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The Chevrolet Cruze's predecessor, the Cobalt, lasted only six years, thanks to tumultuous times for GM and the automotive industry as a whole. But it is a sign of a new era in automobiles that, where the Cobalt's smallest engine was a turbocharged 2-liter, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze comes on the scene with a maximum 1.8-liter engine.
In many ways a typical small car, the 2011 Cruze boasts a high, curved roof to enhance headroom and Chevrolet's now signature crossbar grille. From the back, you would be forgiven for confusing it with a Toyota Corolla, if it weren't for the prominent bow tie.
But the Cruze is a product of the new GM, meaning a solid-looking exterior and well-designed cabin. Particularly interesting are the cloth insets in the dashboard and door panels, with colors matching the seats. Those seats have a soft, foamy feel, like a new futon.
Shaving weight, drag
In Eco, LT, and LTZ trims, Chevrolet gets daring by offering the 2011 Cruze with a turbocharged 1.4-liter, an exceedingly small engine by U.S. standards. But the 2011 Cruze Eco also claims EPA fuel ratings of 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway with this engine, besting its siblings by as much as 6 mpg.
The Cruze comes in four trim levels, LS, LT, LTZ, and Eco, the last one getting 42 mpg on the highway.
The Eco achieves its excellent fuel economy through a mix of weight reduction and aerodynamics. Instead of a spare tire, it gets a sealant kit. Body panels are 1 millimeter thinner than in other Cruze models, and the Eco-trim car uses lighter wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires. The car sits a little lower, and improves airflow with a smoother underbody.
The most intriguing feature of the Cruze Eco is an electronically operated metal shutter in the lower part of the grille. At highway speeds, the shutter automatically closes, contributing to the car's aerodynamics.
To get the maximum fuel economy from the Cruze, you need the six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is an option, but it reduces fuel economy by as much as 5 mpg. Chevrolet doesn't offer the Cruze with an automated manual, like that found in the Ford Focus, which would have kept fuel economy high and offered the convenience of automatic shifting.
The Cruze's manual transmission shifts smoothly, sliding into each gear as if settling into a comfy lounge chair. Chevrolet has erased any mechanical feeling from this shifter, so that shifting in even heavy traffic jams never becomes tiresome. That tuning does reduce the sense of connection with the road a little, but that works fine in a general-purpose car like the Cruze.
It takes the 6-speed manual to maximize the Cruze's fuel economy.
Chevrolet puts a little green circle around the 6 on the shift pattern, which seems silly for those familiar with manual transmissions. But that circle indicates the Cruze's revised gear ratios over the standard Cruze's manual transmission, with a sixth-gear ratio of .61 to 1, letting the engine maintain low revolutions per minute at freeway speeds.
A display on the instrument cluster also suggests when to upshift, which is early and often, getting the car into sixth gear by 45 mph. But this little utility is smart enough not to suggest upshifts when the car is undergoing moderate to hard acceleration, or coasting.
Chevrolet will tout the Cruze Eco's 42 mpg figure, but its city mileage drags the average down substantially. CNET's test car, driven in dense urban traffic, at high speed on the freeway, and cruising through the mountains, came in with a 32.5 mpg average.
Although the Cruze Eco's high mileage suggests a car with little oomph, the engine churns out a feisty 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, that latter figure thanks in part to the turbo. Add the manual transmission, and you won't find yourself wanting for power. Downshift to third, and the Cruze Eco handles passing maneuvers and hill climbs with ease.
With only 1.4 liters of displacement, this turbocharged engine still puts out 138 horsepower.
Of course, the turbo plus a manual transmission equals an irresistible force for automotive journalists. When you spool up the engine and dump the clutch, the tires shriek as the engine growls, but not much else happens. Low-rolling-resistance tires don't exactly dig into the pavement, making the car step carefully forward.
Chevrolet gives the Cruze an electric power-steering unit, helping overall fuel economy. The tuning offers little road feel, but strong boost makes it easy to turn. The ride quality is reasonable, matching what you'd expect for a car in this class. Chevrolet saves a little money by fitting the rear wheels with drum brakes, as opposed to the disc brakes in front.
In the cabin, Chevrolet seems to take the attitude that inexpensive cars must suffer the low-tech treatment, refusing to offer a navigation option such as can be found in competitors like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus. But Chevrolet can justify that omission with the inclusion of OnStar.
The large display in the instrument cluster shows turn-by-turn directions from OnStar.
The Cruze, being a new model, comes with the latest version of OnStar, which downloads turn-by-turn directions and provides them in a monochrome display on the instrument cluster. That display dominates the center of the cluster, pushing aside speedometer and tachometer. It also shows trip computer data, but no audio information.
The monochrome radio display in the center of the dashboard is also quite large, useful for browsing music libraries and satellite radio channels. You can view lists of artists and albums from a connected storage device, such as an iPod or USB drive. As with other GM stereos, it will actually index music on a USB drive based on ID3 tags, rather than merely displaying folders and files as most other systems do.
But in keeping with the budget character of the car, the audio system is limited to six speakers, with no premium upgrade available. The audio quality is shallow, with neither rich bass nor glistening highs. This system's saving grace is that it's not powerful enough to rattle door panels.
A Bluetooth phone system is an option in the Cruze Eco, and comes in a package with the USB port. This system doesn't offer phonebook download or sophisticated voice command, merely letting you place calls by saying a phone number.
The radio display shows six pages of preset radio channels and music libraries for connected devices.
But Chevrolet also lets you pair a GPS device with the car through Bluetooth, which would amplify route guidance instructions through the audio system, a nice addition. This connection should work for Bluetooth audio streaming if your GPS device plays music and has Bluetooth connectivity.
Most of the advanced cabin tech in the Cruze Eco comes through OnStar. There are OnStar's usual concierge and safety features, and this version of the system also works with the OnStar smartphone application, allowing tricks like remote start and unlock.
Unlike some of the competition, Chevrolet is not pushing new cabin tech in the small-car market with the 2011 Cruze Eco. The stereo is generally mediocre, although it is nice how it indexes music. The Bluetooth phone system offers few features. But OnStar saves it from being a complete clunker in the cabin.
The Cruze Eco may be a nondescript car, but it earns design points for its practical body, with comfortable headroom and a trunk made deep by the absence of a spare tire. Likewise, the cabin tech interface is very good, with large displays on both the instrument cluster and dashboard.
The engine isn't the most advanced around, lacking direct injection, but with its turbo and low displacement it creates reasonable power and turns in excellent fuel economy. The manual transmission also contributes through its gear ratios, but Chevrolet could have gone higher-tech with a dual-clutch transmission.
|Model||2011 Chevrolet Cruze|
|Power train||Turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/42 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||32.5 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Park distance sensors|
|Price as tested||$19,615|