TORONTO, ON - I've been around this game long enough to have seen much of it repeated.
I was in Milford, Michigan in the early '80s when General Motors trotted out the first Cavalier, a small car that was supposed to be "better than any import'. They had brought along a Honda Accord for comparison. We drove the pair and shaking our heads asked them if anyone from GM had actually driven the Honda? The Cavalier had better numbers in many areas - displacement, wheelbase, power etc. - but in terms of refinement or overall impression while behind the wheel they weren·t even close and didn·t see it.
Fast-forward two decades to an unveiling in California and it was the same story again. This time it was the Cavalier·s replacement, the Cobalt. Once again GM boasted that it had ·finally· come up with a truly competitive small car, one that could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Civic and Corolla. They were closer, but once again, no cigar.
The third time is said to be the charm. There may be some truth in that, because this time GM may have gotten it right. The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, new from road to roof, not only deserves comparison with perennial compact segment leaders Civic, Mazda3 and Corolla · it stands up very well under such scrutiny.
GM Canada thought so and brought comparatively equipped samples of each for us to try during the Canadian introduction of the Cruze. In the past, GM used a ruler and spreadsheet to show its competitiveness. This time they wanted us to get behind the wheel and make a decision based on actually driving the cars back-to-back.
Granted they were bragging about their advantages in interior and trunk space, price and safety features. But more importantly they wanted us to compare steering, brakes, suspension, performance, handling, interior noise levels, fit and finish, equipment and features · in other words, everything. They honestly feel they have a winner and after two days and lots of seat time, I·m not going to argue.
I started the first day with a healthy amount of skepticism. GM had cried wolf enough times that it was tough to think this one would be any different. Been there, done that, seen it before, I thought.
After a few hundred kilometres and several hours of driving both I and my driving partner sensed that this one was different. With each turn at the wheel I became more impressed. As we drove through the city I found it quieter than I expected, very quiet indeed.
Then, at average highway speeds on Ontario's 400-series roads (120+ km/h just to stay with the flow of traffic), the low sound levels still impressed. But by now we were also learning the engine's performance was also impressive, with loads of ·right-now punch· at only 1500 rpm.
Then it was unto a series of twisty roads north of the city, climbing and falling through elevation changes and over some less-than-smooth surfaces. Now we realized the steering, brakes and suspension were indeed as good as, if not better than anything near this price point, including the Cruze's much vaunted competitors · something that was proven the next day on a handling course where we could thrash the Cruze, Mazda3, Civic and Corolla back-to-back.
For the remainder of the day we started to take note of the way things fit and felt. Granted there is plenty of hard plastic, but panel gaps were minimal and even other surfaces were covered with soft touch materials.
The majority of the instrument panel surface in front of the passenger is covered with a unique woven-like material, in contrasting colour on some trim levels. The instrument panel, steering wheel, turn and wiper stalks are all but identical to those in the new Buick Regal · a much more expensive and upmarket car.
The seats were an equally impressive improvement with lots of support for butt, back and lumbar area and we emerged after five hours feeling rested. Not a statement made too often about Cavalier or Cobalt seats!
Do yourself a favour, whether you are in the market for a new compact car or not. Drive the Cruze and its competitors. You·ll have a much better sense of where GM is today and what it is capable of. After decades of selling outdated and outclassed small cars, GM appears to have gotten the message.