Over a year ago, we sampled a Korean-built, Euro-spec Cruze and declared it the car that must save GM. Since then we’ve been bombarded with rhetoric about how THIS global compact will be different, conceived from the start as a world-beater that will sell in the U.S. as an aspirational compact (oxymoron alert!). We’ve been assured the proof of the pudding would be in the tasting, and today the chefs have called us into the kitchen to lick some beaters as the chefs add the final pinches of tuning calibration and dashes of refinement before the Cruze comes out of the oven this September.
Before we share the savory sensations, let’s recap some basics. First, this Cruze — the fourth to launch worldwide — shares most of its major hardware with its global doppelgangers. Anything on our Cruze can be retrofitted to any other global Cruze if market conditions dictate, but by and large ours will be the most highly refined. Differentiators vis-a-vis the least refined (Chinese-market) version include an acoustic-laminated windshield and an extensive package of sound-deadening materials (many of which are shared with the Euro-Cruze diesel, like expanding foam in body cavities, a mastic-sandwich firewall, five-layer headliner, triple door sealing, etc.)
Chassis-wise, the hardware is all global, but tuning is Euro-spec tweaked primarily to accommodate our all-season tires. Chevy’s clever twist on the trailing-twist-beam rear suspension includes cast trailing arms welded to a cross-car tube with a center section crimped to a U-shape. Lateral location is via a sophisticated Watt’s link. Various versions of the Delta architecture use tubes with varying wall thicknesses and different orientations of the U-shape. For example, to save weight, the Eco model does without the Watt’s link and orients the U at a 65-degree angle. All other Watt’s-equipped U.S. Cruzes have a 90-degree orientation (Ecos also get thinner-wall trailing-arm castings cribbed from the Volt). The chassis enjoys an unusual degree of isolation for the class, with hydraulic bushings on the front control arms and rear trailing arms, hydraulic engine mounts, and an isolated engine cradle.
Bob Lutz, on his farewell… read full caption
Bob Lutz, on his farewell tour, was on hand for the drive.North America gets first dibs on the 1.4-liter turbo engine, but it does not have direct fuel injection as we predicted in March 2009. This third-generation of the “Family Zero” engine features an iron block, which allows the casting to be so much smaller than a sleeved aluminum-block casting that the weight difference is negligible and the noise isolation is much better. Twin variable valve timing is included and the small turbo, optimized for low-end torque, is integrated into the exhaust manifold. Its single-scroll design flows more efficiently than could a twin-scroll on such a small engine.
Other tech highlights include a vane-type variable-displacement oil pump that tailors its output to supply the necessary pressure to the main oil gallery (i.e., lots of flow at high speeds, not so much at low speeds). And an electronically controlled thermostat raises the engine temperature at low speeds and light loads to reduce internal lubricant friction for improved fuel economy. Output ratings estimates are 138 horsepower at 4900 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at 1800 rpm. The base 1.8-liter, standard on base LS models only, derives from the same engine family and uses a variable intake-manifold to generate 138 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 125 pound-feet at 3800 rpm. All Cruzes will get six transmission ratios, with a manual standard (Eco models get unique gas-sipper ratios), and an automatic is optional, featuring a handy manual +/- shiftgate (sorry, no steering-wheel paddles or performance-algorithm shifting) and broad 6:1 ratio spread for good off-the-line performance and cruising economy.
So how do they drive? I started out in the Eco model with the stickshift. This cable shifter offers nice, short throws and decent precision, though it lacks the sublime mechanical snickety-snick sensation of the best Honda sticks. The Eco model tips the scales one weight class lower than the other Cruzes (some portion of 275 pounds), thanks to jettisoned or lighter sound deadening material, forged wheels, reduced fuel tank capacity, no spare tire, and the aforementioned suspension tweaks. Hence its interior noise levels were loudest of the three Cruzes, though no noisier than the Toyota or Honda on hand for comparison (and this example’s early Korean bodywork may have contributed). Taller gearing blunted the engine’s performance a bit, by comparison with the automatics (the first three ratios are 10-50 percent taller), but it’s no slug and its estimated 27/40-mpg city/highway ratings will probably seem worth a bit of patience when accelerating. (Aerodynamic tweaks like lower-grille shutters, a 0.4-inch-lower suspension, a central bellypan and a rear-suspension aero fence also contribute heavily to that result by improving the drag coefficient 10 percent to below 0.30). The ultra-low-rolling-resistance Goodyear Assurance 215/55R17 tires (borrowed from Volt) hang on with reasonable grip before squealing as the limits of adhesion approach.
Next up I drove the low-volume LTZ, which looked particularly dressy in black with a beige-and-black two-tone leather interior and natty 18-inch rolling stock (unique to LTZs). The standard sport suspension (also available on LTs with 17-inch tires) is lowered 0.4 inch and stiffened about 15 percent front and rear. This version was certainly the lateral-g champ. Its Michelin Pilot HX MXM4s cornered strongly without squealing, but it also pegged the impact-harshness meter. Our route included few dynamic handling opportunities, but hopefully improved transitional behavior will warrant the ride penalty.
Sprightlier gearing helped the Cruze accelerate with sufficient hustle to run with the Honda and Toyota, though I’m not ready to bet against the 1.8-liter Honda winning a drag race. Turbo lag is minimal and there’s ample thrust down low, but it tapers off between 5000 and 6000 rpm (en route to a 6500-rev redline), belying that diminutive displacement. This car may demand short-shifting at the track. Turbos often muzzle an engine’s exhaust note, and indeed this powertrain fails to project any performance personality through its soundtrack. That said, the quality is no better or worse than the somewhat grainy Honda engine, and it’s muffled enough not to intrude except under hard acceleration.
My final drive was in a mainstream LT2, shod in low-rolling-resistance 215/60R16 Firestone FR710s, sized. Like the Eco’s, these tires squealed a bit at the limit but this setup seemed to strike a Goldilocks “just right” ride/handling balance. The body motion control feels quite European, following the road contour closely with no lost motion or float while keeping the tires pressed firmly to the pavement — even in washboard-rutted corners that caused the Toyota and Honda to sidestep noticeably. The ZF rack-mounted electric power steering assist provides natural effort as speed builds, and the four-wheel disc brakes we sampled stopped short with reassuring pedal effort (our LT2 should have had a disc/drum setup, but didn’t).
Cruze RS center stackInterior and trunk space reportedly trump the Civic’s and Toyota’s, just barely tiptoeing over the line into the midsize sedan category. Indeed the rear seat offers ample head, leg, and foot room, provided the front-seat passenger isn’t utilizing all 42.3 inches of front legroom. The front seats offered better lateral support than either of its competitors. Most of the dash and door trim is hard plastic, but in our prototypes the sheen and graining made it look softer and richer, so let’s hope that translates to production. Cabin noise was low enough for occupants to converse comfortably without resorting to their outside voices. All Cruzes will get a class-leading ten airbags, including front knee and rear torso bags. OnStar, navigation, satellite radio, and Bluetooth connectivity will all be offered. (Maybe compacts CAN be aspirational…)
Will the Cruze save General Motors? Frankly, by now it may no longer need to, as it’s getting considerable help from some other pretty strong product offerings. This early taste has certainly whetted our appetite for more, and the flavor certainly compares favorably with the aging Honda and Toyota competition. But Ford is readying an equally mouth-watering new Focus that rides on a modernized version of a chassis we already love under the Mazda3. Its styling is similarly handsome and arguably more modern, and its range-topping 2.0-liter direct-injection engine will likely outperform the Cruze’s 1.4T — though probably at some cost to fuel economy. Of course, the real winner will be the patriotic American compact buyer, whose domestic options have never been better. Stay tuned for a more definitive report on the Cruze later this summer when it’s fully baked and decorated.