The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. It's not designed to appeal to urban hipsters or performance junkies. It's focused instead on the core attributes that should appeal to someone shopping compact sedans: economy, comfort, usability and safety. As a bonus, the Cruze delivers a surprising level of interior sophistication and sporty handling. If the design and execution of the Cruze are any indication of things to come, GM is well on its way to recovery.
Just as in the past, Chevy's compact sedan tries to downsize the attributes of its larger cars, so the Cruze aspires to quietness, refinement and style in a way that its competition does not. This used to seem like an odd strategy when Chevy's competition pursued either performance or fuel economy themes in order to persuade car buyers that smaller is smarter. But now that everyone has finally figured out that smart-size will be the way of the future, the game is all about reproducing the virtues of larger cars in a more economical package, so the Cruze could be in just the right place at just the right time.
The compact sedan segment once was dominated by the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, yet they seem slightly generic now. We'd direct shoppers instead toward the Ford Focus and the all-new Hyundai Elantra, the newest entries in the class, which reflect the new standards of refinement in compacts. Meanwhile, the slightly smaller Ford Fiesta also represents a competitive proposition. Among this group, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is most like a larger car, although it has its own mix of assets and liabilities.
Powering the front-wheel-drive 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ is a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 that produces 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Power output isn't all that impressive on the whole, and there's a noticeable lack of midrange motivation until the turbo kicks in higher in the rev range. The standard six-speed automatic transmission also seems out of phase with the engine's character, as its calibration for maximum fuel economy compromises throttle response in stop-and-go traffic and leads to clumsy shifting.
In Edmunds testing, the Cruze LTZ accelerated from a standstill to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds, which is about average for the class. Stopping from this speed requires 120 feet — also average for this segment. In most driving scenarios, the Cruze behaves just as any other economy sedan, and there's enough power to deal with congested commutes. At highway speeds, though, the Cruze's weak midrange power and hesitant transmission calibration lead you to floor the gas pedal to pass slower traffic, which leads to a lot more busy-ness from the engine and transmission than you really want. Even then, the Cruze feels anemic as it slowly gathers speed.
Handling, on the other hand, tells a different story. We were pleasantly surprised by the Cruze's athletic nature, as it confidently sweeps through corners, weaves through traffic and arcs onto off-ramps. The steering is precise and light, though it might lack the kind of communication that performance-minded drivers prefer. Fuel economy is praiseworthy as well, with an EPA-estimated 24 city/36 highway mpg and 28 mpg in combined driving. We managed a decent 25 mpg over 7,000 miles.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ distinguishes itself from other economy cars when it comes to comfort. Road and wind noise are effectively silenced and the ride quality is controlled and compliant. The front seats are on the flat and narrow side, but quite comfortable even on extended journeys. The rear seats easily accommodate average-size adults, with the only real complaint being the slightly low seat cushions. Smaller passengers will be just fine back there.
Living with the Cruze day to day is generally a favorable experience. From the driver seat, the Cruze provides a commendably expansive view, so you feel confident in traffic despite the car's compact size. Interior storage is at a slight premium; the customary cupholders and bins are present, but they are on the small side. Family-oriented buyers should be pleased to know that a rear-facing child seat fits in the backseat with ease, allowing enough legroom in the front seat for an adult-size passenger. Trunk space is generous, with a wide opening and 15.4 cubic feet of volume, though the flimsy trim is decidedly downmarket.
Music lovers might have mixed feelings about this compact Chevrolet. Even though our Cruze LTZ came with the optional Pioneer premium audio system, we found the sound quality merely average. Audio operation is fairly straightforward, aided by the optional navigation display. Navigation functions proved rather frustrating, as the controls are split between a multifunction knob and the unintuitive radio preset buttons. We would have preferred a typical touchscreen interface.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze leans more toward mature understatement than youthful vigor. The same can be said for the interior design, with pleasant shapes and a calming two-tone color palette. In range-topping LTZ trim, the leather seats and generous use of soft-touch materials give this Cruze one of the nicest cabins in the segment. Furthermore, the interior elements seem well assembled — a far cry from previous entry-level Chevys.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is a measure of the way large car values have come to the compact segment. It has the refined look of a larger car, not to mention the wide array of comfort and convenience features associated with a premium sedan. It makes a fine highway ride thanks to its combination of a quiet, poised ride and good fuel economy. Limited power lets it down if you're looking for performance, however, and the transmission calibration makes the car feel clumsy in stop-and-go traffic. All things considered, the Cruze's many benefits outweigh its minor drawbacks, but we'd still suggest taking a look at the competition before committing to a purchase.
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