The Cruze is the latest in a long line of competent compact cars from Chevrolet. But will Chevy keep up the Cruze or let it stagnate?
By Aaron Gold
THE BIG PICTURE
Every time I write positive review of a small Chevrolet, I always brace myself for disappointment in the future. Chevy has a pattern of developing perfectly good small cars, and then leaving them unchanged for years and years. First there was the Cavalier, then the Cobalt, and now we have the Chevrolet Cruze.
Luckily, we’re early in the Cruze’s lifetime; it was just introduced in 2011, and Chevy has added new features every year since. Whether they leave the Chevrolet Cruze to whither on the vine concerns us not in the here and now, my dear readers, for the Chevy Cruze is still fresh as a maiden’s blush and a wonderful companion on the road of life. (I’ve been reading classic English literature recently. Does it show?)
The Chevrolet Cruze’s cabin can be had in several color schemes ranging from restrained to riotous, and even the basic black interior — so dour and depressing in other compact cars — is dressed up with silver trim a-plenty and a nifty knit-fabric pattern on the dash ahead of the passenger. Not sure how well that will last — I can only imagine what my dog’s toenails would do to it — but it sure looks nice when the car is new.
And the Chevrolet Cruze’s cabin design is as sensible as it is showy, with excellent sightlines, easy-to-read gauges, and fairly straightforward controls. The Chevrolet Cruze has an option list as long as your line of credit, and you can frou-frou up your Chevrolet Cruze with additions such as heated leather seats (power-adjustable for the driver), navigation, and automatic climate control.
The Chevrolet Cruze devotes most of its interior to the front seats, so compared to other compact sedans, the back seat is middle-of-the-road. It’s okay for young children but will get tight as your kids get taller. No complaints about the huge trunk, though; at 15 massive cubic feet, the compact Cruze will schlep more stuff than most mid-size sedans.
Along with antilock brakes and electronic stability control, the Chevrolet Cruze has enough airbags that a hoarding intervention might be warranted. Most cars have six, but the Cruze has ten: Two in front, one for each of the front occupants’ knees, two seat-mounted side airbags each for the front and rear seats, and side curtain airbags that cover the front and rear side windows. You couldn’t be better protected if you filled the car with Styrofoam peanuts. This car aced the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety’s front, side, rear, and roof-crush tests and walked away with a Top Safety Pick award.
GIZMOS AND TECH
All Cruzes come with OnStar, a subscription service that can do everything from providing turn-by-turn directions to helping the cops track your Chevrolet Cruze if it’s stolen. Best yet, if the Cruze’s airbags deploy, OnStar uses its built-in phone to call an OnStar operator, who can see the car’s exact location and send help if need be.
The base-model Chevy Cruze LS comes with a 138 horsepower 1.8 liter engine, which delivers just-ok fuel economy figures of 22 MPG city/36 MPG highway with a manual transmission and 22/35 with an automatic. LT and LTZ models get a tiny 1.4 liter engine that uses a turbocharger to boost its output to the same 138 hp, but with more torque, which makes it feel quicker. Its EPA estimates are much more competitive: 26 MPG city/38 MPG highway for either transmission.
But the Chevy Cruze to get is the Eco model, which uses lightweight parts and advanced aerodynamics to boost fuel economy. The automatic Eco is rated at 26 MPG city/39 MPG highway, which is still shy of the Hyundai Elantra (29 city/40 highway, and that’s without a fancy high-tech engine like the Cruze’s). It’s the manual-transmission Cruze Eco that does the best work: 28 MPG city/42 MPG highway. I took one for a 3-hour freeway drive and averaged a hybrid-like 46 MPG. Too bad less than 10% of American drivers buy stick-shifts — but if you are in that minority, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco can save you some serious simoleons at the pump.
And the Chevrolet Cruze is good fun to drive, with excellent steering and light, responsive handling, although the Eco model gets low rolling resistance tires which don’t grip the road as well in sharp corners. The Cruze doesn’t have the sports-car feel of the Mazda3 or the Ford Focus, but it compares well with the Honda Civic and is a lot more enjoyable than the a Toyota Corolla. (then again, so is a good nap).
The Chevrolet Cruze is an excellent up-and-comer — a talented and fuel-efficient car with a stylish interior and a host of available creature comforts. Whether Chevy continues to update the Cruze or ignores it for the next decade remains to be seen; for now, however, it's a good choice.
Nice interior, big trunk.
Good to drive, excellent fuel economy from Eco (if you can drive a stick).
Despite all the fancy technology, fuel economy for automatic cars isn't nearly best-in-class.