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The Globe and Mail

Cruze a long-overdue replacement for Cobalt, Cavalier

Overall Rating
8
Overall
A little more poke from the turbocharged engine would make the Cruze more fun, but it looks good, is nicely done inside, comfortable and well worth a look. You’ll like this car if: you are a dyed-in-the-wool Chevy fan who’s been longing for something better.
Looks Rating
8
Looks
The Cruze doesn’t overstep any styling boundaries, but it’s a good looking car with strong character lines and an interesting look coming and going.
Interior Rating
8.5
Interior
The instruments look neat, there are plenty of useful features and the LTZ offers generous luxury touches. There’s space for four with good headroom and a generous-for-the-class 436-litre trunk.
Ride Rating
8
Ride
The long-ish wheelbase, wide stance and firm-but-not-too-firm springs result in a well-controlled ride that smoothes out small bumps and doesn’t over-react to larger ones.
Safety Rating
8.5
Safety
The Cruze has a crash-worthy structure, electronic driving aids, airbags that pop out of all the right places, high praise from U.S. safety regulators and decent accident-avoidance capability.
Green Rating
8
Green
The ECO version, with some very innovative aerodynamic features, uses the same engine as the LTZ, but there’s a penalty – although not a big one – attached to the automatic transmission.

Chevrolet's new compact Cruze isn't revolutionary, a world beater or an industry game changer, but it is likely more than enough car to make the brand – which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year – a more serious threat in the Canadian market's small-car race.

It's not likely going to take the checkered flag, or even knock one of the established front runners off the podium this year, but you can be sure the competition will be closely watching the momentum it appears to be gaining in the early going and pondering what terminal sales velocity it will achieve by year-end.

After all, the Chevrolet brand, despite the turmoil generated by parent General Motors' fiscal follies of the past couple of years, still managed a fifth-place overall finish in the passenger-car sales race last year, selling 25,967 of its compact Cobalt. And it wasn't a patch on the Cruze – just a half-hearted, long overdue (in 2005) replacement for the always mediocre and two-decades-old Cavalier. Which should have been terminated with extreme prejudice – mine anyway – long before.

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Honda's Civic took the sales race prize last year selling 57,501 units, followed the Mazda3 at 47,740, the Toyota Corolla with 38,680 and Hyundai's Elantra with 35,556.

But Cobalt sales indicate the Chevrolet bow-tie brand continues to resonate with many Canadian car buyers. And the Cruze, which went on sale late last year, appears to be capitalizing on that. In its first three months, it boosted GM Canada's compact sales volume 32 per cent.

Recently named the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada's Canadian Car of the Year, the most recent among a string of global laurels won since being introduced in 2009, won't hurt either. And it has already been atop one podium, winning the hard-fought World Touring Car Championship series last year. Too bad it's too small to run in NASCAR.

Unlike most GM small cars of the last half century, the Cruze is a truly global design that hasn't been dumbed down to a lowest common denominator of price, appeal and expectations like the dull drones that for too long tarnished GM's reputation.

Chevy dealers are currently offering four versions of the car, starting with a decently equipped LS (with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder and six-speed manual gearbox) for $14,995. Then there's a big jump in price and equipment level to the fuel-sipping and cleverly aero ECO and LT Turbo at $19,495 and then another to the high-zoot – auto transmission, auto air conditioning, Bluetooth, power driver's seat, info centre, Pioneer audio equipped and leather clad – $24,780 LTZ Turbo.

The Cruze's exterior sheet metal has been bent into an appealing enough form that manages to suggest substance – borne out by the thud doors make when they close – while not likely to frighten off any Corolla buyers who might stray into a Chevy dealership after being caught up in the Cruze buzz.

And the roomy-enough interior, which – as with all cars in this class is best suited to seat four – easily equals or betters rivals' efforts. It's well-laid-out in functional terms, the centre stack and integrated console look particularly good, and it's screwed together with some care from quality and nicely colour-co-ordinated materials, although the door caps are little scratchy-plasticky.

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Seats do an okay job, it's adequately quiet at speed and, even in base form, offers a value-oriented tally of features, including no less than 10 airbags and top safety ratings.

The LS's 1.8-litre, 136-hp four-cylinder would have been perfectly adequate, but GM chose to go higher-tech with the rest of the range – employing a small-for-the-class 1.4 litre, but thanks to turbocharging, high-power density four-cylinder. An approach, incidentally, that Formula One racing is adopting for 2013 with new regulations requiring a 1.6-litre turbocharged four.

The Cruze's compact motor makes mid-compact-pack 138 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque available to drive the front wheels through a six-speed automatic. It feels smooth but sounds a little growl-y at around-town speeds, where the transmission's programming could perhaps be sharpened to produce quicker response and a livelier feeling. The turbo-boost generates plenty of flexible torque and overall performance is okay, but quick it isn't. Tightening the screw on the turbo a turn or two could cure that though. On the plus side, it's not thirsty, and runs happily on regular gas.

A pleasant surprise was handling that's at the high point on the small-car curve – although steering is a little light. On-ramps or country road corners are taken with little body roll or upset from bumps, and the brakes feel reassuringly powerful.

GM may have raised only its own bar with the Cruze, but the result is a small car that can now match chinups with the best of them.

Tech specs

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2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ Turbo

Type: Compact Sedan

Base Price: $24,780; as tested, $27,495

Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/125 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.5 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra

globedrive@globeandmail.com

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