The last time Chevrolet had a compact sedan that truly competed with Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla was... uh, hmmm, they never really have. Cobalt was a car recommended for those who insisted an American nameplate. Cavalier? Sorry. Let s not even mention Chevette or Vega.

Now there s Cruze. English teachers will cringe over the spelling but car shoppers should read on. You may not have heard much about Cruze, Chevy has been quite busy buffing up the halo on its NASA grade brother Volt (they share a basic architecture). Pity because Chevrolet is GMs most important brand and Cruze may well be their most significant car in a long time.

Here s Why

The electric Volt (which is next week s review) is very impressive but initially it will only be sold in limited markets and numbers. Cruze on the other hand will sell in volume and show the masses that Chevy finally builds a car that truly competes with the Honda and Toyota. No excuses. Volt may get curious folks into the showroom but nine times out of ten they ll leave with a Cruze. Happily.

Cruze starts at $16,995 with a 6-speed manual transmission. Go wild with options like satellite navigation and leather seating and the MSRP can rise to over 26K which is pretty pricey considering what Sonata and Optima are going for these days. The trick with Cruze is to show restraint. Chevy s loaned me a lightly optioned 1LT model that stickers for $20,600 with destination, hitting the value vs. content sweet spot.

Surprise and delight features, the small ones that are unexpected, were once the domain of the Asian brands. Cruze revives the idea. A slight tap of the turn signal stalk gives a Euro-style three blinks. Nice touch. Forget to cancel your signal and a gentle message pops up in the gauge cluster (don t ask me how I discovered that). Doors shut with a thunk, not a clink. Same with the power door locks, they sound expensive. 1LT models get iPod integration, Bluetooth for phones, and XM radio as standard equipment. A $695 Convenience Package adds power driver s seat, remote start and rear ultrasonic parking assist.

You Don t Have to Shout

Everyone that rides in Cruze remarks that it s very quiet at highway speeds, more than some cars twice its price, making it an excellent road trip vehicle. On-center feel is good though driving enthusiasts will want more road feel when cornering. GTI jockeys look elsewhere, the Chevy s suspension is set up towards comfort and tuned for the masses, but still, Cruze is composed going about its business.

I recruited Cruze for errands the frantic week leading up to Christmas and the frequent trips were always made better by its calm demeanor and comfortable ride. My only complaint is that the six-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode loses some of its composure in hard cut-and-thrust city driving. Apparently there s a software update, I can t tell you if my car has it or not.

They Both Make 138 Horsepower?

Cruze has two engine choices. Base models motor about with a normally aspirated 1.8-liter engine making 138 horsepower. My tester is powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine that produces 138 horsepower. Why two different four-cylinders? The 1.4 turbo produces more torque (148 vs. 125 lb-ft) and does it at lower RPMs (1,850 vs. 3,800). That should make it more satisfying off the line. The turbo is also a skosh more fuel efficient. Both run on standard fuel.

0-60 happens in just under 9 seconds, fine for its class though more power is always nice. The turbo has no real lag to speak of and it s smooth unless pushed to high revs. If the salesperson didn t tell a buyer they were getting a turbocharged engine, they d probably never know it unless they read the manual. Anti-lock brakes have good modulation, sorry I didn t test the stopping distance. FYI, they re drums in the back on a 1LT. It s possible to get a Cruze with discs all around.

EPA rates the 1.4 s fuel economy at 24 city, 36 highway (the 1.8 scores 26/36 with the manual, 22/35 with the automatic). Go with the Cruze Eco model and its standard manual transmission (auto box is optional) and it rises to an estimated 40 highway. In the real world I pulled a 30 MPG average while running all those Christmas errands. Next year I ll shop early. Yeah, right...

Best In Class Cabin

To say Cruze s interior is a big improvement over its predecessor Cobalt is faint praise. More accurately, it s now best in class when compared to Civic, Corolla, Focus, Jetta and Sentra. Materials look and feel good, with chrome-like trim rings and aluminum-like vents. The dual-cockpit motif flows into the door panels, conservatively patterned cloth seats are well bolstered and comfortable. Lighting is a soothing ice blue.

Switchgear is smooth, the door releases feel solid and a leather wrapped wheel is thick and hefty. Turn a knob to adjust heat or AC and the center stack display switches momentarily from sound system info to a communicative climate graphic. LTZ models get automatic climate control but, you guessed it, a steeper price tag too.

Even without the optional nav system (demanding an upgrade to a high-end Pioneer sound system) directions are still available. Tell an OnStar operator where you want to go (or have them look for a decent restaurant), and they ll download directions to the car with audio and visual prompts in the center display. All of this can be done while driving, no need to stop. Cruze comes with a six month subscription to the directions service.

The Back Seat That Doesn t Take a Back Seat

I m an average sized guy at 5 9 and two of me will fit comfortably in the back, three would be OK for shorter distances. There s a decent amount of foot room and legroom and knees don t stick up in the air because of low cushions.
This space is where many manufacturers cut corners but a folding center armrest, map pockets, and 12V power port are all present and accounted for. The folding seat backs are split 60/40 for flexibility too. It should be noted that the door panels have a bit of storage space and trim that matches the front doors (something that Malibu skimps on).

The trunk opening of Cruze is very wide but it s possible to hit your head on the protruding edge, made worse by the lid not always staying all the way up if parked on a slope (talk to my wife about that one). Gooseneck hinge arms will pinch cargo when the trunk is completely filled but loaded up to avoid that, Cruze manages a generous 6 packs in the infamous TP trunk test.

For Those Into Safety (And Who Isn t)

In addition to the expected six airbags Cruze adds knee units to the front. Electronic stability and traction control are nicely calibrated without being draconian. This Chevy has scored very well in both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests. NHTSA gives Cruze five stars overall, with five stars in frontal and side ratings, four in rollover protection. IIHS names it a Top Safety Pick.

Cruze has competition in the new Hyundai Elantra and coming soon the next generation Honda Civic and Ford Focus. Corolla can t be too far behind. Isn t competition great? It means better cars for all of us. Subtly handsome, it s an appealing car even without fancy options. Chevy Cruze is quiet, comfortable, and stylish. Don t buy a small sedan without test driving it.

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