The new Chevrolet Cruze delivers almost everything we'd expect in a good compact sedan. It's the best small car GM has offered in North America in decades, by a substantial margin.
Launched as a 2011 model, the Cruze replaces the sturdy but boring Cobalt, and it's a great leap forward in technology, features and appeal. The Cruze was developed jointly by GM tech centers in Asia, Europe and the United States to battle in the most crowded part of the passenger-car market, with excellent new competitors like the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte, the best Volkswagen Jetta in years, and perennial leaders like the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Toyota Corolla. These are not necessarily competitors a newcomer wants, but the Cruze holds its own with all of them, and surpasses many in key areas.
Cruze is conservatively styled, to be sure, but in our opinion it's a well designed, handsome car. Its interior is one of the roomiest in its class, with acceptable space for four adults, and it's also one of the nicest. By the quality of materials, fit or function, it surpasses nearly all its competitors. Its trunk is also one of the largest in a compact sedan.
The 2011 Cruze is offered with a choice of two adequately powered engines: A 1.8-liter four-cylinder and 1.4-liter four-cylinder with a turbocharger. Both the manual and automatic transmissions have six speeds, which is rare in this class. The automatic offers some high-tech features that help conserve fuel. Across the line, the Cruze averages some of the best EPA mileage ratings among compacts. Yet if there's an area where Cruze falls below the benchmark, we might summarize it this way: Buyers seeking maximum acceleration in their compact sedan should probably consider one of those competitors.
In nearly every other respect, the Cruze runs near the head of the pack. Its steering is powered by electricity to save fuel, and its sharp, with decent feel. Ride quality is outstanding, yet the car is nimble, balanced and handles exceptionally well. The Chevrolet Cruze might be the smoothest, quietest compact offered in the United States.
For about $17,000 with destination charge, the base Cruze LS comes nicely equipped, with as much horsepower as the higher-trim models, air conditioning, six-speaker audio with standard XM satellite radio and power windows and locks. For $1,900 more, the Cruise LT adds the turbocharged engine, automatic transmission and a few more features, and it opens the car up to a wide range of options.
No matter which Cruze a buyer chooses, it comes with the most standard safety features in its class, including advanced electronic stability control, ABS, and a full compliment of 10 airbags. There are knee-protection airbags for front passengers, side-impact airbags for rear passengers, and head-protection curtains with rollover deployment. Every Cruze comes with GM's OnStar telematics system, including a six-month subscription for automatic accident response and other services.
The Cruze Eco delivers the best fuel economy. Its active aerodynamic features make it slipperier through the air, and it weighs more than 200 pounds less than other models. Its EPA rating of 42 mpg Highway is the highest for any conventionally powered car in this class, and higher than most subcompacts.
At the top of the range, the leather-lined, feature-laden Cruze LTZ offers technology that pushes the envelope for what many still think of as an economy car. It's available with a full-feature navigation system with 40-gigabyte hard drive, rear park assist, concierge services, premium Pioneer audio and remote starting.
A loaded LTZ will crack the $26,000 barrier, however, at which point the Cruze makes less sense for many buyers, unless they very specifically seek a smaller, fuel- efficient car that's loaded with the latest features. For that kind of money, the alternatives include larger, very nicely equipped midsize sedans such as the Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, Hyundai Sonata or Nissan Altima.
In final analysis, even import-inclined compact buyers should have a look at the Cruze. It has moved Chevrolet near the tip of the small car spear for the first time in memory.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is available in four model levels, with a choice of four-cylinder engines and either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.
The Cruze LS ($16,275) is powered by 1.8-liter inline four delivering 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, with a standard 6-speed manual. The LS comes with plenty of features, including air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, and six-speaker audio with single CD, an auxiliary jack and XM satellite radio. The standard wheels are 16-inch steel. The 6-speed automatic is optional ($925).
The Cruze Eco (18,175) is optimized for fuel economy. It's powered by a smaller, 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that delivers the same 138 hp as the base engine, with an increase in torque to 148 lb-ft. It's lighter than other Cruze models, with aerodynamic aids that make in slipperier through the air, and low-rolling-resistance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels. The Eco is rated at 42 mpg highway with the manual transmission, and 37 mpg with the automatic.
The Cruise LT ($18,175) is powered by the same frugal turbocharged engine, with the automatic transmission standard. It also adds painted power side mirrors, and it can be equipped with a lot more options than the base LS. Foremost is the 2LT package ($2,500), which adds a six-way power driver seat, leather seating surfaces, heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth phone connectivity, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, remote vehicle start and 16-inch alloy wheels.
The Cruze LTZ ($21,975) is the high-zoot model, with the turbo engine and automatic transmission. It comes standard with the contents of the 2LT package and adds even more features, including automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, ultrasonic rear-parking assist and 18-inch alloy wheels with four-wheel disc brakes.
An RS Appearance package ($695) is available for the LT and LTZ, adding fog lamps, unique grille work, rocker moldings, a rear spoiler and a racier instrument package inside. The LT and LTZ can also be equipped with a navigation system ($1,995) that includes a 40-gigabyte hard drive, a 250-watt Pioneer audio system with CD changer and nine speakers ($445), and a power sunroof ($850). Other options include a Driver Convenience Package ($475) with remote start, Bluetooth and rear park assist, cruise control ($250) and tire-wheel packages that add rear disc brakes. (All New Car Test Drive prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices, which do not include destination charge and may change at any time without notice.)
The Cruze comes standard with more safety features than any car in its class, starting with 10 airbags: front, side-impact and knee-protection airbags for front passengers, rear side-impact airbags and full cabin head-protection curtains with rollover deployment. GM's OnStar telematics are standard, with Automatic Crash Response and other services free for six months. Other standard safety features include Stabiltrack electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes (ABS), front seatbelt pretensioners, daytime running lights (DRLs) and the federally mandated tire-pressure monitor.