REVIEW: 2011 Chevy Cruze Thrashes the Corolla

Has the General finally made a small car that can stand up to the Corolla, let alone beat it?

General Motors is very optimistic about the Chevrolet Cruze. However, in determining whether this optimism is warranted, we can’t help but remember that a major reason for GM’s past troubles has been the lack of a competent small car.

For decades, the General has struggled to produce a car that was at least in the same ball park as the industry benchmarks, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. The Cavalier and Cobalt, as much of an improvement as they were over their predecessors, just didn’t cut the mustard, but have these efforts been in vein? With so many mistakes to learn from, has GM finally crafted a compact car that can truly compete with the Japanese? We found out in our review of the 2011 Chevy Cruze.

The Cruze is a new beginning for GM in the compact car segment, a fact the company acknowledged when it decided to not carry-on with the Cobalt name. And though just recently hitting the North American market, it has actually been on sale in some international markets since 2008. It uses the same Delta II architecture as the Opel Astra and the Chevrolet Volt and, as a true world car, most of its development took place in South Korea and Germany.

Our test Cruze had the 1LT trim, which with the Connectivity Package, came with such premium features as bluetooth, USB ports, six-month Onstar, leather-wrapped steering wheel, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, and keyless entry. With the Cruze LT Turbo starting at $19,495, the additional features brought the as-tested price to $22,895 CAD, including destination.

With the Cruze, GM is all about the bangs for the buck, offering more standard features (i.e. ten air bags) and what the American automaker promises is an interior that feels more “premium” than one would expect from such a vehicle. For those that place top emphasis on fuel economy, the Cruze Eco, thanks to aerodynamic and weight-reduction modifications, achieves best-in-class fuel efficiency (Transport Canada: 7.2L/100 city and 4.6L highway; EPA: 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway). But you’ll have to know how to drive manual to reap the benefits — the automatic Eco achieves very respectable numbers, but just not as good as the manual.

The 2012 Cruze hits the market when it’s at its hottest. The latest iterations (vast improvements over their predecessors) of the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra, in addition to an heavily updated Honda Civic, have upped the ante. The Toyota Corolla, as much of an appliance it has become, is still a serious contender. Even Volkswagen has decided to try a new take on the segment with the latest Jetta, placing an emphasis on value this time around. When all is said and done, the compact car market just got infused with a gigantic dose of “fierce”.

The Chevy Cruze is a fine looking car, moreso in person than in pictures. It’s more conservatively styled than, say, the new Hyundai Elantra, but that’s a good thing, because I find the Elantra to be too over-styled for my tastes. It also stacks-up well against the clumsy look of the new Civic and the bland-styling of the latest Toyota Corolla.

GM’s designers scored big with Cruze in that despite having a curvaceous profile and a very compact look, the sedan manages to appear both executive and cute, thus likely appealing to a wider audience. I dare say it’s one of the sportiest looking cars in its class. However, not all is perfect. One feature that does cheapen the Cruze’s overall looks just a tad bit is the plastic triangle at the trailing edge of the rear window — it’s not glass and it’s not fooling anyone.

Like the exterior, the Cruze’s interior is very attractive and validates GM claim of offering a higher premium feel than would be expect from a car in its class. The design of the interior is simple and well-executed — easy to read gauges, and easily operable audio and HVAC controls — while having a modern appearance. It puts the Cobalt’s and the latest Corolla’s stark, low-quality interiors to shame.

Its the use of dual-tone dashboard color scheme (we had the jet black and sports red combo scheme), in addition to higher-grade materials, that adds the premium and warm feel lacking in many of the Cruze’s key competitors. You can call it gimmicky or whatever you want, but it adds a lot to the interior’s warm ambiance. This premium feel was aided by the comfortable leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel in our tester and all the creature comforts one would not expect from such a car.

The Cruze offers ample room for all passengers, a feature that is even more noticeable in the rear compartment. Not only do the rear passengers get enough leg-room (for 5 11’ individuals), they also get a fold-down armrest with integrated cup-holders. With a tall greenhouse, there is also plenty of head room. The seats proved very comfortable, even over long distances. And for doing the weekly (or bi-weekly) groceries, the trunk offers ample — “giant” is a better descriptive word — room. It’s deep and wide, offering more than enough room for the four large containers of water we had to haul.

Another standout feature of the Cruze’s interior is how quiet it is, both at idle and at speed. But is it the quietest in its class? Well, it’s likely up there with the best. In fact, it’s quieter than a Corolla I had for a long trip not too long ago.

Our test Cruze had GM’s 1.4L ECOTEC Turbocharged engine. Mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, the engine produced 138 horsepower, which is very competitive for its class. However, with the car weighing around 250 lbs more than many of its peers, we suspected that the engine would struggle. However, hitting the streets invalidated our suspicions. Although you could feel it work hard when accelerating form a near stop, we found the unit to have more than adequate power when underway.

The premium feel of Chevy’s latest small car didn’t just end in the cockpit. Although not a race car, the Cruze felt surprisingly well-grounded, making it appear more agile than one would expect. Nicely-boosted electric power steering offered predictable handling that bordered on very sporty, while ride quality was almost perfect. Turning the car was predictable with good tire grip and steering feedback, which is something that can’t be said about the Corolla. The Cruze handled road imperfections masterfully, putting many more expensive vehicles to shame. Every single passenger we had in the car commented on the smoothness of its ride, often without us even asking. Again, the quietness of the Cruze’s interior proved to be a selling point, especially at speeds on long stretches of road. It’s simply one of the quietest interior we have ever experienced in any class of car, which speaks volumes about how far GM has come in this segment.

A key selling point of any compact car is fuel-economy, a department in which the Cruze delivered. At mostly city driving (about 88% of the time), we managed a combined 9.6L/100 (24.5 miles per gallon) over seven days. It is important to note that we drove Toronto’s busy streets with heavy feet and would have achieved better results had we been easier on the paddle. For the curious, we achieved around 7.2L/100 highway (around 32.5 mpg) for the very little highway driving we did. These are very respectable numbers for this class and for the kind of driving we did.

Aside from a very noticeable upshift the transmission made when accelerating from slow speeds (the shifts were very smooth, otherwise), we were very pleased and sometime surprised at the Cruze’s driving characteristics. In fact, it felt a step-above the class average — sometimes jumping a class ahead — in just about every way. GM did its homework properly.

With the Cruze, GM has shown that it has finally learned from its past mistakes in the compact car segment. With the help of its international operations, the once-struggling carmaker has designed, engineered and styled a world-class car in nearly every way. And despite having fierce competition from the likes of the new Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus, it is without saying that you cannot go wrong cruising away from your local dealership in Chevrolet’s latest small car. It thrashes the Corolla and is likely to give the new Honda Civic, which looks to be a refresh of the current model, a run for its money. Forget about the Cobalt of yore, because the Cruze is here, and we wholeheartedly recommend it.

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