Steering and handling much sharper than expected, tidy turbocharged engine, good manual transmission, upscale interior design, giant trunk.
Acceleration a little light, some chintzy interior pieces, restrained styling will be slayed by the all-new Ford Focus.
The long-talked-about 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is finally going on sale in September 2010, and although Chevrolet is still working out some details, it uncrated a few engineering prototypes for a first-time drive on U.S. soil at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan. The engineers on hand said the three cars were about 85 percent representative of the final-product Cruze.
Unless that final 15 percent gets really messed up, the compact-sedan-segment big dogs -- the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla -- had better start looking over their shoulders for Chevy's Cobalt replacement. The 2011 Cruze is more than equal to those big-selling Japanese compacts and has enough going on to pique the interest of enthusiast drivers, too.
And although the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is certain to cost more than the Cobalt, expect Chevy to make sure its impressive all-new compact is fully price-competitive with the imports, as well as with the all-new 2012 Ford Focus, coming to our shores in early 2011. All three of the prototypes Chevy offered for test-drives were sedans and all had the new 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. A variety of trim levels were represented, but we concentrated mostly on the line-topping LTZ.
The riskiest move for Chevy's all-new Cruze may be its comparatively tiny 1.4-liter engine; the Cobalt it replaces uses a 2.2-liter job. The 2011 Cruze's turbocharged 1.4-liter is smaller than Americans are used to, even for compact cars. And it's the upgrade engine, as a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter, that will be standard on the base trim level.
Not to worry, though: The 1.4-liter, 138-horsepower engine, standard for the upper LT1, LT2 and LTZ trims, as well as the high-efficiency Eco model, spins like the proverbial dervish. There's just a small amount of turbo lag when you lift off the nicely balanced clutch to deliver the power to the six-speed manual transmission that's standard for all trim levels. The optional six-speed automatic transmission delivers similar results, though it requires a more deliberate push on the accelerator pedal at takeoff and it can be reluctant to downshift when given the boot.
We're told to expect to get from zero to 60 in the mid 9-second range and that's probably about right, yet the 1.4-liter turbo does feel quicker than the numbers suggest. Either way, that kind of performance is entirely appropriate for the segment -- and it's what most competitors get out of their markedly larger 1.8-liter or 2.0-liter engines. Along with the promise of high fuel-efficiency (unofficially estimated at 40 mpg highway), another benefit of such small displacement is a lack of vibration from those diminutive pistons, which makes for less noise and vibration in the cabin.
The most surprising characteristic of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is its genuinely athletic handling and startlingly sophisticated ride quality. The Cruze's all-new chassis might not look too sophisticated on paper, but its clever patented design ensures secure handling and an absorbent but controlled ride. The standard suspension, dubbed "Touring," rides as well as just about any compact car, while the sport suspension is firmer but not anything approaching jolting. And all Cruzes get fuel-saving electric power steering that has unexpectedly fine feedback.
The Cruze's front seats are shaped tight enough to hold your hips but won't pinch wider frames and offer plenty of adjustment. The steering wheel tilts and telescopes, so drivers of all sizes should be able to find a satisfactory seating position. There's enough cabin width for most everyone to be comfortable, although occupants in the rear will find the bench a little low, and three across is intimate but not impossible -- particularly if one or two are in child safety seats. There are adjustable headrests at all outboard positions.
The main problem in the back is tight legroom. We had to turn our feet sideways to slide them behind the front seatbacks, which are typically close to the rear seats. It seems that rear-seat leg- and footroom might have been sacrificed to devote more space to the Cruze's impressively large trunk.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze's interior design and layout are vastly modernized over the stark and minimalist surroundings of today's Cobalt, and the overall presentation is upscale compared to the aging Civic and Corolla.
The compact sedan's instrument cluster is a no-nonsense array of speedometer and tachometer, and the placement of the climate and audio controls mostly works, although the radio buttons all look alike and we're not particularly fans of the blue backlighting Chevy uses for a lot of its new instrument panels. We felt a little pinched by the center stack and console; the Civic still seems more open and airy.
Meanwhile, the Cruze may end up as the hands-down winner for those with trunk space at the top of their list of needs. The Cruze's trunk is 15 cubic feet, or downright ginormous in general terms; a Civic sedan's trunk capacity is 12 cubic feet, about what most cars in the class serve up. A lot of the Cruze's trunk volume comes from the space-saving rear-suspension design.
Although we drove preproduction cars, most of the interior trim could be assumed to be representative of what will be seen in the showroom. That's good and bad. We liked the seat fabrics and the Cruze's elegant interpretation of Chevy's signature "dual cockpit" layout for front occupants.
But, as with the Malibu, some plastics -- particularly on the surrounds for the door-panel switches and for the large glove-compartment door -- look flat and inexpensive and, worse, are rock-hard. And we're already tired of the cheap chrome-look plastic that's become so fashionable in inexpensive cars trying to look more expensive.
Bottom line: Although the 2011 Cruze is all-new, don't forget that at heart, it's an economy car and the interior design (good) and materials (so-so) should be in line with your expectations.
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze will appeal to families and first-time buyers who want maximum space and fuel economy but still prefer the more formal appearance of a sedan. One bonus: The Cruze is larger than the Cobalt it replaces, and engineers say that according to the Environmental Protection Agency's standards, the interior is roomy enough that the 2011 Cruze technically classifies as a midsize car.
Most of all, though, the Cruze has better handling and a more enjoyable engine than its admittedly aging Honda and Toyota competition. We worried that the small 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine might not deliver, but its turbocharger makes for entertaining if not blistering performance.