PLUSES: Appealing styling that makes the car look bigger than it is, excellent mileage, good off the line pep with turbo boost, large cargo hold. ECO version available with 40 m.p.g. highway rating.
MINUSES: Stiff leather seat covers, rear seat leg and head room.
By adding a better looking as well as better performing successor to the Cobalt, Chevy has also added another logical alternative to hybrid transportation---a 40 m.p.g. compact named Cruze.
Cruze takes the place of Cobalt for 2011. The economy sedan is assembled at the same plant in Lordstown, O., that produced Cobalt and once created the Chevrolet Vega, an ill fated venture into small cars that produced more punch lines for comics than performance for consumers---such as rust being an exterior color choice.
Kudos to the Chevy design team for Cruze, which looks like a stylish midsize Malibu only in miniature form. For too long economy cars looked as if assembled from leftover parts. Cruze has flair and is attractive enough to sit in front of the garage door rather than hide behind it.
Cruze is offered in a variety of flavors--ECO, LS, LT, and LTZ. The versions differ based not only on trim, but on engine offerings. A 1.8 liter, 138 h.p.
four is offered in the LS, a 1.4 liter, 138 h.p. four with turbo boost is in the ECO, LT, and LTZ.
ECO with 6-speed manual (automatic optional) is the mileage champ. It comes with the same 1.4 liter turbo 4 cylinder as the LT and LTZ, but adds body panel wind deflectors, underbody wind deflector panel, rear spoiler, and low rolling resistance radials (same on the Chevy Volt battery powered sedan) to conserve fuel.
When teamed with 6-speed manual the Cruze ECO is rated at 28 m.p.g. city/42 m.p.g. highway, topping the magical 40 m.p.g. mark that allows a car to compete with gas/electric hybrids without having to house a raft of batteries under the rear seat and charge a premium price for the electrical magic.
The 1.8 liter offered in the LS is rated at 26/36 with 6-speed manual, 22/35 with 6-speed automatic, the 1.4 liter turbo in the LT and LTZ at 24/36 with automatic only, and 24/36 is still going to limit trips to the pump and is most appreciated in a compact, 5-passenger sedan.
We tested the LTZ, which has plenty of kick moving away from the light thanks to the turbo assist. There's a little turbo lag, but acceleration is smooth and performance is pleasant. There's not a lot of four cylinder racket under the hood. The 1.4 liter doesn't gasp for breath like some economy models, and held its ground on the interstate with the big boys.
If we had our choice, however, we'd opt for cloth seats rather than the standard leather offered in the top of the line LTZ. Chevy needs to find cows with softer skins to donate their hides. The seats felt hard as saddles. We prefer sinking into the seat a little rather than riding on top of it.
Ride was on the firm side since the standard sports tuned suspension is a little stiff to begin with and is teamed with 18 inch radials in order to ensure decent handling for an economy compact.
Kids wouldn't notice, but adults will that the fastback roof styling reduces melon room in the back seat.
Trunk space is very good and the lid pops open with a light touch on the key fob. Rear seat backs fold to expand cargo room if needed.
As for the cabin, fits and finish are considerably better than the typical economy car, with more luxury feel than discount appearance. And tip of the hat to engineers for a quiet cabin.
The base Cruze LS starts at $16,720, the LTZ tested at $21,975. The ECO high mileage model starts at $18,720.
Standard goodies include stability and traction control, six-way power driver's seat, leather heated front seats, cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB port with audio interface, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, remote vehicle start, automatic climate control, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, ultrasonic rear-parking assist, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, and OnStar emergency communication system (6 months free) with turn by turn navigation and satellite radio (3 months free).
Options include a power sunroof at $850, about the only item needed.
Cruze is an excellent replacement for Cobalt and offers better room, comfort and performance, as well as mileage. It now needs to expand rear seat head and leg room and find friendlier leather covers for the seats.
2011 Chevy Cruze
Wheelbase: 105.7 inches
Length: 181 inches
Engine: 1.4 liter, 138 h.p., four cylinder.
Transmission: 6-speed automatic.
Mileage: 24 m.p.g. city/36 m.p.g. highway.
Base price: $21,975.
Price as equipped: Add $850 power sunroof, $445 premium audio system, $325 crystal red metallic paint, $100 compact spare, and $750 freight.