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2011 Chevrolet Cruze — Review

This 2011 review is representative of model years 2011 to 2014.
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
Rating: 9.0

Bottom Line:

The 2011 Cruze is the best small car Chevrolet has ever produced. It combines a pleasant and roomy interior with nimble road manners and class-leading fuel efficiency. Buyers will have to get used to paying more for a small car, but the Cruze’s strengths and wide array of features should soften the blow.
Pros:
  • Nimble handling
  • Pleasant interior
  • Fuel-efficient
Cons:
  • Pricey for a small car
  • Low on power
  • Where’s the hatchback?

View Pictures:  2011 Chevrolet Cruze

With names like Chevette and Cavalier in its past, Chevrolet doesn't exactly have a strong track record in the compact-car market. Chevy's last compact, the Cobalt, was an improvement, but it still couldn't face the likes of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

For 2011, Chevrolet is upping the ante in the small-car game with the Cruze 4-door sedan, a car that is improved over the Cobalt in almost every way. But with a higher price than the Cobalt, can the Cruze be a hit? Based on our test drive, it should be.

Model Lineup
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze is offered in five trims: LS, 1LT, 2LT, LTZ and the fuel-efficient Eco. Standard equipment on the LS includes cloth upholstery, air conditioning, interior air filter, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, height-adjustable front seats, 60/40 split folding rear seat, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, AM/FM/CD stereo, XM satellite radio, auxiliary input jack, trip computer, automatic headlights and P215/60R16 tires on steel wheels with wheel covers.

The 1LT adds power mirrors and floor mats, while the 2LT gets leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, heated front seats, 6-way power adjustable driver's seat, iPod adapter, Bluetooth cell phone link, remote engine starting and alloy wheels.

The Eco trim features unique 17-inch alloy wheels with low-rolling-resistance tires and an aerodynamics package that includes active shutters in the front fascia that close at speed to improve fuel economy.

The top-of-the-line LTZ adds rear disc brakes, rear park assist, automatic climate control, cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, sport suspension and P225/45R18 tires.

The Cruze's list of standard safety features is impressive. It includes 10 airbags (front, front side, front knee, curtain side and rear side), a tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes, traction control and electronic stability control.

Under the Hood
The 2011 Cruze is offered with two engines from GM's Ecotec family. The base LS comes with a 1.8-liter four cylinder producing 136 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque at 3800 rpm. Standard in the other models is a new turbocharged 1.4-liter making 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque from 1850 to 4950 rpm. Both engines are offered with a 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission with manual shift capability. Fuel-economy ratings are not yet available, but Chevrolet says the Eco model with the manual transmission will get 40 mpg highway. Look for other versions to hover around 36 or 37 mpg highway and to hit high 20s in the city.

Inner Space
The release of the Cruze marks a shift upmarket for Chevrolet small cars. The base price of the Cruze is $16,295, compared to $14,990 for the outgoing Cobalt. The interior environment of the Cruze is much nicer than the Cobalt and light years ahead of the Cavalier. It also has more standard equipment, including six more airbags and a telescoping steering wheel.

More than that, though, the layout and materials impress. The fit and finish of the various surfaces is exemplary, and there are more soft-touch surfaces than one would expect in a small car, especially on higher line models. Still, there are some signs of cost-cutting. The steering-wheel face isn't as sturdy as it should be, and there is still plenty of hard plastic used. When all is said and done, however, buyers will be pleased with the Cruze's ambience.

Small-item storage is adequate. It includes a small, rubberized cubby at the base of the center stack, two cupholders on the center console, a smallish center console bin and room for bottles in the door pockets.

Front-seat space is impressive. The driver's seat pushes back far enough for even very tall drivers to have enough legroom, and headroom is more than adequate. There aren't enough seat adjustments for our tastes, but that's typical for this class of car and the tilt/telescoping steering wheel aids driver comfort.

The rear seat also has pretty good space for a compact car. A 6-foot adult can fit behind a 6-foot adult with some room to spare. Headroom is adequate but tight for taller riders. Long-trip comfort is compromised by short cushions. The rear seats fold 60/40 with the pull of a lever to make the trunk's generous 15.4 cubic feet of cargo space — which would be good for a midsize car — that much roomier.

On the Road
The Cruze has an impressive ride and great balance. Handling borders on sporty, with light but direct steering, little body roll in corners, and a willingness to change directions quickly. While the Cruze doesn't use an independent rear suspension like the Honda Civic, it adds a Watts link to the torsion-bar rear setup from the Cobalt. This absorbs lateral forces, allowing Chevrolet engineers to tune the suspension to better handle vertical, forward and rearward motions. The system is also compact, allowing lots of trunk space. The result is a car that handles bumps well and carves nicely through turns.

Chevrolet made the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla available during the media test drive, and the Cruze fared well by comparison. Handling is much more controlled and stable than in those cars, especially the Corolla. While the Civic has a more sophisticated rear suspension, it is tuned softer and has more body lean. The Cruze is also quieter on the road than both cars, thanks to a concerted effort by Chevrolet engineers to reduce noise. Power doesn't feel quite as willing, though.

Chevrolet is aiming to improve fuel economy with its pair of small-displacement 4-cylinder engines. Both make similar horsepower, but the 1.4-liter turbo produces more torque and gets better fuel economy.

The 1.4 was the only engine available for testing. While power has certainly been sacrificed, the 1.4-liter turbo provides enough punch for most everyday needs. There is some minor turbo lag from a stop, and passing can be labored. Zero to 60 mph takes about nine seconds, which is fair, but not fast. While this engine would certainly benefit from direct injection, which would increase power and fuel economy and reduce turbo lag, that is an expensive feature for a low-priced car. We predict, however, that the 1.4 will get direct injection in the future.

The Cruze would also benefit from a more powerful engine option, a la the 2.0-liter 260-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder in the Cobalt SS. That car was an impressive handler, and a Cruze SS would be even better. At this point, though, the Cruze has more chassis capability than engine oomph.

Right for You?
As America continues to downsize in the wake of 2008's gasoline spike, compact cars are growing in popularity and gaining refinement and features. The Cruze is a poster boy for this movement, and it also offers more room than most compacts, as well as better fuel economy. The lack of a hatchback body style will limit its utility, but the Cruze is as much car as many drivers need.

(As part of an automaker-sponsored press event, Chevrolet provided MSN with travel and accommodations tofacilitate this report.)

Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, andcurrently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.

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BB03 - 9/18/2014 8:57:19 PM