switch — the car has three switches using that annoying but presumably safer style) dims the center display disproportionately, leaving the less intrusive and more necessary backlights stronger.
This display is also used for turn-by-turn navigation. A subscription service, it works by having the driver call OnStar with their desired destination (far faster and easier, most of the time, than entering it into a touch screen); the operator programs it in and sends it to the car, and the car and OnStar headquarters automatically keep you en route from then on. The step by step instructions are shown on the display; overall, the system seems far less distracting than a map-based system, and costs much less, depending on how long you own the car (or subscribe to the service). Of course, a handheld Garmin will also be much cheaper than a built in nav system, but it’s also more distracting.
The gauges use GM’s “sporty style” markings, and are clear, readable, and attractive; they use the same layout as the Regal, with tachometer on the left, speedometer on the right, and gas/temperature gauges above and between. The 140 mph speedometer is an affectation, leaving little just half the space for the speeds 90% of drivers will rarely exceed, but unlike some similar speedometers it wasn’t hard to track our speed (though the curtailed sweep of the needle masked acceleration).
At night, all the controls, including those on the steering wheel, are backlit, not just a select few.
Storage spaces on our 2LT included map pockets on the back of both front seats and molded into each door, a large glove compartment, a small exposed change tray or two, a shallow covered top-of-dashboard space, molded in place cupholders, and a surprisingly small covered console between the seats, with USB and power connectors included. In back, a pulldown armrest includes two cupholders as well. 12V cigar-lighter type power outlets are placed in the center console between the front seats and facing the rear seats. (Never a good place for people with kids since there’s no override.)
Rear seats are firmer than the front seats but still comfortable, and there is actually more headroom than in the back of the Buick Regal; so average or somewhat taller than average men can sit back there without a problem. The back of the car maintains the two-tone look, with dull trim rings around the speakers and chrome door levers, so the good looks aren’t restricted to the front. The trunk is quite large, and, incidentally, also larger than that of the Regal, coming in with 15 cubic feet of space. That’s far better than the 12-point-something that’s normal in this class.
We truly liked the Chevrolet Cruze, though the soft powertrain was annoying. The interior is light and airy, and it’s a pleasant place to spend your time. The combination of a cushioned ride and firm grip made a serious impression on us, and the controls mainly seemed designed to be easy to use and easy to find; after driving a Cruze for a while, we developed enough muscle memory to hit pretty much any control by touch and memory alone, which is not something you can say for every car. What’s more, the controls were all marked well enough that searching for them wasn’t dangerously time consuming. The rear view mirror had OnStar built in but it was still manually operated, which made it far more effective than the automatic variety. The little sun visors ran down their supports to cover more space. Generally, this was a car we could imagine owning… with a manual transmission.
The Cruze is assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, using a transmission made in Mexico and an engine (the 1.4 at least) made in Austria; 45% of the parts are American. Engineering took place in Germany, Korea, and the United States. You can pick one up for $17,000, but our 2LT model — they go LS, 1LT, 2LT, LTZ — started at $21,395.
That price included remote vehicle starter, automatic, stability control, four wheel antilock brakes, power locks, mirrors, and windows, OnStar with six month navigation subscription, tire pressure monitor for each tire, rear defogger, 16-inch alloy wheels, floor mats, USB interface, power driver seat and manual 8-way front passenger seat, air conditioning, leather seats and leather-covered steering wheel, trip computer, tilt-telescope steering wheel, cruise, heated front seats, and wireless phone system.
Our test car had just two options: 17 inch wheels with four-wheel disc brakes (normally the rear has drums) for $395, and a compact spare, replacing the tire sealant/inflator kit for $100. Times have changed when you’re paying for a compact spare! But in total, our test car, with destination, ran to $21,890, which is quite reasonable for a good, very well equipped midsized car.
The Cruze is easily competitive with the Civic, Corolla, and Focus, and we’d put it up against the pricier Camry four-cylinder automatic any day. Each of these cars has a different feel; some people may love the Cruze, some may hate it, but it’s certainly one of the better cars in its class. The Cruze Eco, with its 42 mph highway rating, promises to be a class leader, too.
The author of books on the Dodge Viper, Jeep pickups and wagons, and Chrysler minivans (as well as a kid’s book about early Jeeps), David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.com and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form.