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Chevrolet Cruze

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First Drive: 2010 Chevrolet Cruze

Forget the Volt -- This is the Car That Must Save GM



  • Solid Delta II Structure
  • Choice of diesel, gas 4-cylinder engines (Euro Version)
  • Good Interior Layout

The Chevrolet Cruze has different jobs wherever it's sold. In the U.S., where it goes on sale from mid-2010, it will be a locally made rival to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. But in Europe, where we've just driven it, it's GM's Korean-made budget-brand entry and sits beneath the same-sized Opel (and sometime Saturn) Astra in GM's price and brand hierarchy.

GM's been promising Americans an "import fighter" small car for years -- and has consistently failed to deliver, whether it with home grown products like the Cobalt, or with rebadged Opels like the Astra. So here's the key question: if Cruze is positioned as a bargain car in Europe, does it really have the quality and style, the functionality and value, to seriously rival Honda and Toyota in America?

Out on the road, the Cruze catches the daylight respectably. The stance is strong, the wheels pushed out wide in their housings. There's a well-defined shoulder line, a simple but assertive dual-port nose and a rear view that has a surprising hint of BMW 5 Series about it. It's a more interesting shape than the Corolla, for sure.

Inside, the three-port instrument binnacle sits beneath a flying visor, the centre console is well-organized and nicely garnished, and a swath of modern rucksack-type cloth runs across the dash and doors. It's reasonably fresh and nicely executed. Come dusk, the dials light up crisply in Chevy's ice-blue, with red pointers.

Roominess has been carefully benchmarked: out back you get plenty head and knee space. In front the seats support well and adjust through a wide range. This feels like a compact car built for the American human.

Germany's Opel was responsible for the basic platform, GM's new new-generation Delta architecture. Notable features include a high-rigidity shell and relatively sophisticated front strut geometry outfitted with hydraulic bushes and aluminum lower arms. You can certainly feel the solidity of the body, as it traverses rough surfaces with nary a shake, and less audible clang than in most of the Japanese rivals. This despite the reasonably firm spring settings in the European-spec version.

The firmish springs make the ride a bit lively over rough roads, but the damping is well-judged provided you limit your speed. Which you probably will.

Why? For a start, the engines discourage active driving (we'll come to that) but so does the steering. It's reasonably accurate, but it's low-geared and features an artificially strong self-centering action. This might help keep dozy drivers on track on the highway, but it entirely masks steering feel or driver involvement through what would be interesting curves. We did push the Cruze a bit -- solely in the interests of journalistic enquiry you understand -- and found a car that rolls little and handles tidily, before eventually surrendering to understeer.

The Cruze's engines are all four-cylinders, with five-speed manual or six-speed auto transmissions. By far the best Euro-unit is the 2.0L diesel, as is often the way in cars sold on the continent. It's reasonably peaceful, and full of torque. However, Chevy is demanding a substantial price premium for the engine (about $2000 over the equivalent gas motor) and in a budget car that's a lot to ask.

The gas engines are naturally aspirated, and come in 1.6 and 1.8 DOHC variants. One sample of the 1.8 was unacceptably harsh -- far more so than the 1.6 -- so we requested a substitute and found it a match in refinement terms for the 1.6. Not that this is any great citation. Both engines, while reasonably smooth, have a dull drone to them, and have flat spots and seem unwilling to rev even to their modest red-lines.

And they don't deliver much performance, or much feel of it. If you loaded the 1.6 up with five passengers and their bags, any uphill passing maneuvers will be a stern test of nerves and patience. What's needed is a unit with diesel-like torque, but free-spinning gas engine refinement. And with any luck it's coming: in the U.S.-market Cruze the engine will be a downsized 1.4L gas turbo with direct-injection. We await it keenly, especially as GM is promising city gas mileage in the high 30mpg range.

The Delta platform, of course, is protected for a giant array of powertrain technologies. We hear a Voltec version is in the works. Compared to the original Volt itself, a Voltec Cruze would suffer in the aerodynamic stakes and so the economy numbers would be worse, but the sticker price should be lower and accommodation better.

As for bodystyles, the European lineup will include a hatchback model. No word on whether that will come to the U.S. Also in the works is a closely related seven-seat compact minivan, accurately previewed at the 2009 Detroit auto show as the Chevy Orlando concept.

As of now, a lot of things could happen between this first drive of a Korean-built, European-market Cruze and the U.S.-built, U.S.-market edition. But we now know several positive things. The design is strong, the interior habitable and nicely furnished. The bodyshell is rigid, and will crash safely. The suspension and steering will be re-tuned to U.S. tastes (which probably won't suit the average MT enthusiast).

Is the Cruze good enough to take the fight to Honda and Toyota here in America? Right now GM can hardly see beyond the end of the week, let alone next year, but assuming the corporation survives, the basic soundness of the Cruze is beyond doubt. The performance, refinement, and fuel efficiency of the 1.4L turbo engine is key to the Cruze's "import fighter" credentials, however. If that engine is not substantially more energetic and responsive than the 1.6 and 1.8L gas powerplants in the European Cruze then GM will have failed us. Again.

[source: Motortrend]








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Seems promising. Definitely a better looker inside and out than the Corolla, but I'm not sure if it's good enough to steal sales from established imports.

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Interior is nice, but this thing already looks dated from the outside...The wheels don't help.

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