2011 Chevrolet Cruze
Base price: $16,525 – $22,225
As tested: $24,415
MPG: 24 city/36 highway
- Best compact Chevy ever
- Excellent safety features
- Refined interior
- Tight back seat, needs more interior storage
- Fairly bland exterior styling
- All this goodness doesn't come cheap
By Jim Prueter
Cruze is Chevy's Best Small Car Ever, but is it Enough?
There’s no denying that General Motors and, in particular, the Chevrolet division has a long history of building crummy little compact cars that filled airport car rental lots and ultimately resulted in poor resale values and damaged brand reputation. Perhaps you remember such forgettable Chevrolet products as the Corsica, Geo, Cavalier, and recently the Cobalt and Aveo?
So pardon me while I yawn when, yet again, the Detroit automaker announces it is introducing a vehicle that will not only take on and compete on every front with the best Asian brands (such as Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra), but seriously put them in its rear view mirror.
Chevrolet says this time they are serious and have built a small car that will feature unsurpassed quality and dependability, superb fuel economy, as much room and amenity content as possible for the price, five-star safety ratings, and a pleasing design with high-quality materials and workmanship.
That said, it was with much anticipation that I awaited the delivery of the Chevrolet Cruze, the replacement vehicle for the aging Cobalt. What we found was the best compact sedan from Chevrolet we have ever driven and, for the moment, superior in almost every way to Corolla and Civic.
I say “for the moment” because in the next few months the current Civic is giving way to a new and refined version. Cruze also will have to compete with the all-new and excellent Ford Focus, Kia Optima (the newest entries in the class, which reflect new standards of refinement in compacts), and, for the money, even Hyundai Sonata — which could be the best of the entire bunch.
For testing, Chevrolet dropped off a top-of-the-line, fully equipped Cruze LTZ. There was plenty to like: handsome interior, pleasing textures — including heated leather seats, a soft-touch dash and leather wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel — and upscale-appearing trim throughout the cabin. Overall, this attractive and classy looking interior has a long list of standard and safety features that easily trumps both Civic and Corolla.
Outside, the look certainly won’t offend and reflects Chevy’s now-familiar twin-port split grille and afterburner taillights found in most of its cars and trucks. That said, we much prefer the look of both the new Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra.
Cruze is Chevy’s first global car. Launched two years ago in the spring of 2009 in Europe and now sold in 60 countries, including China, India, Mexico, throughout Europe, and even Russia, it’s Korean-built with Euro-specs. Worldwide sales have been impressive, as have sales in the U.S. since it went on sale in September 2010. U.S. versions are built in Lordstown, Ohio.
Cruze is powered by either a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter, four cylinder, 136-horsepower six-speed manual transmission offered in the base LS models only, or the more fuel-efficient 1.4-liter turbocharged 138-horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. We didn’t test the 1.8-liter non-turbocharged, so we can’t comment on its performance.
Performance of our 1.4-liter turbo was average for this class of vehicle, but we found the engine was noisier than competitive vehicles, such as Civic, Mazda3 and Ford Focus. The transmission seemed a good match with smooth shifts and the ability to select manual shifting, however there are no steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
So how did our Cruze LTD drive? We thought handling was impressive, especially on the standard 18-inch wheels that come with the LTZ. It cornered flat, was well balanced with a comfortable ride and more than competent handling. Not a sports sedan to be sure, but put together well enough to handle twisty roads without punishing the occupants.
A few things we didn’t care for were the tight back seat, brakes with a mushy feel to the pedal and too-few places to store small gear. More storage bins, cubbies and a larger center console would have been a welcomed addition.
Standard safety features include a class best 10 airbags: two frontal and two knee airbags for front occupants, front and rear side-impact airbags, and curtains that cover front and rear side windows. Also standard are antilock brakes and the StabiliTrak electronic stability system with traction control. Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard, and rear discs can be found on the LTZ or as an option on the LT.
Cruze earned a 2011 Top Safety pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the highest possible overall 5-star rating by the National Transportation Safety Administration.
Cruze offers a choice of five trim levels, with prices starting at $16,525 for the base LS and topping out at $22,225 for the well-equipped LTZ. Our LTZ tester had an EPA fuel economy rating of 24 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway, 28 mpg combined.
The high-mileage Cruze Eco model that combines the 1.4-liter turbo with a six-speed manual transmission, high-efficiency tires, aerodynamics, weight reduction and other tweaks delivers a more impressive 40 mpg on the highway, according to Chevrolet.
Overall, Cruze is easily the best compact car Chevrolet has built and far outdistances its predecessor, the Cobalt, but could still use some refinement to fully lead a segment saturated with excellent compact cars. To be sure, you get a lot for your money, but Cruze doesn’t come cheap. And with larger, well-equipped cars like the Hyundai Sonata, which starts at just $19,395, I might suggest a better buy than anything in the segment, including the pretty darn good Cruze.