2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Sedan

(1.8L 4-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

Cruzing the World

Amid the financial mess that has become General Motors, we're told that the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is coming our way, one more piece of GM's constantly improving product portfolio. Despite GM's financial drama, the Cruze refuses to get sidetracked. Good thing, because GM needs this new small car to have a firm footing in markets around the globe, including the U.S.

The Cruze sedan is being delivered to customers in European markets right now, and it has been on sale in Korea as the Daewoo Lacetti Premiere since late 2008. It will also be sold as the Holden Cruze in Oceania. Our several drives of the bowtie-badged Cruze with a variety of powertrains and transmissions in northern Spain have shown us that GM has at long last become a global thinker and planner like Honda, Hyundai, Toyota and VW.

The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze replaces the Chevy Cobalt, which ends production in its plant in Lordstown, Ohio, early in 2010, but this is much more car than the Cobalt was ever planned to be. The Cruze has handsome exterior work, while the interior is impressively good for big people, and the car also looks and feels better than the price should allow.

Going Global
Known internally as project J300, the Cruze is the very first GM car to be planned from its green light back in late 2006 as a totally global model. It's taken GM awhile to set up something as brilliantly cost-effective as this car, but it's finally here and there is now no looking back. Here's hoping it's not too little, too late.

Engineering for the J300 project has been headquartered in Germany at GM Europe's headquarters in Rüsselsheim, Germany. All design work has been led by the international team in Incheon, South Korea, at the former Daewoo facility, with designers Dave Lyon and Taewan Kim presiding (love the BMW 3 Series-style taillights also found on the recently sexed-up Citroën C5). Cruze production is cranking full steam at a plant in Bupyong, South Korea, and will soon also rev up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Shenyang in China.

With today's globalized perspective, all this makes the Cruze GM's most significant car ever. Provided economies in key markets pick up in timely fashion, annual worldwide sales of the Cruze could easily top 1 million vehicles. The best year for worldwide Chevy Cobalt sales came in 2005 with 148,949 sales; the total dipped to 118,349 in 2008. The Cruze has been given the task of exceeding these numbers in the U.S. alone.

The image of the car depends on the market you're talking about. In Southeast Asia (and perhaps in China as the Buick Cruze), it's a family's dream car. In Korea or Russia and Eastern Europe, it's a solid midmarket player, a clear notch above the Korean brands or VW-based Škoda. In Europe and Australia, the Cruze is the smart, well-finished alternative with big-car room and small-car practicality. For us in North America, the Cruze needs to steal customers from the Japanese, the Koreans, and from the Ford Focus.

Is It the Hit It Needs To Be?
If we're to go by our industrious driving over two days, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze measures up to expectations. The Chevrolet people tell us that the Cruze as it sits on the new Delta 2 architecture (shared with the Chevy Volt and the next Opel Astra) incorporates lots of lightweight, high-tensile-strength steel. Our driving over lots of different surfaces shows that structural rigidity is noticeably better than the Cobalt's Delta 1 architecture.

While the new platform's front suspension struts and rear torsion-beam axle are fairly basic work, they are feeling finer than anything we've ever experienced under a Cobalt. This could be due to the Cruze's stretched wheelbase (2.4 inches longer), slightly wider tracks, plus optional 17-inch tires. The Cruze unsurprisingly doesn't steer like a BMW or Infiniti, although it doesn't feel out of the ordinary, with a strong on-center response. Understeer is, however, less than on the generation of cars the Cruze replaces worldwide.

The base model Cruze will be equipped with a 1.8-liter inline-4 rated at 140 horsepower and 130 pound-feet of torque. Later on, an optional turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 will be available, which produces 140 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. The Cruze weighs 2,844 pounds with the manual transmission and 2,899 pounds with the auto, so both are lighter than the current 2,991-pound Cobalt. We think this is a great thing, even though we're giving up 10 hp and 20 lb-ft of torque compared to the current Cobalt's engine, and can expect acceleration to 60 mph to be no quicker than 9.5 seconds.

The optional six-speed automatic transmission is a first in this segment, but the 1.8-liter base engine we get is a bit underwhelming, as any slight incline on the highway results in an old-school tug of war between 5th and 6th gears if the transmission is left in Drive. (What'll it be like with five passengers and luggage then?) Meanwhile, the standard five-speed manual is always good because its ratios mesh better with the power curve, and 5th gear is overdrive enough to make highway cruising, Cruzing. If North America gets the six-speed manual transmission that's being discussed, all the better.

Living Space Every Day
By the measurements, the Cruze passenger cabin tops the competition while also looking swell and managing to keep exterior noise from the wind, tires and motor from pestering occupants. We felt compelled to ask the product people right away whether the supportive front seats are optional. Same for the natty, soft-touch fabric that upholsters the dash. All standard, they say.

Rear passengers in a Cruze are also treated better than in any other car in this class, with 39.4 inches of headroom in front and 37.9 inches in back. Rear-seat legroom in back is tremendous at 36.1 inches. Rear shoulder room measures 54 inches, 5 inches more than in the Cobalt. We adjusted the driver seat to our 6-foot frame and jumped in the back. The space is worthy of an Impala, a real improvement as the Opel Astra-based Cobalt has always been desperately short of rear-seat space. Both ingress and egress are notably upper class for this market segment, with large door openings and an overall height of 58.2 inches, 2.7 inches more than the Cobalt.

The trunk of the Cruze is tops in class with 15.9 cubic feet of cargo capacity. In Europe, the Cruze will have a 60/40-split folding rear seat, but the U.S. model will get a cheaper one-piece folding seatback with a pass-through, although the 60/40 seat will be an option.

This Is Year Zero for the New Chevrolet
After all the calculations are done, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze should provide comfort and space and build quality never before seen in this segment at this price. A U.S. model of the base Cruze with manual transmission should start with an MSRP of around $15,500 (unless some way is found to sell it for the magical $14,999), and then about $1,500-$2,000 more will be tacked on for the LS, LT and LTZ trims.

After the Cruze is set on its way, the tiny Spark will be introduced in Europe in early 2010, followed by the next-generation Aveo to slot between the Spark and Cruze in mid-2010. Soon after the global passenger car lineup is complete, then comes the Delta 2-based Orlando crossover with available seven-passenger seating, arriving in North America at the start of 2011. Soon after that, the Opel/Vauxhall Insignia and Chevy Impala will be combined into one world car.

For now, we like what we see and hear and drive with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze. We do hope, however, that a Cruze SS with the 260-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4 arrives without too much delay. And maybe a Cruze Sport, with a turbocharged, 170-hp version of the 1.8-liter engine. There is a hatchback version in the plans for Europe as well, not to mention some talk about an electric Cruze based on the Volt chassis.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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