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2011 Chevrolet Cruze: GM Stops Thumbing Its Nose at Compact Cars

The Detroit Three have for most of the prior half-century treated compact cars with disdain, even disgust at times. They represented loss-making endeavors that they were forced to build only to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations. As a result, the American automakers for years built compact cars with contempt. Vega, Cavalier, Sunbird, ION…all are nameplates synonymous with automotive underachievement.
Even Chevrolet’s Cobalt, while not entirely a bad car, never strove to be best in class; it merely tried to be class competitive. It was conceived during a time when big trucks were the profit center for GM and gas was cheap, so building a great compact car just wasn’t a priority.

Now, it’s a completely different story. Big trucks aren’t nearly as popular as they once were. Fuel price instability in 2008 and 2009 have gotten people thinking twice about guzzling gas with abandon. And perhaps most importantly, the latest round of CAFE regulations means that automakers have some pretty lofty fuel economy targets to meet by 2016.
Let’s get this out of the way: the Chevrolet Cruze is the first truly good GM-designed compact car from the bowtie brand. We emphasize “GM-designed” because Chevrolet once sold the Prizm, a rebadged Toyota Corolla that despite being a great compact car, was always subject to “Not Invented Here” syndrome by GM.
The Cruze is of monumental strategic importance to GM. Fuel economy and carbon emissions standards are about to get a lot tougher, but this does not mean that consumers are willing to downsize or accept less comfort and convenience. Cruze answers that call with a feature and technology packed compact sedan with a big interior and a decidedly upscale demeanor.
Chevrolet_2011_Cruze_3.jpgIn fact, to many drivers of mid-size sedans, Cruze won’t feel any smaller. It’s nearly as big as the prior generation Malibu, so getting into a Cruze will not represent a downsizing exercise. And Cruze is very well equipped with all models having amenities like power windows, locks, mirrors, cruise control, air conditioning, satellite radio, and even XM turn-by-turn navigation as standard. Top models have leather, power seats, a more sophisticated navigation system, eighteen-inch wheels, automatic climate control, and much, much more. In other words, it’s equipped and sized more like your typical mid-size sedan, not a run-of-the-mill compact.
In our drive of the Cruze, two main things stand out. First, this car is really, really quiet and refined. This is an area that GM worked hard to perfect, and subjectively, the compact Cruze seems about as quiet as a Camry, which is pretty much the mid-size car benchmark for quietness. The body structure feels really tight and solid, assembly and materials quality is easily as good as the best from Asia, and everything has a very premium feel. Such refinement would be impressive from a Toyota, but this is a Chevrolet compact sedan we’re talking about!
The other standout feature is the powertrain. Most Cruzes will be equipped with a truly breakthrough engine. It’s a tiny 1.4L four-cylinder engine with a turbocharger attached to the exhaust manifold. The engine’s minuscule size means it sips fuel (it gets up to 40 mpg on the highway), but the turbo gives it serious get-up-and-go at any speed. What’s hard to communicate in writing is the wide spread of torque available all the time thanks to the turbo. Punch it at any speed and the car effortlessly takes off, with no noisy racket under the hood. The engine may make just 138HP, but the 148 lb-ft of torque available throughout the rev range makes it feel far more powerul than that. The six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard on the base LS and the Eco model) also helps greatly here.
Chevrolet_2011_Cruze_4.jpgSo, here we have a GM compact car that represents a complete and radical shift in attitude by its maker. It’s not just competitive in every area, it’s actually breakthrough and class-leading in several.
A big challenge going forward (not just for GM but for many other automakers too) will be getting consumers to pay higher prices for all this goodness. Cruze starts at about $17,000 for a base LS, and an LTZ model is base priced at close to $23,000. Just as importantly, GM (and Ford and Chrysler) is determined to wean itself off the unhealthy habit of aggressive incentivizing to move metal. The new GM appears to be more focused on profits than volume, which is a great thing. But are consumers ready to fork over $20,000+ for a decently equipped Cruze? As long as they don’t perceive it to be a basic small car (and really, it isn’t when poring over its dimensions and features), we think so – especially since other compacts will soon creep upwards in price too due to those aforementioned CAFE requirements.
Effectively, compacts like Cruze are becoming the new mid-size cars, going right into the price and market position that mid-sizers have traditionally occupied. And when they’re executed as nicely as Cruze is, consumers won’t feel like they’re downsizing or downgrading at all.

1 Comment

  • attilardavy| September 29, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    so informative, thanks to tell us.

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