2011 Chevrolet Cruze proves GM is serious about small cars

All-new Cruze offers competitive levels of refinement, performance and driving dynamics

Published: October 18, 2010, 5:00 PM

Audi Q5 2009 front seat

The Chevrolet Cruze may be new to Canada, but it is already proven in 60 countries on six continents. The result is, in effect, 100-million kilometres of testing before it came here.

This is truly a global product, the first of many to be built on GM’s new Delta platform in plants around the world, including Lordstown, Ohio where ours will come from. And it is called Cruze whether in Russia, China, Brazil or Canada.

It has a new platform, two new engines and two new transmissions. It is also the most important new product in the history of General Motors in Canada, according to the company’s president.

Why would he say that? Because the compact segment is the largest in the country, accounting for 22% of all new vehicles sold here. Full-sized pickups are a distant second at 14.5%.

Canadians love compact cars and have made the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla their favourites in a class crowded with more than a dozen excellent vehicles.

The new General Motors knows it has to equal or exceed these competitors in every aspect, especially in this segment, if it is to be successful and change the minds of Canadian consumers.

Research shows Canadians expect excellent fuel economy in a compact. The Cruze boasts the best in class, GM says.

They also want safety. The Cruze has 10 airbags and standard ABS and electronic stability control even on the least expensive ($14,995) trim level.

And they want the amenities of a bigger car, even in a compact. The least expensive Cruze comes with a six-speed transmission, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, 16-inch wheels and a 138-hp 1.8-litre engine.

The Cruze is also 7.5 cm wider for a more spacious interior and has 5 cm more legroom than the Cobalt it replaces. But perhaps the most important feature is a level of drivetrain refinement and driving dynamics not previously associated with a small car wearing the bow-tie badge.

The Cruze nominally comes in three trim levels but that multiplies to six when you consider packaged equipment levels: LS ($14,995); LS+, with air conditioning, automatic transmission and satellite radio ($16,750); LT, with the more powerful engine, heated mirrors and cruise control ($19,495); LT+ with a connectivity package and alloy wheels ($20,870); and LTZ, with heated leather seats, 4-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels, sport suspension, convenience package, upgraded audio system, rear park assist and automatic climate control ($24,870). Add a navigation system and sunroof and you can get into $27,000 territory.

But all that kit is not necessary. The sweet spot is in the $20,000 area where GM expects 70% of sales to come from. This gets you all the "necessary" amenities as well as a great little engine with attendant performance and fuel-sipping economy. One oversight is that you have to go to the top trim level and leather to get heated seats. Shame!

While the LT has a new 1.8-litre four, producing 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque, the LT and LTZ have a smaller 1.4-litre four that's turbocharged and produces the same level of power but almost 20% more torque.

That difference is significant, along with the fact the torque peaks at only 1,850 rpm thanks to the turbo. It's more torque than in the Civic, Corolla or Mazda3.

This is the little engine that can – it performs like a 2.2 litre while sipping fuel like a 1.4. I was mighty impressed with this little jewel, whether pushing it to the limit on a closed course or rushing down the 401 with four good-sized men aboard to catch a flight.

I didn’t sample the six speed manual but it is only available on the base model and less than10% of buyers will chose it at any rate. The six-speed automatic was well suited to the turbocharged engine, always in the right gear. There was little sign of turbo lag and torque steer was also absent.

GM is rightfully proud of the safety of this newcomer. It boasts not only ABS and electronic stability control, but 10 air bags. The extras are knee bags for front seat occupants and side-impact torso bags for those in the rear seat.

Priced within hundreds of dollars of similarly-equipped Mazda, Honda and Toyota competitors, the Cruze has more interior and trunk space, a longer warranty and more standard equipment, including, satellite radio, more airbags, power locks and remote keyless entry.

But, more importantly, it offers equal or greater levels of refinement, performance and driving dynamics.

General Motors has finally gotten serious about offering a world-class small car.