As part of its new small-car strategy, GM plans three significant launches under the Chevrolet brand over the next three years, the first of which is the Chevrolet Cruze, replacing the current Cobalt. Launched in Europe a year ago, GM reports initial success with the Cruze, despite the fact that it is a sedan in a hatchback-happy continent.
We got the opportunity to drive a European spec Cruze after the Geneva auto show, as a preview of the model that will be coming to the U.S. later this year. Body style, suspension, and interior appointments were basically the same as the U.S. car, but our car's turbocharged 2-liter diesel engine won't be available here in the States.
Instead, expect a turbocharged 1.4-liter gasoline engine, which should get about 40 mpg and produce 138 horsepower, on the LT model, and a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated gasoline engine in the Cruze LS. Chevrolet will offer six-speed manual and automatic transmissions in the Cruze, as opposed to the five-speed manual we saw in our European spec Cruze.
We met our test drive car in the Swiss town of Gruyere, where they make the cheese, after having driven up there from Geneva in the Chevy Spark, one of the other small cars on Chevy's agenda. Unlike the Spark, which had overt style, the Cruze depends on a more homogeneous appearance, a look that will blend in with all the Toyotas, Nissans, Mazdas, and Fords in the commuter lanes.
The Cruze does well representing the modern, small sedan, and the grille treatment, the single bar wearing the Chevy bow tie across the front, makes it look like a down-sized Malibu. Probably the greatest success of the design is in making a small car look big.
In the front seats, it almost felt like we were sitting in a midsize sedan, with plenty of elbow and head room. Backseat legroom was more compromised, although the seat looked cushy. For an economy car, the cabin design was also nicely done. Don't expect wood trim or leather in a car that will probably retail for well under $20k, but cloth panel inserts, in the same pattern as the seats, looked good.
As a sign that Chevy kept cabin noise down, it took us quite a while to realize that the Cruze we were driving had a diesel engine. There was none of the usual diesel clatter, although the low redline on the tachometer gave us a clue. Acceleration felt responsive, and we were able to spool up some passing power, although these qualities are irrelevant, as the diesel engine won't be available in the U.S.
Likewise the transmission, a five-speed manual, will gain an extra gear when the car comes to the U.S. We liked the short, sporty-feeling shifter, but found the shift gate lacked good separation between the gears. We missed more than one shift, ending up in too high a gear and wondering why the car wouldn't accelerate.
We counted six speakers around the car, a typical arrangement with woofers in the doors and tweeters in the A-pillars. This car lacked a USB port, but it looked like space had been intentionally carved out for one next to the auxiliary jack in the console.
In the European version, navigation with traffic is available as an option. We don't expect this option to come to the U.S., but GM will probably install OnStar. A Chevrolet representative told us that Bluetooth would be available in the U.S. version of the car.
The stereo controls looked like they were capable of far more than scrolling through radio stations. The four directional buttons surrounding a play/pause button looked particularly intriguing, as if they would work well with a navigation system. Other automakers have certainly gotten by with less for controlling a full cabin tech suite.
As we drove through high Swiss valleys, the Cruze felt reasonably capable, as drivable as a Toyota Corolla. The car lacked any sport aspirations, its suspension merely keeping the car level and providing a decent ride. We ran the car up to a few turns, but it just didn't have the power to make the tires sing.
When it gets to the U.S., the Cruze should prove popular as an inexpensive commuter car. The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine could be its secret weapon, helping it beat the competition in fuel economy. But we don't expect it to excel as a tech car, unless Chevrolet offers a similar navigation system to that found in its Traverse crossover.