All hail the death of the American shitbox. With the 2011 Cruze and 2012 Focus, Chevrolet and Ford have finally delivered compact cars that aren't cheap turds with rental-car interiors.
Certainly Chevy and Ford are tired of losing sales to the more refined Japanese competitors and those sneaky imports from South Korea who trump all comers with an unparalleled feature-per-dollar ratio and worry-free warranties. Today, buyers want their 40 mpg as well as a driving experience and level of quality previously reserved for cars a class or two higher. Well, duh.
So the globally designed and engineered Chevy Cruze and Ford Focus are not just the same old heaps in new wrappers. No shitboxes here. But there can only be one winner.
What We Tested
To find out which is best, we gathered the top trim level of each, the Chevy Cruze LTZ and the Ford Focus Titanium, to see just how far American small cars have come. Both offer power windows and locks, power seats, automatic climate control, cruise control and Bluetooth as standard features.
The Cruze LTZ starts at $22,695 (including $720 destination). Our tester, fitted with a couple of pricey options including a $1,995 navigation system and a power sunroof, totaled $26,085. The Focus Titanium starts at $22,995 (including $725 destination) and our tester, fitted with $3,605 in options, including a Titanium Handling package, navigation and special interior trim cost $26,600.
Out of Europe and Into America
The 2012 Ford Focus was developed in Europe and is currently on sale in more than 120 markets around the world, but don't worry — the North American version is built right here in the good ol' U.S. of A. at Ford's Wayne, Michigan, assembly plant.
The Cruze is also a global machine — it was penned at the former Daewoo facility in Incheon, South Korea, while engineering was based at GM's European headquarters in Russelsheim, Germany. But despite the Cruze's foreign roots, U.S. and Canadian versions are built at GM's Lordstown, Ohio, plant.
Hop inside either car and you're sure to be impressed with the level of quality and execution. But don't expect Toyota Camry-like space — these are still compact cars. Similar wheelbases (105.7 inches for the Cruze, 104.3 for the Focus) return similarly adequate passenger room, although rear head- and legroom will be tight for anyone much above average height.
Both cars offer folding rear seats, but the Cruze gets points for practicality with a 15-cubic-foot trunk and a pass-through large enough to squeeze in a bicycle when the rear seats are folded. The Focus' trunk is encroached upon by its full-size spare (necessitated by the summer tire option), and its small pass-through is better suited to hauling less bulky cargo.
It's Inside That Counts
They may be small cars, but there's no disappointment with the appointments. Still, it's obvious Ford spent extra time on the interior of the Focus. Everything is styled, not just applied — for example, the way the side HVAC vents waterfall off the dash. And nearly every piece of material is soft-touch, with a genuine tactility to it.
Yes, the much-discussed Sync system combined with MyFord Touch is an acquired taste — talk about information overload on its LCD touchscreen. But once you understand where everything related to your music, nav, etc, is located, you might not miss the knobs and buttons it replaces...too much.
The Cruze, as well, is several steps above the Cobalt it replaces. Styling is handsome and modern, especially the large center stack/nav screen and comfortable leather seats that come standard on the LTZ. Programming the nav system is an overly complex task, but in general everything works well. The materials, however, lack the quality feel of the Focus, and there's too much hard plastic.
The central question in this segment is how to achieve that elusive 40-mpg highway mark, yet not force people to drive a wheezy slug.
Chevy found a replacement for displacement in the form of a turbocharger. The Cruze's four-cylinder may be tiny at just 1.4 liters, but it produces a respectable 138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at just 1,850 rpm. Although it boasts variable intake and exhaust valve timing, it still uses a heavy cast-iron block and multiport fuel injection.
The Focus' engine, on the other hand, is a completely new 2.0-liter four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and independently variable intake and exhaust cam timing. The Ford has more power than the Chevy, but it needs to be revved to find it. There's 160 hp at 6,500 rpm and 146 lb-ft of torque at 4,450.
The 156-pound-lighter Focus drew first blood on the Cruze during acceleration testing at the track. It wasn't a John Rambo kind of beat-down, but the Focus had a 0.6-second advantage to 60 mph — 8.7 seconds vs. 9.3 (8.3 and 9.0, respectively, with a 1-foot rollout like on a drag strip). The Focus was a half-second quicker and more than 4 mph faster through the quarter-mile (16.4 seconds at 85.4 mph vs. 16.9 seconds at 81.5 mph).
Although its engine is coarser and suffers minimally from turbo lag, the Cruze has good midrange punch. The Focus' larger engine is wimpy down low but smoothes out as its turquoise tach needle climbs toward redline.
Ford's six-speed twin-clutch automated manual transmission offers quick yet smooth shifts, while a smart Sport mode adapts its shift points well to the way you're driving. It even downshifts (with cool throttle blips) when you brake hard. But it's not perfect. It makes clunking noises at low speeds when it's deciding on a gear. And instead of steering wheel paddles for manual shifting, Ford fitted the console shifter with a non-intuitive rocker switch. Frustratingly, even during manual shifting, it won't hold gears to redline.
While we're griping, the throttle pedal in the Focus is heavy and resistant, which at times makes the transmission seem reluctant to downshift.
The Cruze's six-speed automatic (of the traditional torque-converter variety), on the other hand, is a cruder, slower-thinking device. It takes its sweet time deciding to downshift, and even when you stomp on the throttle, there's sufficient enough delay for the tailgating Jesse James-wannabe in your mirror to shorten your car by a few feet. The Cruze's manual-shifting ability via the console lever is preferable to that of the Focus, and we like that it will hold gears to redline. But there's no blipping on downshifts, nearly negating its usefulness during spirited driving — or even descending a hill.
The EPA tells us the Cruze should get 24 city/36 highway mpg, while it's estimated the as-yet-EPA-certified Focus will yield 28 city/38 highway. In our admittedly harder-than-average driving, the Cruze produced 24.6 mpg while the Focus managed 27.4 mpg in mixed conditions.
Getting a Handle on Handling
Even though these are economy-minded cars, Ford clearly wants to make sure the Focus is the driver's car of the segment. So the Titanium's front MacPherson strut and multilink rear setup are tuned for turns. Even better, our test car's optional Titanium Handling package ($595) adds better dampers (but the same springs and antiroll bars) to match the package's summer performance tires, which aren't available on the Cruze.
Combined with a well-calibrated electric power steering system, the Focus is just plain stuck to the road. Adding to the car's unflappability is a stability control system that can't be fully defeated (traction control can be switched off). Still, the Focus' chassis gobbles up curvy back roads like it's returning from a hunger strike. The ride is far from objectionable, the biggest issue being the noise from the summer tires on coarse, bumpy streets.
The Cruze also utilizes MacPherson struts up front, although Chevy skimped in the rear by using a torsion beam, but the European tuning has worked wonders. The Cruze offers a handling/ride mix that lets the driver attack a back road, yet gives a hush-quiet, jolt-free highway ride. In a way it's more fun than the Focus, because its limits aren't hampered by stability control. Its biggest handling glitch is the low-effort electric-assist steering. There's little in the way of actual feel, but the chassis is so amenable that you can really toss the Cruze around — it's just not as precise as the planted Focus.
At the test track, the Focus and its summer tires put down a stamp of authority. Around the skid pad it garnered an astounding 0.91g of grip versus the Cruze's still-respectable 0.86g. And it should have dominated by a similar margin in the slalom, but it was restrained by nondefeat stability control. Nimble, tight and stuck, and with torque vectoring helping to put the power down, the Ford still posted an impressive-for-the-class 68.3 mph while the Cruze managed 67.2 mph.
The Focus also stopped a full 10 feet shorter from 60 mph, managing the task in only 110 feet — almost sports car territory.
Ding, Ding, Ding: We Have a Winner
First, the good news: Both of these cars are worthy contenders in the compact economy segment.
The bad news: The 2011 Chevy Cruze got whupped by the 2012 Ford Focus, 87.5 points to 78.3. Why? Maybe it's because Ford has its sights set on world dominance, while Chevy seems satisfied to continue being better than itself rather than its competitors. Yes, the Cruze is superior to the Cobalt it replaces, just as the Cobalt was vastly improved over the Cavalier. But that strategy shows only progress rather than leadership.
The 2012 Ford Focus' drivability, livability and quality are not only much better than the unloved second-gen Focus it replaces, but they just might make it the best compact economy car in the world.
Either way, it's no shitbox.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
Walk into your local dealer and the last thing you want is to be coerced into paying extra for a bunch of features that should come standard. Actually, the last thing you want is to be baited by the finance guy into buying an extended warranty for the car the salesman just told you is bulletproof — but that's an altogether different story.
As the LTZ and Titanium are the top respective trim levels of the Cruze and Focus, they both come with plenty of goodies, such as power windows, remote keyless entry, automatic climate control and Bluetooth. But Ford makes you pay extra for leather seats, while you can't get dual-zone climate control or a power driver seatback on the Cruze.
||2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ
||2012 Ford Focus Titanium
|Dual-zone climate control
|Heated front seats
|Power driver seatback
|Rear parking sensor
|Remote vehicle start
N/A: Not Available
Dual-zone climate control: In-depth scientific studies have proven that women prefer a hotter cabin than men. Therefore, it goes without saying that if all cars came standard with dual-zone climate control like the Focus, the divorce rate would drop significantly.
Heated front seats: Even sissy Southern Californians love warming their buns as they drive to work on a nippy 60-degree morning. Folks with actual weather will truly appreciate that heated seats come standard in the Cruze LTZ.
Heated mirrors: Whether it's ice or snow or just a little bit of fog, heated mirrors make quick work of precipitation blocking your rear or side view.
Leather seats: Cowhide isn't for everyone, as it's sticky in the summer and cold in the winter. But there's a luxurious quality to leather that cloth can't touch. Also, it's easier to clean than cloth. So it's noteworthy that the Cruze LTZ comes standard with the stuff, while Ford makes you order the Premium package to revel in luxuriousness.
Power driver seatback: Might seem minor, but if you're as fidgety as some of our testers, you change your seatback position several times during a long drive. It's odd that the Cruze LTZ's six-way power seat makes you operate a manual lever for the seatback.
Power sunroof: Neither car comes with a sunroof as standard fare. Our Cruze test car was outfitted with one, though, at a cost of $850. It's $795 if you order one in the Focus.
Rain-sensing wipers: Why should you have to go through the hassle of actually touching a steering wheel stalk to turn on your wipers when you can have the car do the work for you? A sensor detects water on the Focus' windshield and automatically starts, stops and adjusts the speed of the wipers.
Rear parking sensor: Neither vehicle was equipped with a rearview camera, but rear parking sonar is the next best thing. The system automatically beeps at you if you're about to back into, say, a pole in the Edmunds parking garage. Standard on the Cruze LTZ, optional on the Focus Titanium.
Remote vehicle start: A handy feature for those who live in colder climes, especially if you don't have the luxury of a garage. The Cruze LTZ's standard remote start system is as simple as pressing the lock button on the key fob, and then pressing and holding the remote start button (also on the fob). The system even sets the climate control to either heating or cooling depending on the outside temperature.
Smart entry: Remember the old days when you physically unlocked the driver door by inserting a key, after which you swiveled around the cabin like a monkey unlocking everyone's doors? OK, maybe you're too young, but it happened, trust us. With Ford's Intelligent Access, all you have to do is touch the driver door handle and it immediately unlocks the door (provided the fob is on your person).