First Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

By Brendan Moore

For those of you that gin up PowerPoint decks for a living, you know that most of the people that want those presentation decks also want an executive summary in the front of the deck.

So, in the spirit of corporate thrashing-around, here is the executive summary for the new Chevrolet Cruze: A huge quantum leap up and forward from the Cobalt it replaces; not the best car in its segment (although it’s a very, very good car in its class), but, probably the best-value car in the segment in terms of what kind of car you get for the money. Also, the Cruze is available in one iteration (CruzeEco) that returns 40 mpg in highway driving.

Yes, to continue in business parlance, Chevrolet would be the recommended supplier, and the Cruze would be the product that would score the highest after passing through a set of tough screening criteria.

Whew. All that business stuff is giving me sort of a headache. It’s a good thing I keep a bottle here in my desk at the office, right?

Okay, let’s move on with the review.

Chevrolet invited a great many automotive writers to drive the Cruze in July; I was one of those writers, and I was eager to get behind the wheel of Chevrolet’s new compact car. Unlike the forthcoming Ford Focus, I had not yet driven the Cruze, even though the car already had its coming-out party in Europe previously, just like the future North American 2012 Focus.

The Cruze has been sold in both Europe and Asia this year, and American buyers get their shot at the car this fall. The markets of Europe and Asia are tough on compact cars in terms of competition, and the Cruze has exceeded Chevrolet’s expectations, so that’s always a good sign.

The compact car has achieved the top five-star safety rating in every market the vehicle has been sold in so far, and the engineers are supremely confident that it will achieve that same (top) rating in the U.S. and Canada as well.

The Chevrolet folks say they’ve logged over 4 million miles in quality and durability testing for the Cruze, and, that this has happened in some of the most extreme environments in the world. They also add that those developmental miles will be up to over 5 million shortly, that is, by the time the car goes on sale in North America.

How’s it look?

You can see from the photos that it sports a refined, upscale look; not daring, certainly, but fairly attractive. I would have to say that it is more attractive in the metal as opposed to the photos. Some cars are, some cars are not, the Cruze is one that looks better in front of you. If we are going to include the “man (and woman) on the sidewalk” opinion, then GM has hit the bull’s-eye, because the car was getting a great many compliments from people walking by on the sidewalk in downtown Washington, D.C., where my test car was parked. And, let’s face it; the residents of the Capitol City are a jaded bunch.

But, where the looks of the Cruze really belie its price is inside the car, where the car looks more expensive than it actually is. The chimera is not as well-practiced, or as well brought off as the fiction that Volkswagen does with their cars, but they are the acknowledged masters of that particular deception, so it is really high praise for Chevrolet to be mentioned in the same breath with those Teutonic magicians of Wolfsburg. Really, the car looks great for its price point, and the interior designers at GM deserve applause for the good work they did inside the car.

How’s it drive?

It drives very well. Again, like a more expensive car. It is no sports car, and doesn’t pretend that it is, but it moves with some alacrity, courtesy of a very flat torque curve that also kicks in at low RPM, and just stays in there punching. Now, just to be clear, I’m talking about the better engine here, the 1.4L turbocharged DOHC inline-four that pushes out 138 hp, and more importantly, 148 lb-ft of torque, all on regular unleaded. The base model Cruze gets a naturally aspirated 1.8L DOHC engine that puts out a close 136 hp, but a not-very-close-at-all 123 lb-ft of torque. It may not seem like much of a difference, but that 25 lb-ft of torque makes a big difference in a compact car, especially considering that where it’s missing is the lower RPMs.

Unless your life is complete crap, and you’ve just basically given up, plump for the better engine above the base model. You get better standard features, too, and we’re not exactly talking BMW money here, so what’s not to like?

The engines drive through either a M32 6-speed manual or a Hydra-Matic 6T40 6-speed automatic, you choose. Although, the automatics are so good now, it makes a manual sort of superfluous, and this, coming from a guy that likes to row his own. But, a manual is there for the asking, should you eschew being shiftless.

The front suspension of the Cruze is an independent, MacPherson strut-type with side-loaded strut modules, direct-acting hollow stabilizer bar, hydraulic ride bushings and tuned coil springs.

The rear suspension is NOT an independent rear suspension, but rather, is composed of a specifically-designed compound crank/torsion beam affair with a Z-link (otherwise known as a tunable control arm). The Chevrolet boys swear up and down that it is a wonderful piece of work that gives the driver of the Cruze the same performance of an all-independent rear, and at lower cost and a lower hassle level, and, I have to admit, they seem to be right. I couldn’t feel the car do anything untoward when I pushed the car; the Cruze was composed and serene on undulating road surfaces, in decreasing radius turns, etc. And, as is my wont, I was banging around pretty quickly in the car.

There are two brake set-ups; one, a front-disc, rear-drum layout, the other, a four-wheel-disc package. There seems to be very little difference in actual stopping power or stopping distance between the two braking systems. This is probably a wise and calculated decision on the part of the Chevrolet product managers, considering the target buyer. As stated before, it’s not as if the average Cruze owner will be exploring performance limits in the car. The wheels range in size from the base 16-inch steel wheel to the up-market 18-inch alloys.

All in all, I liked the Cruze; I think it’s a good little car, an honest car, a vehicle that is not trying to be anything it isn’t, and further, only wants to please. I think Chevrolet will do well with the car as it is a very attractive bargain, starting at $16,995 USD for the LS model, $18,895 for the LT, $18,895 for the Cruze ECO and ending up at $22,695 for the LTZ. The LTZ has a plethora of “stuff” available as standard at that trim level, a tremendous amount of content, and even if you check off every single box you want on the order form, it still is going to come in around $25,000.

The Cruze for North America will be manufactured at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio plant and will be on dealer lots in sizable numbers this fall.

One last note – the writer I spent half of the second day with in the Cruze as my driving partner looked over at me after a couple of hours of driving and said, “This is going to be my next car”.

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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20 Comments

  1. I believe the Cruze will be an exceptional car, but I’m afraid when Consumer Reports gets their hands on one, they will somehow knock it down by saying “not recommended”. If it had the Toyota name on it, they’d be nothing but rave.

    After all, who knows more about cars than Consumer Reports!

  2. This is a very complimentary review and I have to say, it makes me a little suspicious because it is so positive. GM has not had a good track record in this size segment, and, suddenly, they’ve executed a 180? Hard to believe.

    I hope the Cruze is everything you say it is, but, the best value in it’s class? Really?

    Better value than a Honda Civic? Better value than the next Ford Focus, which has gotten great reviews in Europe so far?

    I hope you’re right, because GM could use a hit, but I really have my doubts. Just sayin’…

  3. First the Fiesta, now the Cruze, and then the Focus. It’s great to see American companies producing fine small cars (again?).

  4. Brendan:

    So, you’ve driven both, what’s the bottom line: Focus or Cruze?

  5. I would still like to see how the Chevy Cruze fares head-to-head with the current premium compact segment leaders in the U.S., the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.

    It also looks like VW is armed to do battle in the segment for 2011 with the new Jetta.

    And watch out for the 2011 Hyundai Elantra which is slated to receive most of the hot selling Sonata’s styling cues.

    I seem to remember Chevy’s 2004 touting of the Cobalt as the Cavalier’s replacement that wouldn’t make the B-line for car rental fleets.

    Say it won’t be deja vu for the Cruze.

  6. It may be a good car, it may be a great car for what it is, BUT you know the performance version of the Focus will chew it up and spit it out. The Focus will definitely be more money than the Cruze across the board, feature for feature, but it’s a better car, as long as Ford doesn’t dumb it down for the American market. Yes, it will be more money, but it will be worth it!

  7. Cruze is not quite in the same performance and handling class as the Focus and Mazda3 but is close enough so that, for the money, it is hard to beat….

    Cruze has sold heaps in Oz compared to the Ford/Mazda pair….and it is still the Korean version (Oz production to start very soon).

    A warning though…air con condensor is extremely vulnerable to frontal impacts from stones & birds

  8. Looks like another future hit for GM. They’ve been doing great lately. They can’t build’em fast enough. Just drove by my local Chevy and Buick/Cadillac/GMC dealer. Saw very few “new” cars (Equinox, LaCrosse, Regal, Terrain, Traverse, etc) on the lots.

  9. “…those Teutonic magicians of Wolfsburg…” Oh please. During our vacation on the Canary Islands a few weeks ago we had a brandnew Volkswagen Polo as a rental car. In comparison to the Cruze, the VW’s interior appeared hopelessly uninspired. The execution of Volkswagen’s interiors often looks much better than it is. A comparison after 125’0000 miles from a large German car-magazine came to the result, that the durability of the Opel Astra’s (aka Saturn Astra) interior was far from showing the wear, as found at the VW Golf with the same mileage.

  10. “Deaninmiami” eluding that a company isn’t capable of a 180. OK Dean. No one has ever seen a company turn around in this country like Ford, Apple, even McDonalds.
    Agree with the engine up-option. A Cadillac it is not but it is not meant to be. It’s a new car for someone with a modest budget that performs well, looks and feels good, and will last for a long, long time.
    Let’s bash the Volt now because no one has been screaming for that for years – and GM answered.
    “Well why can’t the cars fly too?”…
    Seriously.

  11. The best performer and best economy is the diesel

  12. When the big three looked back at the past and built modern versions of the future, They created quite a stir. Car lovers drive by dealerships and dream of the day.

    Still dreaming though and not buying.

    the throw back is not a bad Idea. Take the corvair for example. It’s sexy and sporty looking and when the top came down, even if you did not like that it was completely designed to fail against the germans, you looked as if you were having fun.

    Maybe it’s only me, But another econo people mover might not be what the consumers in this price range want. It would not be my first choice if I was just out of College on my first real job or just out of high school still dilivering pizzas.

  13. People questioning how GM could make a competent small car don’t understand a few things. First of all, the quality and execution of ALL Gm’s vehicles is better than ever. There was a time when GM wasnt known for making great small cars, luxury cars or crossovers. All of that has changed.

    The other key fact is that this car was developed in Europe and Asia. The fact that its a “Chevy compact” doesn’t mean it has anything in common with the Cobalt or Cavalier. This same car is sold in Europe, Australia and China. It has lot of input from markets where small cars are more mainstream than they are in the states so its on a much higher level of execution than the Cobalt.

    Someone called the coroll and civic “premium” compacts. I almost fell off my chair. There is nothing premium about the Corolla. It sells on name and reputation alone.

  14. I’d like to point out some important things.

    The best car in class and the best value car in class are not necessarily the same car. I followed one of these trackback links to a GM fanboy site, where the resident sages were sputtering that “the reviewer contradicted himself by saying the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze was not the best car in its segment, and then he immediately turns around and says it’s the best value.” The best mass-market cars in this segment are probably the Ford Focus, the Mazda3 and the VW Golf/Jetta (pick one), but I think the new Cruze delivers the best bang for the price. I don’t know how, but it appears that nuance was lost on some of the readers of the review.

    Dean in Miami: Things change with time, and GM is one of those things. I would caution you against falling into the trap of using GM’s lost decades to judge their current vehicles. It’s a new world, my friend – get out there and drive it!

    Charles Krome: The 2012 Ford Focus. I’ve driven the Focus in Germany, and it’s quite a good car. BUT, it is going to be more expensive up and down their lineup compared to the Cruze. Again, I would give the nod to the Cruze in terms of price/value ratio.

    George S: Agreed

    LSUTiger88: Yes, what you say is true, until you get to the value equation. I’ll stick to my statement about the Cruze being the best value in this segment.

    Seano: Agreed

    Guest: You will notice that I used words like “fiction” and “chimera” when describing VW’s interiors. These words describe something that doesn’t exist. The boys over at VW are experts at producing an interior that looks expensive and seems to be high-quality. The reality is different. But, you cannot deny their expertise in this deception.

    Bryce: The North American market doesn’t get the diesel motor, but, thanks for taunting us with the fact that other markets do.

    Jem: ????????

    Sjones: Agreed

  15. Forget the lost decades, the really crappy Cobalt is being sold right now. I want GM to make a good (make that great) car in this segment, but, I have DOUBTS.

    Is that so ridiculous? I don’t think so.

  16. “Dean In Miami – Better value than a Honda Civic? Better value than the next Ford Focus, which has gotten great reviews in Europe so far?”

    Uh, do you realize that the Cruze has been on sale in Europe and Asia for over a year? It’s gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews everywhere it’s been.

    Just sayin….

  17. Bottom line – Maybe the Cruze is a nice car, but when you can buy an Nissan Altima for 16-17K+ taxes or a Corolla for even less, why would anyone spend the extra cash for something like this? I doubt GM will be discounting the Cruze much. In the end, price and value are what sell cars in this segment. My guess is that its going to be an average sales performer with the amount of competition around it. IMO GM just met expectations and that’s it. GM would need to invent a flying car that uses no gas before I buy another pile of GM crap.

  18. Your review of the new Chevy Cruze and your recognition that its automatic as so good that it makes a manual unnecessary speaks volumes about it efficiency and performance and puts to rest the prevailing idea among some drivers that a manual is more economical, better performing, etc. It is also , or should be, a source of pride that Mr. and Mrs. America can now line up a Ford or in this case, Chevy dealer and know that they make superior vehicles other than trucks and pony cars..

  19. After putting just under 700 miles on my week-old Cruz, a stone went through my condenser. Fortunaely, the dealership decided to “goodwill” the parts and service work to me. After some investigation, I discovered that a stone-guard is standard equipment on the Eco model, but not any of the others. Fortunately, the dealership also is goodwilling that part and work to me as well, once I told them of its availability. I’ve received an excellent response from the dealer (who is not the dealer I purchased it from – they’re 200 miles away) and from GM corporate customer service, but it’s beyond my comprehension how a car can be placed on the road by the manufacturer with such a vulnerability. It would appear that this has happened to a few hundred Cruze owners, so I’m betting that a service bulletin or recall is in the works once the lawyers get everything figured out.

  20. I have a 2011 Cruze LT I bought 13 months ago.

    Love the handling and performance of my Cruze, but I do have to agree with Seano, the condenser is a problem. I had to replace mine over the weekend, a hole probably caused by a rock, so of course not covered by warranty. I am from a town of 3000 people and as I was paying $500.00 to repair mine another customer came in with the same problem with his Cruze. GM should find a fix to protect this delicate part or cover it under warranty because of a design flaw that does not protect against road hazards.

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