Preview Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

New compact sedan with two engine choices should be major player for Chevrolet and General Motors ... 40-mpg Eco edition coming soon

by James M. Flammang

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

BARRINGTON, Illinois - Judging by corporate comments and adverising themes, Chevrolet has particularly high hopes for the new compact Cruze sedan, which replaces the Cobalt. Placed on sale in late September, the Cruze competes mainly against the popular Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, though the Hyundai Elantra and Ford Focus also are rivals.

A global vehicle, the Cruze is manufactured in Lordstown, Ohio, but also in South Korea, Russia, and Australia. Only four-door sedans will be sold in the U.S., but five-door hatchbacks and wagons are offered elsewhere in the world. Cruze models are sold in more than 60 countries, with China high on the list.

About the same length overall as the outgoing Cobalt, the Cruze has a slighter longer wheelbase and is 2 inches wider. Korea led the design work and Germany developed the powertrain architecture, with American input.

Not much has changed externally since the Cruze debuted at the Paris Motor Show in 2008, said product manager Mike Danowski. But powertrain and interior details, as well as acoustics, have been modifed.

Chevrolet bills the Cruze as a "compact car with an upscale presence," citing the additional features that are standard, compared to its primary rivals. Segment-leading fuel economy is another selling point - especially for the Eco, which promises up to 40 mpg. Chevrolet also claims more interior space and cargo room than competitors, and 10 airbags are standard. So is GM's StabiliTrak stability enhancement system.

Base LS models get a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 138 horsepower and 123 pound-feet of torque. All others (LT, LTZ, and the forthcoming Eco) use a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that generates the same 138 horsepower, but 148 pound-feet. The same turbo engine is used for the European Opel Astra.

Six-speed manual shift is standard in the base LS model, and in the Eco. All others have a six-speed automatic transmission, which is available for the LS.

With the 1.8-liter engine and manual shift, the Cruze gets a fuel-economy estimate from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of 26 mpg in city driving and 36 mpg on the highway. Automatic drops the estimate significantly, to 22-mpg city/35-mpg highway. Turbocharged LT/LTZ models earn a 24/36 mpg estimate, and the Eco is expected to reach 40 mpg.

Handling and roadholding score well. The turbo LT sedan is pleasantly confident and reasonably agile (though short of athletic). Ride quality is not as appealing. You feel nearly everything, including rumbles over pavement separators. Real bumps and holes produce quite a jarring impact.

Acceleration is okay from a standstill (where it's not really needed), though automatic-transmission shifts are all felt, in the old-fashioned mode. Passing response is distressingly leisurely, especially for a turbo. Expect a fair amount of engine noise, but not so much action at all.

The front seat feels spacious, and looks spacious, but visibility is impaired over the driver's left sholder by a very wide B-pillar. Gauges would be good if better illuminated. They're backlit, but adjustable only at night.

Prices begin at $16,995 (including destination charge), rising to $22,695 for the LTZ edition. Production of the high-mileage Eco model begins in November.

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Text and photos by James M. Flammang