I admit it: I was probably the first person on Earth to be excited about spending 1500 highway miles in a rented compact car. The fact that a lifelong import driver could get excited about GM’s Cruze bode well for the little car. Read on to find out whether it delivered or disappointed.
I had anticipated getting a Cruze beforehand, so I had done a little research before picking up my black 1.4L turbo example. It seemed like my particular model was a fleet special. It had cruise control, but no OnStar. It had alloys, but no USB input. It was also lacking steering wheel audio controls, but had an aux-in jack. All of these features were supposed to come together, according to the Chevy website. Nonetheless, the car was very well equipped. Little touches did not go unnoticed. Chrome trim around the vents and knobs, triple door seals, backlit steering wheel controls, an electronic trunk release on the trunk lid, a sturdy flip key – all features that were available only on top-notch European cars just a decade ago. It seemed to have an automatic everything – transmission, headlights, up/down windows, etc. The turn signals would automatically blink three times if you tapped them lightly. My favorite features on the car had to be the trip computer and the manumatic gate on the transmission – I never got tired of playing with either one. It was one impressively equipped compact.
The driving dynamics of the Cruze are as impressive as the feature list. For a C-segment car, the interior is incredibly hushed at speed. Wind noise has been practically eliminated, thanks to the triple door seals. Road noise becomes apparent (though never intrusive) on rougher roads, but that’s mostly attributed to the Firestone FR710 tires. At least they can claim to help the ride quality, which was amazing. The soft and quiet highway ride, coupled with the comfortable seats, made for a couple of very pleasing 500-mile jaunts to and from Arizona. Once in Arizona, a speedy drive up to the 9000ft summit of Mt. Lemmon showed that the suspension was still quite capable of controlling the car. The light but accurate steering that was so distracting on the highway – where it would never seem to just go straight – paid dividends while canyon carving. There would be no mistaking the Cruze for a Corvette, but there were never any nasty surprises or scary behaviors.
The drivetrain may have been the biggest letdown on the car. I’ve come to expect lousy interiors and floaty rides from GM, but I’ve always known their drivetrains to provide decent fuel economy, great torque, and awesome shift characteristics. The Cruze seemed to be lacking in all of those areas. In the 2000-3500RPM range, there was very good torque, especially considering the displacement of the engine. However, turbo lag was extremely apparent below 2000RPM. Power delivery suffered horribly as a result, with a huge surge after a momentary lull. It made it annoying to drive the car in the city, where an unexpected dead spot could put you in the crosshairs of oncoming traffic. The transmission tried to compensate by having an extra low first gear, but even that hurt more than it helped. First gear went by so quick and so magnified the turbo lag effect that it wasn’t worth having – it almost seemed quicker to start in third, where higher engine RPM’s allowed for more boost to build and a more linear power delivery.
The transmission itself could have used some fine-tuning, because the downshifts when coming to a stop were a bit too apparent. A bit of shift flare reared its ugly head as well, with engine speed rising as much as 300RPM between shifts. To its credit, the transmission obeyed the driver’s wishes when using the manumatic feature. It wouldn’t upshift if the RPM’s were too low, but it also let you know when that happened. Except for downshifting as you slowed down, it would never call for a gear that the driver didn’t ask for. It would hold 6th, even with my foot flat on the floorboard at 1500RPM. It is a model that carmakers everywhere should follow, as far as I’m concerned.
Finally, we get to the main topic – fuel economy. The turbo 1.4L in the Cruze was built specifically for fuel economy reasons, with an impressive EPA of rating of 38MPG highway (with the auto). That’s why I was a bit stunned to find that my first tank of gas had resulted in 31.19MPG, all highway miles at 70-75mph cruise. I considered it a fluke, but the next tank delivered only 29.58MPG. In fact, over 1500 miles of mostly highway driving, I achieved between 29.58 and 33.95MPG, averaging a paltry 31.41. And for those who blame the lousy mileage on the driver, I will point out that my 2007 Accord (rated at 31MPG highway) achieved 31.53MPG in the same time frame under similar conditions.
Verdict: Fuel economy, combined with the lack of interior space (particularly the tiny back seat), prevent me from giving this car my stamp of approval. Which is too bad, since I really loved the smooth, quiet, and torquey highway Cruzer.