Avoidable Contact: Two Chevrolets Enter, One Leaves.

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
avoidable contact two chevrolets enter one leaves

Two Chevrolets in a rental lot

And sorry I could not thrash ’em both

And be one reviewer, but I got

The Cruze first, figuring I could not

Fail, given Impala fleet sale growth

To find one at another time and

Compare them, though GM liked it not,

Face to face and back to back and then

Perhaps a fleshly, fantastic end

To turn the stomach or stir the pot,

The Cruze I rented for four fab days,

The Impala I stretched out to five.

I raced in LeMons north of L.A.,

And stayed with my friend Melisa Mae,

Then to Quebec for a B-Spec drive.

That was getting a bit painful, but you get the idea, right? Over the past two weeks, I drove “New GM” — the [s]Daewoo-[/s] world-engineered Cruze LS, complete with 1.8-liter four-cylinder — and “Old GM” — the recently-interred 2012 Impala avec direct-injection V-6 — back-to-back over two race weekends. I put 818 miles on the Cruze, running back and forth between my hideout in Burbank and the Buttonwillow race course near Bakersfield, CA. Three days later, I rented an Impala in Columbus, Ohio and drove it to Mont-Tremblant for the purpose of participating in Rounds 7 and 8 of the Canadian Touring Car Championship. Adding a side trip to Montreal brought my total mileage in that car to 1,787. The purpose of the two rentals, which I requested specifically and was able to arrange with the assistance of the nice people at Hertz, was to answer a simple question: Which car is best at being a Chevrolet?

Two years ago, I reviewed the Cruze for TTAC, concluding that

The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is a good car, although at least part of its goodness comes from the fact that it isn’t really that small. It’s well-positioned against the Civic and Corolla. I believe that it beats both of those cars in significant, measurable ways. This is what it is: a good car, a bold car, a car for which no purchaser need make an excuse or feel any concern. This is what it might be: great. That’s for the buyer to decide. This is what it is not: American.

As has been the case each time I’ve encountered the Cruze since then, my first impressions in the Burbank airport lot were size and solidity. This car packs about 3,150 pounds into a shadow which is nearly identical to that of a 1995 Honda Accord, but if you’ve ever driven that ’95 Accord you will know that the Cruze feels like a tank in comparison. High beltlines, solid doors, a dashboard which exudes a certain upscale feel even in the poverty-spec LS trim. The Cruze, Malibu, Buick LaCrosse, and Cadillac CTS all feel like about the same car inside with different amounts of functional buttons.

Every other car in the segment except the moribund Corolla feels lithe, light, and eager compared to the Cruze. I once thought that this difference came from the Cruze’s Korean origins; after all, this is a big car in its home country. After driving the Elantra, which feels positively disposable by contrast, I realized that this time, Daewoo was following the global playbook. It’s a GM trick as old as the Citation, or perhaps the Nova: sell a big car as a small car.

This time, the trick works. On the brain-dead I-5 run from Burbank to Buttonwillow, the Cruze is flawless in its disposition. The road surfaces are smothered, the wind noise is minimal, the stereo is the proverbial loud and clear. A special slow-clap goes to the iPod integration — I have 15,465 songs on my 160GB Classic and the Cruze quick-selects between all of them via its multi-function knob without a hitch. Nor are the dynamics suspect. When a semi-trailer discharges a blown retread a few hundred feet from the Chevrolet’s nose, I effortlessly slow-hand my way around it without even lighting the ESC telltale. The air-conditioning just about handles the 108-degree dry heat, although I never feel cold.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to turn the A/C off. There’s a sign telling me to do so as the road rises into the Instagram-washed-out California sky. Well, that sign is probably from 1955. Nobody turns off the A/C on the hills nowadays. New cars are expected to handle extremes of temperature and load so we, the people, can concentrate on discussing The Hunger Games through our Samsung Galaxys. (Galaxies? Galaxians?)

Five minutes later, I’ve started to stir the faux-Tiptronic, wrong-way-oriented automatic in frustration. Under these conditions, the Cruze is, not to put too fine a point on it, fucking gutless. The market-mandatory sixth gear yields to fifth, then to fourth, then I have a brief moment of soul-searching considering that I am about to ask a mass-market automobile with one person and a carbon-fiber HANS device on board to drop to third for a major state highway, then I yield to necessity and we are in the Ecotec’s deeply unpleasant hornet’s hive of a midrange.

The reported fuel mileage, which had been a nice cheery “30.0” during the first part of my trip, falls until it reports “26.5”. Then it’s time to fall back down the hill into the nowhere in particular of Bakersfield. Over the days to come, I repeat that trip three times and wind up using the Cruze as a base of operations, sleeping in the driver’s seat between stints and dehumidifying my Nomex suit in its open, sun-facing trunk.

At the end of eight hundred miles, I continue to rank the Cruze above the Corolla and Civic, below the frisky-fun Focus, and about level with the Elantra depending on one’s priorities in life. Nothing fell off during my test. The seat was comfortable enough. It feels like a twenty-thousand-dollar car. In order for me to honestly recommend it to anyone about whom I care, however, I will need to get into a time machine and read the Consumer Reports of July 2018 or thereabouts to see how it’s going to hold up. Buying an outsourced GM small car is a hit (Prizm) or miss (Spectrum) game. In this era, if you’re determined to deal with the General in any segment it’s worth seeing whether or not the soliders in your chosen regiment are leaving on their feet, or behind them.

The Impala, by contrast, is as proven as a modern GM vehicle comes, so when I step into my plain-white, fleet-trim-level 2012 model three days after returning my Cruze I’ve already put “reliability” on the positive side of the attributes sheet. This is a thoroughly-debugged vehicle, veteran of probably a billion-plus miles’ worth of uncaring public-sector service. The only new part is the 302-horsepower direct-injected V-6, about which more — a lot more — in a moment.

After the suave, segment-competitive interior of the Cruze, the Impala comes as a horrifying shock. The seats could have been standard equipment in a non-Eurosport Celebrity, and once perched on one you’re surveying perhaps \the most depressing-looking dashboard of the twenty-first century. The photograph of quilted maple which has been folded, spindled, and multilated over the plastic airbag cover doesn’t help matters. The floor-mounted shift is COMPLETELY UNMARKED and pressing the button on said shifter causes a magnetic “thunk” to resonate through the thin-rimmed steering wheel, presumably because there’s some sort of interlock at work. It’s so bad it feels like parody, like the “Mediocrity” that Subaru made out of the Kia Optima for marketing purposes right before the Optima tranformed into a sleek, more-Audi-than-Audi super-limo and publicly ripped the still-beating heart out of the Legacy’s weak, gender-ambigous chest while urinating deliberately into the shocked-open collective mouth of the long-suffering Subaru dealer body. Not a great car, and perhaps not worthy of my previous praises. This is going to be a long weekend.

It takes about, oh, ten seconds to permanently change my opinion of the 2012 Impala, because that’s how long it takes for me to get out of the parking lot and let the V-6 breathe fire all the way down the nearest eighth-mile. The “big” Chevy is well over a foot longer than the Cruze but only weighs about three hundred pounds more. This, more than anything else, explains why the Impy feels so light, floaty, fragile on the road by contrast. Combine that with the low beltline, which is probably a hard point dating back to the 1988 Cutlass Supreme or something like that, and it’s the Impala that feels like the smaller, less substantial car. To push that additional three hundred pounds, GM has given the Impala well over twice the power.

Let us take a moment now to praise the direct-injection, 3.6-liter, GM V-6. In the Camaro, it feels slightly overmatched. In the CTS, it feels somewhat coarse, and it’s the optional mill in a $35,000 wannabe-luxury car anyway. It never impressed me, not like the Mustang’s 3.7-liter Duratec did. I marked it down as an under-Achieva, if you will. Only now, at the end, as the V-6 arrives in its perfected destination, do I understand. It’s clear that this engine is so good that GM needs to keep it under wraps. I’ve always admired the way the company deliberately handicaps itself, and this is no exception. Are you in the market for a brand-new Cadillac ATS or Buick LaCrosse? Take this standard four-cylinder — right up your ass. Are you a local municipality looking to replace the meter-maid’s penalty box? Let’s give you a 302-horsepower monster mill and not say anything about it. You’re welcome. Please vote for the next bailout; we’re gonna need it.

The 2012 Impala leaps for the open spot in traffic like a BMW 550i minus the crap visibility and confused transmission. With a cultured, frenetic snarl, the V-6 instantly transports you and the Playskool dashboard ahead of you into any space you wish to occupy. You will simply never tire of surprising G35s and entry-level Germans from the tollbooth, from the off-ramp, away from the Main Street lights. The brakes, when you need them, are present, and the handling is perfectly predictable but not numerically excellent.

Down I-90 East the V-6 reports a staggering 33.5 miles per gallon cruising at a fixed 74 mph — and we don’t stop for fuel until 508 miles have run under the Impala’s energy-saving tires. The once-reviled seats have been proven to be perfectly comfortable, the stereo is loud enough and the 1/8″ input doesn’t seem to impede the clarity of my Nonesuch-generated MP3s from Pat Metheny’s newest trio record. It’s possible to see all the way around the car when on the roll, which is a feature slightly more difficult to obtain in a new sedan than a 600-horsepower engine.

Quebec’s Mont-Tremblant region has hills which rival California’s in grade if not overall height, but where the Cruze stumbled, the Impala surges. The observed economy never dips below an average 31mpg. In Montreal’s cut-and-thrust downtown, it’s impossible to beat the plain-white-wrapper Chevy to the next light. I have a strong urge to sneak it onto the Mont-Tremblant course itself; I’m pretty sure I can smoke the Touring-class cars up the back straight.

When my final race wraps up in near-perfect ignominy Sunday afternoon, I’m the second-to-last car off-course and I have nearly eight hundred miles to go before I’ll be permitted to close my eyes. While my traveling companion, the infamous Vodka McBigbra, sleeps across the wide velour back seat, I set the iPod to “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” on endless repeat, and the Impala takes me home with a single fuel stop. The wind isn’t troubled by the old W-body’s faux-Accord shape. The lighting is still Soviet-era but I’m no longer bothered by it. I am a dead-tired freeway warrior battling fatigue and white noise, crossing the featureless country like the traveling salesmen of America’s storied past, my hands light on the wheel. We never leave sixth gear, we never feel cramped, we never just stop to walk around. This country, this America, still exists, and the Impala is so much better at being an American car for this America than the Cruze, or anything else money can buy.

The new Impala is a pathetic attempt to engineer and sell an inferior copy of the old Hyundai Azera. If they build it for twenty years, they may eventually get it right, the same way that the Cruze may eventually come to be quite the respected nameplate if they don’t all lunch their transmissions or shed their brakes in the next five years. In the meanwhile, it gets no respect, because it hasn’t earned any. The old car with the brand-new heart continues to be the Chevrolet in which to see the U.S.A.

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2 of 110 comments
  • Hoss Hoss on Jan 04, 2013

    Too funny. This was exactly my experience with the 2012 Impala I just rented. I was in the midst of explaining to my passenger, "you see, GM likes to build 90% of the available throttle into the first 50% of pedal travel to make the car feel- wait a minute... WTH? The first time I merged onto the freeway I instinctively tried to nudge the shift selector back into D, figuring I was in a lower gear. This will be the next car I own, I just can't decide whether to buy new, or take a chance (but with a huge discount!) on a 'lightly' used one. A 300hp grocery getter fits me like a glove - you can take your hip lunchbox styling - right up your ass! (love that)

  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Feb 19, 2013

    Had a 2012 Impala with 3.6 as a rental. Only redeeming quality was the engine and transmission. Heavy, numb steering, terrible ride and bottom basement everything else. The Panther cars had more going for them in their final year then this thing. At least they were still RWD and had a comfortable if soft and wiggly ride.

  • Dawn Maple They haven't even fixed the airbag issues and recalls completely, so why waste more time and money on another "safety feature" that removes choices from the driver? We would be safer getting in a car driven by Helen Keller. Oh wait with driver assist, all she has to do is find her car and turn it on.
  • Lorenzo I'm out. I'd never find it in the dark.
  • VoGhost Minivans don't sell well, and the market has been declining. And while the entire 'range anxiety' myth is mostly a big oil propaganda designed to scare the weak minded, minivans are often how families travel to grandma's house, so that will be a concern, unless VW can gain access to the Supercharger network. I could see 50K units at peak, declining to 25K/year after a couple of years, unless VW can price competitively with Tesla.
  • VoGhost Glad you're healthy, Tim
  • VoGhost 20 years ago, Sportage was the bottom of the barrel, a joke. Kia's come a long way.