Chevy Cruze is the Small Car GM Needs

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Chevrolet Cruze LTZ.

Last year, just out of bankruptcy, General Motors was quickly able to tout some new products that were pretty much instant hits.

The reborn Camaro brought much needed attention and showroom traffic to the Chevrolet brand, and the Cadillac SRX luxury crossover showed that GM could compete very well in a segment that’s dominated by import brands.

As the revamped and streamlined company moves forward, it is also launching a new compact car to satisfy the demand for something with good fuel economy and a reasonable sticker price. Hitting showrooms right about now is the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, a compact car that helps us forget about the mediocre offerings we’ve gotten from Chevy in the past.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, the small car in the Chevrolet line was the Cavalier, which always sold in decent numbers but never compared well to stalwart compacts like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. In more recent times, the Cavalier was replaced by the Cobalt, with improvements over its predecessor but still nothing really great.

The Cruze now replaces the Cobalt and pretty much wipes the slate clean. This new entry in the compact class is fully capable of running right with the top picks in the category, and should show the buying public that General Motors can in fact build a world-class small sedan.

The car has already been on sale in Europe and China, and the North American version has been a long time in development in order to get everything right. GM claims that over four million development miles went into the car’s creation.

A couple of notable things help the Cruze stand out in the crowded compact sedan market. First off, General Motors is calling the car a mid-size car residing within the compact class. Secondly, most trim levels of the Cruze will come with a 1.4 liter turbocharged engine. That’s small compared to most four cylinder engines sold in the U.S., but plenty powerful and good for up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

To the claim of mid-size room, I can fully attest to that. At the beginning of a brief drive in a Cruze LTZ, I moved the power seat control all the way to the rear out of habit. At 6’-6”, that’s my first move when entering any type of car. To my surprise, I found the seat too far back and had to move it forward a bit. That’s saying something about the way this car was designed.

GM isn’t alone in making smaller cars more acceptable to American tastes. Ford has brought out the compact Fiesta with upscale feel and amenities, and will soon introduce a slightly larger Focus to further their small car offerings. Chrysler will get help from parent company Fiat to develop new compact cars, and just about everyone is looking to the future as less bulky rides become a little more in vogue (according to researchers who study these things).

Another place the Cruze gets a kind of upscale mid-size feel is with the engine. The turbo four is velvety smooth and is backed up by a six-speed automatic transmission that not only helps with fuel economy but provides very smooth shifts. The automatic is standard on every version except for one.

And that would be the Cruze Eco, which is not the base car but one geared for maximum fuel efficiency. The Eco gets a 6-speed manual transmission as well as low rolling resistance tires and a few aerodynamic details to help it achieve 40 mpg on the EPA’s highway cycle.

I haven’t tried the Eco, but I did spend at least a little time in a Cruze LTZ, which is the upper trim level for the car. It had a leather interior, a full complement of power accessories, and even upscale things like audio and Bluetooth controls on the steering wheel. The only options it was missing were the in-dash navigation system, an upscale audio system, and rear parking sensors (another thing that’s trickled down from high-end cars).

The Cruze LTZ carries a sticker price of $22,685 but that’s the top-of-the-line version. The base Cruze LS starts at $16,995 and comes with an impressive assortment of standard features, including ten airbags and electronic stability control. In between those two price tags are several trim levels, including the Eco version for $18,895.

Do American buyers once again want small cars? That’s hard to say, especially this year when we didn’t get a huge run-up in gas prices as we did the two previous summers. Frustrated drivers usually claim they’re going to trade for a more fuel efficient model at their next purchase. But if we’re lulled into a false sense of security with somewhat low gas prices, well, a lot of people tend to be kind of fickle about what they really want. It’s hard to give up that big cushy car.

But the Cruze is cushy enough, many would find. With almost everyone pinching pennies a little more these days, the Cruze could be an example of great timing. And a vehicle General Motors really needs in their product line.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net

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The ABC7 Auto Man

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