The Cruze was introduced last year as a 2011 model and quickly became a top seller, pushed mostly by Chevy's renewed commitment to small cars, quality and all those Tim Allen-narrated commercials. It took us a while to finally get our hands on one, but the wait was worth it.
Appearance: The Cruze resembles a smaller version of Chevrolet's Malibu, which makes it a little on the vanilla side, with angular surfaces set off by a rounded roof. Luckily, there are some design features that give it a little pop, such as the 15-spoke wheels that are some of the nicer ones you'll see in this class. The beveled hood and upswept headlight lenses complement the two-piece grille and give the Cruze an aggressive look. Because our tester was the Eco model, it had aerodynamic features that included active air shutters on the lower grille, rear spoiler, front-fascia air dam and front-grille closeout.
Performance: To us, Chevy has really ramped up the attention to detail, especially when you consider the Cruze replaced the forgettable Cobalt. Most impressive: When we stood outside the car with the engine running, we could barely hear it. That 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder has enough punch when you need it, both in the city and on the interstate, although there is slight turbo lag under hard acceleration. Our tester had the optional 6-speed automatic ($995), which slightly lowers the mpg. As it is, the Cruze is the most fuel-efficient gas-engine vehicle on the market with an estimated 42 mpg on the highway for the manual-transmission-equipped Eco. More features that contribute to its efficiency are a lowered suspension, lighter wheels and ultra-low-rolling-resistance tires. Even with those tires, the car corners surprisingly well, with steering that's precise and not too light. (A spare tire is a $100 option; tire sealant and an inflator kit are standard.)
Interior: For a compact sedan, the Cruze feels more like a midsize, especially in the front seats. It is roomy and quiet, with a "twin-cockpit" design. The cloth seats are firm and comfortable in the front, but more like a hard bench in the rear. The cockpit also has faux-metal trim on the console, steering wheel and around the center air vents that brightened our tester's dark-gray interior. (To Peter, the trim effect reminded him of the Transformers logo.) We liked the uncluttered instrument panel with the monochromatic screen between the gauges to read trip information. The climate controls are simple and easy to use. The media controls, however, are clustered closely together around the navigation controls and clumsy to use while driving.
Our 3 favorites
Interior: I like the twin-cockpit design and effort to make even mundane surfaces attractive.
Cargo: Small car? Can't tell by the large trunk.
Eco: Who needs a hybrid?
No noise: The car is extremely quiet both inside and out.
Up to 42 mpg: Great for long-distance commuters.
Understated: Not as flashy as some other compact sedans.
The bottom line: Chevrolet has fielded a strong contender in the crowded compact-sedan market. If you opt for the Eco with a manual transmission, your combined mileage is in the range of a few hybrids and diesels.