2013 Chevrolet Cruze Driving Impressions

The Chevrolet Cruze is a product of joint engineering among GM tech centers around the world, and the cooperation shows in the way the Cruze performs. It isn't perfect, but the Cruze moves Chevrolet to the front of the small-car pack.

In many respects, particularly measured by interior comfort and overall refinement, the Cruze performs a class above the compact-sedan standard. We can't say that about its engine and transmission performance, however. Cruze's powertrain isn't glaringly weak, but it's not one of the highlights in its dynamics portfolio.

The Cruze is available with two four-cylinder engines, and both have most of the latest control, durability and maintenance-reducing features, including fully variable timing for both intake and exhaust valves. The base engine displaces 1.8 liters, producing 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. The upgrade engine is actually smaller, at 1.4 liters, but it's equipped with a high-tech integrated turbocharger.

The turbo engine generates the same 138 horsepower. It does produce an additional 23 pound-feet of torque, but that in itself doesn't seem enough to offer a choice. So why the second engine? We're not sure either, but we can guess. The 1.4-liter four generates its power using a bit less fuel. It's one reason the Cruze Eco model is EPA-rated at 28/42 mpg City/Highway with the manual transmission, and 26/39 mpg with the automatic. Those are the best EPA Highway ratings for any compact with a conventional gasoline engine, and better than most subcompacts.

Both transmissions have six forward gears. That's rare in this class, and another contributor to Cruze's overall fuel economy. The 6-speed automatic is technically advanced for a conventional torque-converter automatic in this segment, with GM's ActiveSelect manual-shift feature and a control program that unobtrusively puts it in neutral when the car is idling, even when the gear selector is in Drive. That, too, helps save fuel.

We found the 1.4-liter turbo engine does an adequate job of propelling the Cruze. It's impressively smooth and reasonably quiet, even when working hard, and at 75 mph hour on the freeway, it's only turning about 2800-2900 rpm in top gear. The power comes on fairly low in the rev range, and then evenly all the way to redline. You don't have to wait until it's screaming at 6000 rpm for it to demonstrate any gumption. We'd guess that maybe 80 percent of typical drivers will be satisfied with its performance in daily use.

The dissatisfaction comes for that percentage of drivers who more than occasionally like to accelerate full bore, or drive harder than normal commuter-grade travel, and not just because the Cruze is slower than most cars in this class. On paper, it accelerates from 0-60 mph in the high 8-second range, which is not quick but probably quick enough for most drivers. Our complaint is more about how hard the engine is working in the process, and how you really need to keep it floored to get this car to go. It may also be that, because the Cruze is so well sorted in other respects, it could handle a lot more power.

The 6-speed manual transmission works fine, with a firm, smooth, shifter and gear ratios well suited to maximizing the limited power.

The automatic, though, has a similar bi-polar character as the engine. It works great when you're going at a relaxed, fairly casual pace, but not so well when you really step on the gas. As a full automatic, the transmission's shifts are positive and impeccably smooth. If you step on the gas just a bit to gain speed around a dawdler, it will shift down one gear smoothly, deliver a moderate bubble of acceleration, and then find top gear again as quickly as it can. But if the road opens up through the countryside, with nice curves that mean slowing fairly hard and then speeding up again, the automatic is less co-operative. Perhaps to maximize fuel economy, Chevrolet engineers seem to have programmed it to always seek the highest gear mechanically possible. The Cruze automatic doesn't like to shift down more than one gear at a time, and it won't unless you floor that gas pedal. And once it does downshift, it's most concerned with getting back up into sixth gear as soon as it can. In such circumstances, the manual-shift feature is the preferred choice, and it works almost surprisingly well. The shifts are quite quick, but still smooth, and the transmission will hold the chosen gear at fairly high rpm.

One important way the Cruze surpasses much of its competition is in its tight, ultra-solid body/frame structure. The Cruze unibody has as much extra-high-strength steel in key locations as any car Chevy has built, according to engineers. It has earned the highest scores in government-mandated crash tests in Europe, and Chevy says it expects the same in the United States. More to the point, the solidly -, body provides a solid foundation for a lot of good things that make Cruze pleasant to drive.

Interior comfort is one of them. Very little vibration finds its way into the Cruze cabin, and it's one of the quietest compacts we've driven, even with its little, hard-working engine. Moreover, the noise passengers do hear is the sort that tends to be less obtrusive, like the crack of tires on pavement seems. There is very little wind noise, and not much of the high-pitch mechanical or vibration buzz that can come across as white noise.

The solid body also contributes to excellent ride and handling. Even without a fully independent rear suspension, something that can make cars of this type jittery and prone to bounce in the rear, the Cruze's ride is nearly flawless. It absorbed mid-winter potholes with the aplomb of a luxury sedan, without a lot of bounce-rebound-bounce, or anything close to mushiness or float. In total, this compact leads the pack in ride quality, but it isn't sluggish.

In wintry weather we found the Cruze stellar, even with its standard all-season tires. Its lithe, balanced quality helps the Cruze on slippery roads, because if the driver is reasonably smooth, there won't be any squats, dives or side-to-side body swaying that can shift weight, upset traction and make the car harder to manage, as if there were a giant bowling ball rolling around in its shell. Traction control takes care of modulating the gas pedal. The driver just steps on it, and the electronics allow the Cruze to accelerate as fast as it can accelerate, given the traction available. The electronic stability control helps the driver stay ahead of the game, and it rarely lets anything get to the point where the Cruze might spin or swap ends.

When the pavement dries and the road clears, the Cruze can be good fun to drive, though more so with the manual transmission, as mentioned. Its power-steering pump runs on the electrical system rather than by drawing its power directly from the engine, and it's reasonably well sorted. It requires almost no effort to turn at low speeds, but resistance builds somewhat as speeds increase. The steering is also fairly quick, to the point that a driver might have to correct and re-adjust the car's trajectory through a curve, because the wheel was initially turned too much.

Overall, we'd rank the Cruze as a fine handling car. The nicely controlled body motion that helps in sloppy conditions applies on warm, dry pavement as well, at much higher speeds. At a more urgent clip, the Cruze maintains the poise it exhibits in a blizzard, with nothing jerky or surprising in its reactions. And there is quite a bit of lateral grip in the upgrade, low-profile tires, so it holds the pavement nicely though a fast curve. No real complaints about the brakes either. The pedal can seem a bit grabby when first applied, but the driver gets the hang of things in short order. The anti-lock brake system (ABS) manages full-panic stops nicely, and smoother, steadier braking quickly becomes a breeze.

The Cruze Eco's outstanding mileage ratings will no doubt appeal to many compact drivers. Though we haven't had a chance to drive one, experience suggests that there will be at least a slight payback for the higher mileage. The Eco's so-called green tires will be harder, less sticky, than those on other models, and that could adversely affect both ride and handling. The Eco may prove at least a bit less responsive than other Cruze models. Everything about designing a car is a compromise.

Perhaps more significantly, the Eco's weight-reducing measures could influence overall performance, and not from the safety perspective. Chevrolet engineers have trimmed weight from the Eco's body by using thinner steel blanks and fewer, smaller welds in strategic locations. They've probably trimmed some of the sound-insulating material, and all that could affect the Cruze's excellent structure and noise and vibration control. Shoppers are encouraged to drive both the Eco and other Cruze variants before buying.

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