Review and photos by
Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com
When you’re talking about car engines and units of power, most people focus on horsepower as the most important number and don’t worry about anything else. But of the many factors that can affect a vehicle’s performance, the figure typically listed just below the horsepower number – torque – is arguably just as important as horsepower, if not more so, in day-to-day driving.
In simple terms, torque is the measure of how much power an engine makes, but horsepower indicates how quickly that power can be produced. A motor with significantly more torque than horsepower (think VW’s TDI diesel, with its 140 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque) produces a lot of pull but won’t move the car as quickly as an engine like the VTEC 2.0-litre in the Honda Civic Si, which makes an impressive 197 hp, but just 139 lb.-ft. of torque.
In the showroom, horsepower is the number more likely to sell a car, and more money typically gets you more horsepower.
Enter the Chevrolet Cruze, General Motors’ newest compact sedan, replacing the Cobalt and Pontiac G5. Its base engine, a 1.8-litre four-cylinder used in the entry-level LS model, makes 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, figures that aren’t out of place in this kind of car.
Normally, if a car company offers a second engine to power up-level models of a car, they give it more horsepower to help justify the extra cost. In the Cruze’s case, a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (powering the fuel-sipping Eco model, as well as LT and LTZ trims), does indeed make more power – just not where you expect it. It has the same 138 horses as the LS, but ups the torque to 148 lb.-ft., peaking at 1,850 r.p.m., instead of the 3,800 r.p.m. peak for the 1.8-litre’s 123 lb.-ft.
While the turbo engine doesn’t wow on paper in the place most shoppers might expect, it’s a different story on the road. As the specs suggest, the 1.4-litre is very responsive at low revs and provides satisfying thrust from a stop. It’s less thrilling at the top end, which is where the horsepower takes over and the engine feels more typical for the class. I noticed a bit of turbo lag (the delay between the right foot calling for power and the mechanicals delivering it) which is common in turbocharged motors, but while evident here, it wasn’t annoying.
The industry is seeing six-speed automatic transmissions starting to filter down into the compact class. All Cruze autos are six-coggers, as are the 2011 Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra; even the subcompact Ford Fiesta uses a six-speed auto. The Cruze’s automatic – GM’s Hydra-Matic 6T40 – has relatively short gearing (meaning the motor spins at a higher speed for a given road speed) that makes for great performance off the line, where the gearing and generous torque make the 1.4-litre turbo engine feel even stronger than it is. The short gears and close-coupled ratios also make for a lot of shifting in regular driving. This in itself is no big deal, but my tester didn’t exhibit the smoothest shifts, particularly from first into second gear. Acceleration felt non-linear, with a tendency to surge when the transmission moved into second gear. Out on the highway at 120 km/h, the motor spins at a respectable 2,800 r.p.m. in sixth gear.
The Cruze LS is the only one to use the 1.8-litre engine, which can be matched with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The other three trims – Cruze Eco, LT and LTZ – get the 1.4-litre turbo motor, and of those, only the Eco can be had with a manual. Don’t get your hopes up about the Eco being anything like fun; its fuel-frugal gearing would take all the joy out of full-throttle running.
Natural Resources Canada rates the Cruze with 1.4-litre turbo engine at 8.5/5.5 L/100 km (city/highway); my tester averaged 9.6 L/100 km in city driving. For comparison’s sake, the 1.8-litre engine is rated at 9.2/5.6 L/100 km when paired with its optional automatic transmission. The Eco is rated 7.2/4.6 with the manual transmission and 7.8/5.1 with the automatic.
The overboosted steering is responsive, and the Cruze handles nicely for what is otherwise a rather ordinary car. The suspension limits body roll in corners and yet is compliant enough that the ride never punishes the car’s occupants, even on rough roads. Particularly impressive is the lack of road and wind noise; even at highway speeds, there’s virtually none of either, making the Cruze feel richer than its price-tag suggests.
The brake pedal is a little spongy, but the binders bring the car to a stop without drama. My tester’s rear drum brakes threw me; you simply don’t see them much anymore. Only the top-end Cruze LTZ gets rear discs, and while that seems downmarket, it’s worth noting that the new Jetta uses rear drums in its low- and mid-priced models. Truth is, this set-up is fine, performance-wise, in this class of car; if you’re big on discs all around, note that the Kia Forte, Hyundai Elantra and Mazda3 (to name a few) come equipped with them as standard.
The Cruze’s seats are terrific for a small car (and a revelation compared to those in the Cobalt); for normal driving, they’re supportive in all the right places, and provide good lateral support for when the going gets twisty. The unfortunate part was the wicked creak the driver’s seat in my tester made every time I got in. If you overlooked that flaw, plus a rattle in the driver’s door, my tester’s interior felt like quality, with materials and panel fits that were par for the class, if not outstanding.
Space is average for the class, but nothing more, particularly in the rear. Tall riders stuck behind a tall driver will want more legroom, and there’s not much headroom either. My tester’s sunroof took a significant chunk out of the space available; the headliner is scooped out where rear seat riders’ heads go, but the appearance of the lower clearance area ahead of that makes the rear seat feel cramped for adults. However, there is a heap of toe room available under the front seats.
The trunk’s 425-litre (15 cu. ft.) capacity is good; the back seat, which folds almost perfectly flat and reveals a huge opening between the trunk and passenger cabin, is even better. A boxed 46-inch flatscreen TV slid easily through the opening and allowed the trunk to close (something we couldn’t do in my dad’s Corolla, thanks to a smaller opening and seats that don’t fold flat).
The Cruze’s base price is $14,995 for the 1.8-litre-powered LS model; the Eco and LT Turbo, both with the 1.4-litre turbo, are worth $19,495. Standard stuff across the board includes anti-lock brakes, stability control and 10 airbags, power windows, locks and keyless entry, tilt-and-telescoping steering column and six-speaker stereo; the $16,750 LS+ adds air conditioning and satellite radio. The LT Turbo gets the automatic transmission as standard, plus heated and powered exterior mirrors, cruise control and floor mats; it looks like a pricey upgrade, with the LT Turbo coming in at $2,800 more expensive than the LS+, but that price includes the automatic transmission (which is a very dear $1,450 extra with the 1.8-litre), as well as cruise and power/heated mirrors, neither of which can be had in LS trim. My tester was the LT Turbo+, which adds 16-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity, OnStar, USB stereo input, leather-wrapped shifter and steering wheel with audio controls, for $20,870. To my LT Turbo+, GM added $380 for Crystal Red Tintcoat paint and a $1,100 power sunroof, for a total of $22,350 plus freight.
The $24,780 LTZ gets 17-inch alloys, sport-tuned suspension, leather/heated seats, power six-way driver’s seat, nine-speaker stereo, automatic climate control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, rear park assist, upgraded gauge cluster and remote start.
Turbocharged power is a rarity in the compact class, and the Cruze’s turbo motor is compelling for its practical power and easy driveability; it’s also the more fuel-efficient choice, if you believe the NRCan ratings. The Cruze is an impressive car with high levels of refinement and comfort, but fails to match class leaders like the Mazda3 and the redesigned Hyundai Elantra, in my opinion. That said, it’s been a long time since GM had a small car that was worthy of consideration beyond how aggressive its incentives are this week. It’s not perfect, but if you’re in the market for a small car, the Cruze certainly deserves a look.
Pricing: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
Base price: $20,870
Options: $1,480 (Power moonroof, $1,100; Crystal Red Tintcoat paint, $380)
A/C tax: $100
Price as tested: $23,900
Crash test results
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)
Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).
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