We live in a conservative country. No, I’m not talking about the politics. Or our style of dress for that matter. I’m talking about our taste in cars.
This is a land where Camcords have reigned supreme with the occasional Taurus thrown into the mix. We like simple lines. Drop dead reliability. Plus a heaping load of quietude when it comes to highway and in-town driving.
The Cruze comes from a long line of ‘good enough’ cars. The Cobalt, pretender to the market leaders of a few years ago, was usually good enough for rental fleets and those who valued the deal over the car. The late 90’s to mid 2000’s Malibu was likewise a rental fleet special which only enjoyed a healthy retail following during the Clinton era.
As for the Cruze? Well that’s a different story. It is a market leader and probably is more responsible for GM’s recent image enhancements than any other vehicle in their lineup. Which brings me to a simple thought. Why?
The Walkaround: Cruzes pretty much blend with the scenery. This crystal red LT model is no different. The front fascia has a slight passing resemblance to the Malibu, while the rest of the car carries on with an orderly and conservative design.
There are no deep passionate sweeps of metal that evoke a race car’s heritage (or a Mercedes CLS). No protruding bangle butt end or tail lights that seem like they come from a midsized car parts bin. Instead of shooting for the fences of ‘like it or leave it’ Chevy instead chose the line of moderation. It was a very smart move because when you open the door and have a seat you see…
The Surroundings: the most upscale surroundings you can find in this price range ($23,416 MSRP).
The leather seats are thick and double stitched. The resting points for arms and elbows are well padded, and the dashboard has a feel and finish that is more evocative of a 3-series than the competitors such as the Corolla and Civic.
When you sit in the driver’s seat and look around, it’s almost a revelation to find that GM has finally bowed down to the dieties of German design and made the Cruze a true world car with a near-luxury European foundation.
Unlike the Toyonda recipe for cost containment, or the Elantra which now offers an interior that is stylish but has the material quality of an arcade game, all the major touch points of the Cruze have the richness of a $30k car. The steering wheel is covered in thick stitched leather.
The center rest and door panels have just enough padding to be comfortable for long drives. Plus all the buttons are firm and precise without being chintzy. An epic issue in the compact car market these days.
If there is one issue with the interior, it’s the firmness of the seats. Some folks may simply find it too hard for long drives. A long test drive in the driver’s seat is an absolute must before buying the Cruze.
The MPG’s: Most folks who buy compacts have commuting and ‘to and fro’ transportation as their primary concern. So since fuel economy is a prime issue in this era of high gas prices, let’s hit the MPG numbers first.
Over 600 miles the average MPG came in at 38.2. That’s not a typo.
This included a nice 80 to 85 mph sprint for an hour through metro-Atlanta along with a lot of long and winding one lane roads where the speed limit was 40 to 50 mph. At 85 mph the Cruze still registered 33 mpg and in town I was never far away from the high 20’s. You can take the 24 city / 36 highway numbers and improve on them dramatically for one critical reason.
This is the reason. Flick the trip computer knob towards you one time, and you get instant MPG. Flip once in the other direction and you get average MPG. Flick one more time and you get a perfect readout of avg mpg, miles to empty, and of course mile per hour.
Doesn’t sound like a big deal? It is when you’re constantly on the road keeping up with traffic. Little tools like this can make all the difference in enduring a boring commute. I also mention it because a slew of other models (from the Elantra to the Volt) still don’t offer an instant MPG reading or a trip computer that provides more than the basics. It’s one of the reasons why I only averaged 34 mpg with an Elantra versus 38+ for the Cruze. Food for thought.
The Ride: The Cruze offers European handling with American comfort. Like Jettas of days gone by, the Cruze offers an immediacy in it’s handling that is sorely lacking in competitors such as the Corolla and Civic. It’s not quite up to the level of what ‘could’ be considered that of a BMW. But it’s a surprising ingredient and probably the first compact Chevy that truly embraces the ideas of directness and road feel.
On the highway the Cruze is comfortable and surprisingly spacious. Almost like a midsized car. You don’t get the encapsulated feeling that you do in an Elantra or Focus. The dashboard and other features are also thankfully devoid of what I call the insectozoid school of design. Buttons and vents are conventional. The entertainment system is simple to operate, and you get the genral idea that someone finally sweated all the little engineering details that typically fall through during the ‘cost containment’ phase.
The Cruze has all the feel of an upscale sedan.
The Criticism: So where does the Cruze fall short? Surprisingly for a GM car, it’s the numbers. Consumers who try to spec out their rides may end up passing the Cruze by. Only 138 horsepower. Only 148 pounds of torque. A 3200 pound curb weight. Plus the 24 city / 36 fuel economy rating sounds almost dour compared with the 29 city / 40 highway of the Elantra, the 28/39 rating of the Honda Civic, or the 28/38 for the Focus.
So why get a Cruze?
Overall: If you spend a lot of time on the highway, or commuting, and want a vehicle with healthy low rev’s along with an upscale interior, the Cruze deserves your consideration.
The Cruze is also as much of a competitor to larger vehicles with conventional styling than it is to the adventerous, tight and youthful designs from Hyundai and Ford. I may get criticized by the Best & Brightest for this. But the Cruze seems more of a conservative vehicle with a midsize presence. Current owners of older midsized cars will likely find that the Cruze offers similar space as their current rides. While offering a more upscale feel and better handling than a Camry or Accord.
Michael Karesh already does an exceptional job with comparing prices and features. So my advice is to read his take on that. Then drive the Cruze so long as what I’ve described in this review fits your definition of ‘the next car’.
NOTE: Chevy provided a free tank of gas, insurance, and use of the Cruze for a full week.