Cruising - 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ Long-Term Road Test

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Long Term Road Test

2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ: Cruising

March 08, 2011


When you’re cruising down the freeway in the fast lane, the Cruze is in its element. Poised, quiet and efficient, the Cruze really shows us just how refined compact cars have become. You can drive this car across the state and never wish for something longer, lower and wider.

But as soon as the Cruze drops into expressway traffic, it gets hateful. When you’re following the surge of cars and trucks, you’re always accelerating, coasting and braking between 40 to 60 mph. You need a car that can keep its balance, blending engine and transmission performance.

And balance is the very thing the Cruze’s powertrain lacks.

As we’ve said before, it’s easy to blame the transmission. But it’s really everything that conspires against you — the transmission programming, the nature of the turbocharged, small-displacement engine and even the action of the throttle pedal.

When you’re motoring at moderate speed in urban traffic, the six-speed automatic always seems to be in the wrong gear. It’s calibrated for optimal fuel economy, so it shifts to a taller gear as soon as possible. And this means that as soon as you lay into the gas pedal for even moderate acceleration, the transmission has to cycle to a shorter gear, a pause in power delivery that quickly becomes annoying.

What’s more, the nature of the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine also works against you. It wants to coast for maximum fuel economy as well, so the turbo falls asleep. Then when you accelerate, the turbo wakes up and starts spinning, the boost comes up, and the engine is up on the torque curve. The problem is, the change in torque output forces the transmission to think. Maybe it’ll downshift once to take advantage of the power increase. Maybe it’ll downshift twice if it thinks you’re serious. Or maybe it won’t downshift at all.

You’re trying to send the engine and transmission the right kind of signals through the throttle pedal, but the Cruze’s throttle pedal always makes me wonder if the powertrain is getting the message. The light-effort action is meant to make the powertrain seem extra responsive, but instead it makes it harder to keep from disturbing whatever equilibrium the engine and transmission have been able to achieve.

The transmission can even be annoying at low speed. It wants to coast with the torque convertor backed off — another fuel-saving strategy — but as soon as you need a little power, the torque convertor re-engages and there’s a small but noticeable lurch from the powertrain in response. It makes for a long commute.

None of this really makes the Cruze undrivable, of course. Most people would probably never notice this behavior, which is why it’s so hard to describe. It’s one of those development things, where more time is needed at the proving ground to find a way to effectively balance the inputs from the engine, transmission and throttle pedal. No doubt it’s a difficult thing, as the Cruze gives us a kind of rising curve of performance from all three sources. For example, equilibrium is much easier to find when you have a broad, unchanging plateau of engine power.

What worries me is that we’ll soon be driving a lot more cars like the Cruze — cars that are trying to find the balance point in powertrain performance under the constraint of extreme fuel-efficiency requirements. BMW’s six-speed automatic transmission already shows much of the same behavior depending on the car in which it’s installed (it was hateful in the 2009 BMW 740i), as does Ford’s six-speed automated manual in the 2012 Focus.

The days are gone when an automatic transmission minimized shifting and was meant to deliver a long pull of seamless power. Now automatics like this one in the Chevy Cruze almost seem as if they have been engineered to maximize shifting, attempting to keep a car poised at the balance point of maximum fuel economy.

If the Cruze is any measure, some development problems lie ahead.

Michael Jordan, Executive Editor @ 7,076 miles

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