First Drive – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze: Bringing Good Vibrations?

Chevrolet Cavalier and Cobalt, both cars that well……you know that song Good Vibrations?  What is the opposite of that song?  That is what comes to mind.  There isn’t exactly a stellar legacy left by those nameplates.  Saying Chevrolet has not been competitive in the compact car segment in a while would be telling it to you straight.

Chevrolet recognizes this and is looking to not only be competitive in the segment, but they say class-leading with the new 2011 Cruze.  Have they over-promised again, or do we finally have good vibrations?

The Cruze has been trotted out at plenty of auto shows last season, so we know the basics.  The base car (LS) will come with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, while the rest of the line up (LT1, Eco, LT2, LTZ) will come with a 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder.  This will be the volume engine.

The 1.4-liter turbo puts out an estimated 138 horsepower and 148 pound feet of torque.  The base engine and Eco models will come with a six-speed manual standard.  A six-speed automatic is optional on the LS and Eco, and standard (being only option currently available) on the other models.  I’ve heard that a six-speed manual will be available with the 1.4 liter turbo later on.

They are expecting the Eco model to earn an EPA rating of 40 mpg on the highway.  I am not sure if you have been paying attention, but that is a really really good number, and a class leading figure.  The real question is whether the car will really get 40 mpg in real world driving.

In the Cruze it was easy to find a comfortable driving position with the tilt/telescoping steering wheel. The dash design is unique.

Flowing across the dash is a swath of the same cloth material found on the seats. On LTZ cars with leather seating, leatherette replaces the swath of cloth on the dash. The design is fresh and somewhat consistent with newer Chevrolet’s.

I found there to be plenty of room inside, with an airy feel inside the cabin.  One thing I found annoying was the center armrest between the front seats.  The arm rest slides fore and aft, but when in the forward position it does not lock.  It should have more tension.  When two people rest their arms on the arm rest, the slider can slide back, which becomes quite annoying.

What we did not know before was how the Cruze drove.  I was going into this with an open mind, but I have driven both a Cavalier and a Cobalt.  Neither impressed me for the segment.  In the Cruze, you turn the key and slam the gas – the 1.4 liter turbo hits max torque at a mere 1,850 rpm.

From a stop the Cruze is decent off the line, but by about 10 mph the turbo has spooled up and you are off.  The power is more than adequate for driving around town, and there is no worries about making a pass on the highway.  However, this is not a sports car, and isn’t meant to be.  The electric steering is very light at parking lot speeds (almost too light?) but it firms up a little once under way.

We were let loose in the “back country” where there was quite a few hills. In those circumstances, I found that the six-speed automatic was not always hunting and seeking top gear immediately like other six-speeds.  Much of this can be attributed to the torque from the 1.4-liter turbo engine.  Since torque is so readily available, constant shifting is not necessary.  Without question, the powertrain makes a strong statement.

The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were on hand to do back-to-back comparison drives with the Cruze.  The first thing you notice is that the Cruze is more spacious then the Civic. In the Civic, I felt so close to the driver’s door and cramped side-to-side compared to the Cruze.  The reason for this is because the Cruze is both wider and longer then its competitors.

The materials in the Civic interior were very mixed. Some pieces were nice and soft touch, while others were cheap and unattractive looking.  The Civic’s transmission also seemed to hunt more when driving on the hills, and the engine was noticeably less powerful (less torque).

The Corolla’s interior is – well, almost a joke- and it drives like an appliance with a missing Kenmore sticker.  The Cruze is much more enjoyable to drive then the Corolla.  The suspension feels more controlled and almost European (especially with the 18-inch wheels).

Chevrolet sees the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra as key competitors.  They recognize that both the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra are about to be redesigned or refreshed.  For that reason, they did not have those two vehicles on hand for comparison.

Worth noting is the pricing.  The Cruze starts at $16,995. That is over $1,000 more then the Mazda3 and current Honda Civic.

Honda has a new Civic coming towards the end of next year, along with the Volkswagen Jetta, with a base price that is also about $1,000 less then the Cruze.  The Cruze is one of the most expensive vehicles in this segment.

The Cruze’s on hand were all pre-production vehicles.  Thus, the fit and finish was not 100%, however the exteriors were nearly flawless.  On the interior, I did find the cowl covering the gauge cluster was not flush with the piece of plastic it connected to.

Also, the center console had a little cubby in front of the shifter that seemed to have a large gap in between the panel it sat with.  Again these were pre-production vehicles, so we’ll see if these two small gripes are corrected in production vehicles. Of note is that Chevrolet only had Cruze’s on hand with the 1.4 liter turbo, not the base 1.8 liter. They were also LTZ  or LT models – no Eco or LS models were available.

So back to the original question, does this car deliver on the promise of a good compact sedan? Chevrolet makes the claim that the Cruze brings midsize sedan amenities and quietness to the compact car segment.  I truly believe that claim is justified.

The car is definitely competitive with the current competition. With the new Focus and Elantra on the way though, is it enough?  For once, the main problem is not the car – it will be getting people in the car.  The current perception in the segment is not good for Chevrolet, so they will need to get butts in seats. Good marketing will be essential for the Cruze to succeed.  For now though, the new Cruze brings good vibrations to the compact car segment.

Full Disclosure – My travel and accommodations were provided by General Motors

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5 Responses to “First Drive – 2011 Chevrolet Cruze: Bringing Good Vibrations?”

  1. Branden #

    Great article and pictures. We have been reading about the Cruze for some time now and I am anxious to see what all the hype is about. The interior looks rather sharp for a compact car if I may say so. Thanks for the info!

    07/31/2010 at 11:04 am Reply

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