Thursday, August 26, 2010

chevy cruze: is it chevy's jan brady?

I spent some time last week in Washington DC with an all new Chevy compact sedan. No, not the Volt- the other one. The Cruze. C-r-u-z-e. No, I know you haven't heard of the name. It's new. In fact, It's an all new product which will be sold globally under the Cruze name, replacing a patchwork of different nameplates.

It's based on the front drive GM Delta II platform (same as that attention grabbing Volt) and will be produced in several countries, with the North American Chevrolet version coming from the retooled Lordstown, Ohio plant. Cruze will go on sale in the third quarter of 2010.

The Cruze will offer many choices- perhaps too many. Five different models- one more and they'd tie the Brady Bunch. And there really is a sixth because the much touted Volt is based on the same Delta II platform, which makes the whole Brady analogy totally fit. The Cruze is the Jan Brady of Chevy.

And it all makes sense, With the Volt wearing the Marcia Marcia Marcia "Look at Me" crown, the capable and competent Cruze is Jan- second fiddle to her more newsworthy and headline grabbing sister, but for many, many people a much better choice based on sound technology and superior affordability. And while the Doug Simpsons of the world may line up to spend $35,000 plus for the Volt, the George Glasses will probably be getting the better deal. I suspect in the long run, Jan will eclipse Marcia's popularity.

Cruze trim levels range from the Cruze LS at $16,995 base through the slightly more stylish Cruze LT with the 1.4T and alloys at $18,895, the LT2 adds leather leather, bluetooth, USB and more a $21,395 and for those who demand it all, the Diana Ross of Cruze is the LTZ with auto climate control, parking assist, 18" alloys and four wheels discs at $22,695. And for those who really need to channel their inner Diva, the RS appearance adds lower body fascia wrap, fog lamps and spolier to any LT or LTZ for $695. And for those Al Gore supporters, there's the $18,895 ECO with a standard six speed stick and expected 40 mpg EPA highway fuel economy.

I wouldn't say that the styling screams "Chevrolet!", keeping in mind the global intentions, but it is clean and contemporary, with the signature bisected Chevrolet Grill up front and gold bowtie badge flanked by jeweled headlamps. The sides are clean, and the roofline tapers smoothly rearward. The car features a wide stance and the wheels seems to fill up the wheel wells nicely (standard size is 16"), especially with the optional 17"s and 18"s. After all, bigger is better up to a point. Wheels. We're talking wheels here. The rear seems the least distinctive part of the style, again cleanly styled but didn't seem to speak any specific brand character. However, one must note that the styling of its Cobalt predecessor screamed "rental", so please don't think I was displeased with the new look at all. Clean and contemporary, and light years ahead of some of the entries of the recent past. Besides, Jan looked nice but Marcia was the glamour girl.

A big change one I climbed inside. Gone was the one piece molded door panel and black plastic everything you touch. The interior has a two toned theme on the dash and door panels, the materials are a HUGE (that word again!) improvement with soft touch dash facing and the current GM HVAC and audio controls which are very nice and tactile. The optional Navigation system (which I did sample) integrates nicely into the display, although I found the map a bit small. Still this is a Cavalier successor, and we're discussing the Navi screen. That's called progress. Speaking of progress, comfortable and well tailored seats. Ahhhh. Much nicer than the Chevy compacts I remember. Overall impression is very comparable to the Buick Regal I drove last month (and liked) although slightly smaller in scale.

Power for most Cruze models comes from the new Ecotec 1.4 Litre Turbo with variable valve timing, which produces 138 hp and 148 lb/ft of torque, mated to either a six speed manual or six speed automatic transmission. In the Cruise Eco variant, the car is expected to deliver 40mpg highway, with other versions likely achieving mid-thirties. The 1.4 Turbo is fitted to LT, LTZ and ECO models. The base LS utilizes a 1.8 litre conventionally aspirated engine developing 136 hp, and 123 lb/ft of torque. We did not drive that particular configuration.

The Chevy folks took time to point out the many safety features of their newest compact, including ten air bags (two front, two head curtain, four seat mounted side impact, and two front knee bags) along with collapsible pedals (yay!) stabilitrak electronic stability control and a bunch of GM favorites like Tire Pressure Monitoring, DRL's and automatic headlamps. Additionally, about 65% of the body is made of high strength steel and GM anticipates that the car will achieve five star crash ratings in every country in which it is sold, so it should be up to the rigors of Jan's paper route.

Driving impressions come from a day on twisty rural roads in suburban Virginia. I drove a targeted variety of Cruze models, those being an LTZ with Nav and one without. So I'm an option Queen. I admit it. But at least I mixed up the colors.

The 1.4 litre turbo 4 cylinder is silky smooth at idle and pairs well with the six speed automatic transmission. Acceleration is smart and shifts are smooth. we're light years ahead of the Cobalt and Cavalier. The ride is smooth and controlled, and I far preferred it to the Corolla S which was provided for comparison. Interior materials were much nicer as well. I especially liked the soft touch dash and the door panels which are much more substantial feeling than the Toyota or the Cobalt. We were also provided with a Civic sedan for comparison, and it had a ride and handling more on par with the Cruze, but I can't get used to the Star wars instrument panel and the A-pillars that seem to me modeled after the old Gm Dustbuster minivans. The little Chevy held its head high against the gold standard of the compact class, and that is simply something I've never been able to say before.

Jan Brady for Class President! Now what will they do for Cindy?

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