Thumbs Up: Big content, small price, great build quality
Thumbs Down: Turbo engine is all midrange, no bottom or top end
Buy This Car If: You want an American alternative to a Honda Civic or a VW Jetta
In 1985, General Motors announced the formation of a new division, called Saturn. Saturn’s mission was to go head to head with the best compacts Japan had to offer, then beat them on content, build quality, customer service and price. I’m not sure that the Saturn Corporation ever lived up to it’s potential, but General Motors has finally produced a car that lives up to the Saturn ideals. That car is the Chevy Cruze, and it’s the first entry level sedan from Chevrolet that’s ready, willing and (more than) able to beat the Japanese at their own game.
Perhaps this sums it up better than anything else: the Chevy Cruze is the first entry level bowtie sedan that I would not only recommend, but actually shop if I needed a four door commuter car, low on cost but high on content. Everything about the car takes Chevy a notch or two up from the Cobalt, which was itself a notch or two up from the Cavalier. Styling is fresh and innovative, and the Cruze doesn’t look like anything else on the road. Behind the wheel, I had more pointing-and-staring drivers than any other car I’ve driven recently, except for the Volt. Maybe it’s because Chevy is doing a great job at getting the Cruze in front of the public (it even stars in the remake of Hawaii 5-0), or maybe it’s because the Cruze is just a good looking car. I suspect it’s a bit of both.
On the outside, the Cruze looks good from any angle, but the front end is particularly striking. Somehow, the car even looks menacing, although without a performance version of the Cruze on the horizon, there isn’t anything to back up that attitude. The car is an interesting blend of curves and angles, almost like what you’d imagine the offspring of a Cadillac CTS and an Infiniti G37 might look like. It should look busy with conflicting style elements, but it doesn’t; in fact, the curves and angles blend to give the car it own unique look. Chevy’s designers did an outstanding job on the Cruze, and there isn’t a single thing about the exterior that I’d change.
Inside, the Cruze continues to impress. Front seats are a bit on the narrow side, but they’re well shaped and a lot more comfortable than you’d expect. There’s enough bolstering for support when the road gets twisty, but not so much that the seats feel cramped. My LTZ tester came with leather seating (with contrasting stitching), a power driver’s seat and heated driver and passenger seats – not bad for an entry level sedan.
Rear seats are also comfortable for two adults, and offer a surprising amount of legroom . You could carry a third passenger in the rear for short trips, but I wouldn’t recommend heading cross country with three in the back seat, unless you hang out with jockeys. Headroom is reasonable for those of us under the six foot mark, but I wouldn’t want to try the back seat if I was much taller than six foot. Just in case you need to haul bulky stuff around, the rear seats fold in a 60/40 split, and there’s a decent amount of trunk space for a compact car.
I’ve panned Chevy in the past for interior design; the Camaro, for example, was truly, monumentally bad. The Cruze, on the other hand, scores a major win in my book. The steering wheel is perfectly shaped and leather wrapped in the LTZ version. Controls for cruise, audio and Bluetooth phone work well enough, although it’s easy to press too hard and select a setting when you really intended to scroll up or down. It’s not a big deal, and you soon get used to them.
The dash blends sculpted, soft touch vinyl, open weave fabric and patterned silver trim. It sounds eclectic, but it isn’t, and the Cruze flat-out crushes the new VW Jetta in the quality and feel of the interior. The Jetta used to be the best of the bunch, but I’d say that crown now goes to the Cruze. You get the feeling that Chevy worked hard to get the Cruze’s interior right, versus phoning it in on the Camaro. If this is a sign of things to come from GM, I’m all for it.
The center console is laid out in a conventional manner, with audio controls above the HVAC controls. My top-of-the-line Cruze LTZ didn’t come with a nav system, but one is available as a $1,995 option. Since the Cruze comes with OnStar, a nav system really isn’t needed as long as you maintain a gold level contract with OnStar. Hit the OnStar button, and turn-by-turn directions will be downloaded for you. I’m not a huge fan of GM’s “ice blue” display, but I do like the functionality of both the audio / information display and the driver’s information display.
The instruments are another home run for GM. Both the tach and the speedometer feature stylized numbers, meant to convey a message of speed. Tachometer and speedometer have a funky blue backlit glow, and the speedometer also includes clear KPH speeds for those who occasionally drive north of the border. Splitting the tach and speedometer is the temp gauge, fuel gauge and driver information display. All three sections of the instrument cluster have chrome trim, which helps add a premium look to the instrument cluster.
My Cruze LTZ came with the 1.4 liter turbocharged Ecotec motor, while base modes come with the normally aspirated 1.8 liter Ecotec. Horsepower on 1.4 turbo models is 138, with 148 ft lb of torque. That sounds good on paper, but I wasn’t a big fan of how the engine makes power. There’s noticeable turbo lag, but reasonably strong midrange power when the turbo spools up. There’s no sense running the motor to redline, as the engine runs out of power long before you get there. If you aren’t heavy on the throttle, perhaps the motor would work fine for you; if you like to mash the fun pedal, don’t expect to be too satisfied with the 1.4 liter turbo Ecotec. That said, acceleration is on par with other compact commuter cars, and zero to sixty takes less than 10 seconds. Fuel economy is better than average, and I saw 29.7 MPG in a mix of highway and city driving. The EPA rates the Cruze LTZ at 24 MPG city and 36 MPG highway, but achieving that highway number would require you to drive below posted speed limits, which isn’t something I’s advise.
On the road, the Cruze is a relatively entertaining car to drive. Steering is nicely weighted, and the car’s light weight makes it feel more nimble than you’d expect. It’s not a sport sedan, but I get the feeling that the Cruze platform would hold up well if Chevy decided to build a Cruze SS (and yes, we want one). Brakes are more than up to the job of slowing and stopping the Cruze, and pedal feel is excellent. My LTZ came with the “Acoustic Insulation Package”, so the interior was much quieter than I expected it to be. Even a five hour highway trip was surprisingly comfortable, not something I’d expect to say about an entry level sedan.
My Cruze LTZ had a base price of $22,695, including destination charge. Options on my tester included the $850 Power Sunroof, the $445 Pioneer Premium Sound System, the $195 Black Granite Metallic Paint, and the $100 Compact Spare Tire, for a total sticker price of $24,285. A comparably equipped 2011 VW Jetta would sticker at $24,400, a comparably equipped Honda Civic EX-L would sticker at $22,705 and a comparably equipped Toyota Corolla would sticker at $27,364. I’d rather have the Cruze LTZ than any of these other choices, even for less money.
Chevrolet has a lot riding on the Cruze, which starts at a price of just $16,995. If you ask me, that’s a reasonable price to ask for a car with the Cruze’s style, comfort, fuel economy and build quality. My guess is that Chevy will sell a bunch of them.