It's a new General Motors. That was the theme of a dinner press event I attended last week sponsored by the automaker. The next day, Chevy intended to prove it, as about a dozen journalists had the opportunity to test drive its new Cruze compact sedan. Overall, it was an impressive upgrade to their Cobalt. GM was so confident in their newest incarnation that it even provided some competitor vehicles we could drive for comparison purposes. The Cruze stacked up quite well. My impressions are below this slideshow of pictures I took of Chevy's new Cruze:
Before getting into the specifics, what is the Cruze? Chevy doesn't just see it as another compact that will likely fail to measure up to its competitors like the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic. The company attempted to design most aspects of the vehicle to give the Cruze an edge over other compact offerings. One major innovation was its new Ecotec engine. In the model I drove, it was just 1.4 liters, but its incorporation of a turbo-charger provides torque that makes the engine feel larger. Chevy also took special care to create a more upscale presence in a car priced to be affordable, starting at just $16,995.
I drove the Chevy Cruze LTZ, which is the premiere model with the 1.4 liter engine, starting at $22,695. The competitor I test drove was a 2010 Honda Civic LX. To be fair, it is only their mid-range Civic, which starts at $18,045 for automatic. But the major differences between the Cruze LTZ and the LT models (which is priced closer to the Civic LX) are the options and slightly larger wheels, which are easy enough to take out of the comparison.
The course I drove was actual roads in rural Virginia. I drove the vehicle for probably close to an hour. It was a good simulation, including some hills, old beaten up country roads, highway driving, red lights, etc.
Acceleration: The acceleration on the Cruze was nice -- and very impressive considering it was just a 1.4 liter engine. The car was very responsive. The Cruze's torque felt as strong as or stronger than the Civic's 1.8 liter engine. Here's the chart that the GM guys showed several times, which shows the impact of the turbo-charger. The blue line is the Cruze's torque and the red line is more typical of an engine in this class (horizontal axis is rpm's):
Cruising: The car was pleasant to drive. Again, I couldn't see any advantage the Civic had over the Cruze during the drive. They both handled twisting roads very well, and had provided good visibility.
The roads they had us on were far from perfect. While it would be an exaggeration to say the Cruze drove like a luxury sedan, road imperfections and potholes didn't jar the car. At one point I was surprised by an incredibly uneven spot in the road near some train tracks. In any vehicle you'd feel a bump like that at a speed over 30 mph, and the Cruze took it in stride.
Fuel Economy: I didn't actually test this, because the course we were on was only around 40 miles. But GM expects the Cruze to stack up well against its competition, though the company has not yet obtained EPA fuel economy estimates for the model I drove. Its Cruze Eco model, however, will provide up to EPA 40 mpg on the highway, which is better than the Civic's 36 mpg highway. That's pretty impressive -- particularly for a non-hybrid starting under $19,000.
Presence: During the dinner presentation, GM explained that its designers wanted to redefine the compact segment. They believe that Americans' philosophy has changed towards small cars, and the automaker intends to evolve accordingly. They believe that many people these days aren't switching to smaller vehicles because they can't afford something larger, but because they want a smaller car.
As a result, they made an effort to create a more luxurious feel in the Cruze. They achieved it. The LTZ's dash had a much more upscale presence, with some "piano black" on the dash. The comparison to the Civic is hard here, due to model class disparity. But Chevy achieved more driver-friendly feel in the Cruze.
Roominess: The Cruze definitely felt roomier than the Civic. When Chevy asked the group how the space felt, one journalist responded that he's 6'3" and had to move the seat up a few clicks. The back seats also felt a bit more spacious in the Cruze.
Safety: Luckily, I didn't have the opportunity to test the safety features first-hand. But GM did inform us that the Cruze comes standard with 10 airbags. That easily beats the Civic DX's six. According to Chevy, the Cruze also has 5-star crash ratings.
Sound: The Cruze was surprisingly quiet. Often with compact sedans, you get a high-pitched hum at highway speeds. I heard this in the Civic, but not in the Cruze.
Style: As you can see from the slideshow above, the car isn't an aesthetic masterpiece. It looks roughly like, well, a Chevy compact sedan. But then, compact sedans aren't particularly known for their style anyway. So while the Cruze's look isn't all that impressive, it's probably approximately as attractive as other vehicles in its class like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.
Size: The Cruze is actually on the large side of compacts. But considering that the gas mileage and price will be as good or better than its competitors, this doesn't seem like a disadvantage. If anything, people will feel like they're getting more car for their money and gasoline.
Wheels: The wheels for the Cruze were really nice. The LTZ model I drove had 18-inch alloy wheels, though LT only has 16-inch wheels. That's equal to the largest size wheels available with the Civic.
Trunk: The Cruze had a large trunk relative to other compacts. It is 15.4 cubic feet, compared to 12.0 cubic feet in the Civic DX.
Overall, I thought the Cruze was a very nice car. Drivers who switch from a Civic or Corolla to the Cruze should be pleased, assuming that the car is durable. Of course, that condition pretty much sums up the trouble Chevy will have with the new vehicle. Americans have become use to the long lives of the vehicles created by its Japanese competitors. So breaking into their market share won't be easy without that experience. But GM appears to be doing what it should be: developing an appealing new car that has some advantages over the competition.