It wasn’t long ago that compact cars served one purpose: getting from A to B as inexpensively as possible. They were made like crap, sucked to drive, and had next to zero features. They were pre-paid cell phones of the car world.
The Chevy Cavalier is a perfect example of this; if you’ve ever had to drive one, you know what I’m talking about. The Cobalt wasn’t much better. It would be hard to find someone who bought one because they loved it (with the possible exception of the SS) – the answer is always “it was cheap and gets good fuel economy.” They were all this way, from every manufacturer – cheap little econo-boxes with nothing to them but the most basic of comforts. And they were awful.
Then something happened. People started to want small cars. They started buying them by choice, instead of being cost-forced into them. And when something sells more, things get competitive. Ford recently released the kick-ass new Focus (never thought I’d say that) Honda is releasing the ninth generation Civic for 2012, and VW’s new Jetta is shockingly good. Historically, American brands lagged behind, but now they’re catching up.
Last year, Chevy ditched the scrap box Cobalt and released the Cruze – a compact sedan that promised to be their first good car in this segment – something that could actually compete with the Civic and Corolla. I finally got my skeptical hands on one…
Chevy sent me a 2012 Cruze Eco – their attempt to deliver a fuel-sipping small sedan into the efficiency-obsessed public without resorting to gimmicks like hybrid powertrains. I drove the car for a full week, including a 7-hour trip to the beach and back. Given Chevy’s previous attempts in this segment, I fully expected to come back with my eyes rolling, but instead found myself calling my Dad (who happens to be looking for a new car) recommending he consider the 2012 Chevy Cruze Eco.
Over those seven hours to Myrtle Beach and back, I managed to average 42.3 mpg – and that’s going 10-15 over the limit most of the way (I did get pulled over by an SC state trooper who I swear was Buford T Justice.) The fuel economy isn’t even the surprising part. What shocked me the most is that I didn’t want to crash the damn thing into a guard rail just to get some excitement. The 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-banger actually has some pick-up when you need it. 138 horsepower doesn’t sound like much, but it doesn’t disappoint. That, of course, is partially thanks to the 6-speed manual tranny, which is surprisingly good, aside from the annoying fourth-gear vibration that forced me into a 1-2-3-5-6 shift pattern. I’d still go with the manual transmission, of course. Otherwise, I’d be stuck with three fewer MPGs, $925 less in the bank, and a boring drive. Plus, other reviews around the web are saying the automatic tranny ruins the car.
Also surprising: the Cruze isn’t fugly. It’s no Ferrari, but at least you won’t be driving around in a car that screams, “I’m a cheap-ass!” The LT and LTZ trim levels even come optional with an “RS Appearance Package” that adds a sporty body kit and doesn’t look like it’s trying too hard. My Cruze had the “Blue Topaz Metallic” finish – a deeper, darker blue than the one you see in the pictures above and below – and standard lightweight 17-inch polished alloy wheels, helping with that “not an econobox” appearance.
The real winner here is inside the car. We all know Chevy has fallen far short on their interiors, but they’re turning that around in a big way. The Cruze gets the new “twin cockpit” design, coupled with a modern and sleek two-tone look, leapfrogging GM’s interior design over “acceptable” and all the way into “sexy.” Touchpoints get soft materials, the attractive black/aluminum center stack and instrument panel aren’t overly busy, and even the gauge cluster is pretty (especially on the RS package.) Inside the center console, you’ll find both an auxiliary jack and USB port good for hooking up different types of MP3 players. Bluetooth is standard on all but the base trim level.
Along with adequate power under the hood, steering is tight and responsive, and the suspension feels like it belongs in a more expensive car. Inside, my chubby 6’4″ frame isn’t too big, and even rear-seat passengers have decent room, considering the car’s size. Truck space: 15 cubes in a class that averages around 12.
The 2012 Chevy Cruze starts at $16,995 for the LS (base) trim. Skip it – step up into the 1LT ($18,895) or Eco ($19,245), and you’ll get the 1.4-liter turbo’d engine and quite a bit more equipment.
Since Chevy released the Cruze for 2010, it’s been a home run for them, and it’s easy to see why. The fact that they’re talking about giving us a diesel-powered Cruze and a coupe version of the car tells us they’re going to be riding this one for a while. I’m glad to see Chevy making cars that truly compete.
Before You Buy
Yes, I highly recommend the Chevy Cruze if you’re shopping for a car in this segment, but you’ll still want to take a look at the new (and really good) Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra, VW Jetta, and still-excellent Mazda3. Other cars to consider: Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla.