— Cruze is what Chevrolet calls its newest compact car, and it makes sense that they're starting with a totally different name.
That's because the Cruze breaks ranks with the small Chevy cars that have preceded it -- most of which are easily forgettable -- and
competes directly with the Japanese stalwarts that have been eating away at American-brand car sales for decades.
For starters, there's the driving feel. It's a hard thing to describe but easy to feel when you're in the driver's seat on a country road,
when you're wrapped up in the nuances of the vehicle.
The ride is firmer than American cars have traditionally employed, although still not as rock-hard as the Honda Civic. It's enough to
give you confidence in corners, though, and actually makes it enjoyable by economy-car standards.
That good driving feel is helped by the modern-sounding whir of a turbocharged engine. It's a small engine designed more for efficiency
than power -- particularly in the fuel-sipping Cruze Eco model that is rated for 40 mpg on the highway -- but it's also surprisingly smooth
for a turbo. It's the kind of silky powerplant you would normally expect to find in something more expensive.
Another big plus is the way the Cruze looks on the outside and feels on the inside.
In older compact Chevy cars, you got the impression that General Motors wasn't giving its best effort. The bodies were blocky and uninspired, and the interiors were made of brittle plastic with crude holes for the gauges and radio equipment to reside.
The Cruze, though, is a good example of how New GM is making cars that leave a much nicer impression than Old GM. This actually started
before the bankruptcy, most notably with the latest generation Malibu, but it's continuing even on more affordable new models like this one.
The Cruze's body has nice creases and subtle bulges, too, showing the kind of thought that typically goes into more expensive cars. At the
same time, smart styling is becoming de rigueur for compact cars -- just look at the gorgeous new models at Hyundai if you need proof -- so in that context it doesn't seem as impressive.
One thing that sets the Cruze apart is the number of air bags crammed into the cabin. There are the typical dual-stage air bags in front,
but there are also front and rear side-impact bags, head curtain air bags mounted on the roof rail, and even air bags in front to protect
the passengers' knees.
Pricing starts at $16,995 with a 1.8-liter Ecotec engine, but the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine is much better. It starts at $18,895 in
the Cruze LT, and pricing reaches the max in the LTZ model ($22,695) with features like leather seats, a remote-control starter and ultrasonic parking assist.
Granted, the Cruze is just the latest in a long line of GM compacts that have claimed to be taking aim at European and Japanese cars. It
has a bunch of ancestors that were experts at puffery.
But the Cruze is GM's closest attempt yet at matching -- and in some cases beating -- the quality and features in its overseas rivals. It's
an encouraging sign that GM is making cars that should be on the cross-shopping list for anyone considering a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla.
What was tested?
2011 Chevrolet Cruze 2LT ($20,675). Options: Compact spare tire ($100). Price as tested (including $720 delivery fee): $21,395.
Why buy it?
It has a surprisingly high-quality feel at a reasonable price. Its sharp looks and driving dynamics let it compete head-to-head with
compact Japanese cars.
Why avoid it?
To get it with the best engine, you've got to pay nearly $19,000.