Sunday, September 11, 2011

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

The Chevrolet Cruze has the potential to succeed for two key reasons: 1) The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic are nearing the end of their product life cycles, showing some crow's feet around the eyes, and 2) GM now has the wherewithal to create a small car that shows its actually understands small cars.

If you consider this rare moment in time, it's the perfect opportunity to pull a few hundred thousand buyers into GM showrooms for a closer look. Is the Cruze the car that will finally establish a strong relationship with entry-level buyers, or is it just another joker card in GM's deck?
Approach the Cruze from any angle and it's clear there isn't much in the way of historical lineage in this exterior design. There's no Cobalt in those scowling headlamps; you won't find a trace of Cavalier in the aggressive bodyline from the A-pillar to the trunk. Wasn't there anything worth saving from Chevrolet's previous small cars? In a word: no.

The Cruze tricks the eye with large visual cues. Look at the headlights (both wide and incredibly long from tip to tip), arch of the greenhouse (tall and extending so far back it finishes its line behind the rear wheels) and big, bubbly rear taillights (again, wide, wrapping around the body). Message received. My, what big ears you have.

The design plays well from a few angles. The sun arc of the roof and the rear deck communicate a friendly confidence. It's around front that the whole thing changes. The high angled headlights rip into the bodywork and come to point about 1/3 of the way up the front wheel wells – Lady Gaga's eyeliner pencil in full dress regalia. There's nothing subtle about it. In fact, save for the Camaro, it might be the most aggressive face on a Chevrolet to date.

In as much as your small car probably won't sound like a hornet in a tin can, yes. It's quiet, goes, turns and stops. However, we found it doesn't do any of these things superbly – with the exception of noise, which it suppresses like a padded cell. For a $20,000 small car in this segment, the Mazda3 is lighter and quicker, any number of cars have a more direct steering feel, and many of the sub-3,000-pound cars provide more confidence under braking (Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra). No Cruze engines feature direct injection, either, something that leaves GM holding its hand a bit in comparison to its competition. Do buyers in this segment understand and demand direct injection? That's unlikely today, but as the rest of the competition trains its audience through advertising, GM will have to upgrade.

At all speeds other than highway travel, the six-speed transmission occasionally loses faith in itself. It hunted up and down to find the right gear like Wylie E. Coyote attempting to run in two directions at once. If the first wave of the non-hybrid mpg race will be remembered for six-speed gearboxes and direct injection engines, the next wave will hopefully bring about the unity of all these disparate technologies. Three- and four-speed transmissions might be out of favor for their inefficiency, but you could hold your coffee in your lap.