People buy cars they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like. That’s why hardly anybody in Europe is buying the Chevrolet Cruze, which has been on sale over here since last summer. It’s an affordable car that you might need but you won’t want, and which won’t impress anybody at all, because it’s just not that desirable. Allow me to explain…
The Cruze uses GM’s global Delta II platform, which is also the underpinning of the new Opel Astra as well as (in basic structure) the Chevy Volt. We Euros get Cruzes built in Korea but you in North America will have yours made in Michigan. It’s a conventional sedan, though in Europe at least, a hatchback and station wagon will follow.
The Cruze is Jetta-sized, but I’d say it looks better: less bloat, lower beltline, crisper shapes, good proportions. It manages to be both distinct and clean, with the major exception being the odd “headband” across the grille that encloses the recklessly large Chevy bow tie. If that is supposed to look sporty in a Jane Fonda, 1980′s aerobics way, it serves its purpose.
The interior is good, within the cut price idiom. For a Daewoo, the Cruze is short on depressing Korean genericness and long on generic-but-OK GM stuff, such as the standard cow’s tongue steering wheel and annoyingly deep-set instrument pods. It’s a bit fussy but not in a particularly creepy way, and I actually liked the cloth-befitted dashboard – fabric being generally preferable to dead cow. Finish and the selected plastics are quite OK.
What is really good is available space: the Cruze has plenty for four. This is more than a commuter car: I could deal with sitting in the back for hours on end and the trunk could handle all my trip luggage too (as it has a capacity of 16 cubic feet). Oddly, GM likes to stress that the trunk has indentations enabling space for two golf bags – I didn’t know that golfers were a cheap-car-buying demographic yet.
Not to forget, the Cruze has fared very well on the newest Euro-NCAP crash tests.
This is a really cheap car, so I’d gladly accept an interior that isn’t quite VW-standard if it saved me thousands. (You can get one like my tester for €15k, which is around 30% less than a comparable Jetta in Germany. And entry-level Cruzes start at €12k, which is the average price of cars that are two sizes smaller).
But some things just aren’t worth a low price. Case in point: the Cruze’s engine. The 1.8L machine produces 140HP of which I could only feel around 105 actually doing any work. And what little output it could muster produced more than its share of an unlovely noise. It’s an old-school engine that has somehow found its way into a new car, and it ruins the experience. Picture a car that feels well-made but which at highway speeds has a gruff, obtrusive, strained sound coming from its engine department: that’s what the Cruze I drove was like. (I also spent an hour in a Cruze equipped with the 110HP 1.6L engine. It’s slightly sweeter, but the sound is still gruff, and it’s so weak you have to thrash it all the time, so it’s not an alternative). Apparently the Diesels are the pick of the bunch, but they come at a steep, three-grand price premium. At a reported 25MPG, the tested 1.8L is not exactly economical either.
I didn’t like the overly snatchy brakes or the late-action clutch, either. And speaking of snatchiness, the ignition lock is snaggly.
In contrast to the engine, the Cruze’s ride and handling are perfectly acceptable in the grand scheme of things. The Chevwoo doesn’t communicate like an Euro-market Focus or cosset like a Renault Megane but it felt capable at a wide range of jobs – city, highway, high-speed (110 MPH) autobahn. The bias is definitely on comfort, but the ride-handling compromise is quite good. And wind and ride noises are pleasantly low.
But back to the engine problem: how can it be that a major car company introduces a new global model with a dud motor? Well, I’m going to speculate that this is the product of a major planning malfunction; it’s the only explanation I can think of. Somewhere along the line, somebody upstairs at GM may have realized that the Cruze had as much interior space as the poorly-packaged, larger yet cramped Opel Insignia / Buick Regal. And that it beats the similar Opel Astra on several counts – but all at a seriously lower price. How to protect the Opels from the Chevys? How to keep the Daewoo off Buick’s neck?
Instead of letting the brands fight it to the finish in the way (for instance) that VW does with Skoda, GM seems to have cheapened the Cruze by installing an obsolete engine. (Obviously, GM has some good small engines on tap; why else wouldn’t they use one? Cost can’t be that much of a factor.)
I have to tell you that it’s a personal thing for me: just as I don’t trust a man who dyes his hair, or I don’t trust a banker, or a teetotaler, I don’t trust a car maker that willingly adulterates one car in order to protect another.
Porsche did it with the 914 and with the Boxster in order to protect the 911, and thereby earned the distrust of first Setright and then Clarkson. (And just look what has happened to Porsche in the mean time). GM does it with the Cruze, so why would I buy one, or recommend it to anybody I know?
I mean, everybody makes mistakes, but to install a crummy engine in a new global car on purpose sounds like what a company would do that is trying to pull one over you. Just think of what kind of unseen short cuts they might be taking, quality-wise.
If you wanted to be generous, you could forget this possibly petty matter of trust. Instead, you could say that this is a pretty decent, useful small car that will hopefully be equipped with a much better engine when it leaves North American factories next year. But as it is right now, there are around a dozen better cars on the market, most made by trustworthier companies.
[Editor's Note: The US-spec 2011 Cruze will offer an available 1.4 liter turbocharged engine in addition to the 1.8 liter base engine tested here]