Weekly Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Cruze 2LT

Compact car, midsize presence.

I had the good fortune to be present for General Motors’ national press roll out for the Chevrolet Cruze in July 2010. That event, held in and around Washington, D.C., gave journalists their first chance to drive “pre-production” versions of the compact sedan that was slated to replace the Chevy Cobalt beginning the following fall. Although the event enabled me to drive several copies of the Cruze, I knew that only when the car reached the masses would I get the opportunity to drive a production model and bring that “behind the wheel” review to you.

Little did I know that more than a full year would pass by before I got my chance.

The Chevrolet Cruze is a complete departure from every compact Chevy car produced before it, most recently the Cobalt and for 23 years from the early 1980s to 2005, the Chevy Cavalier. I won’t even mention the Chevette and Monza, even earlier (failed) attempts by GM to bring to the market competitive small cars. This time Chevrolet got it right…all is forgiven!

Opel Origination

With the Cruze, General Motors leaned heavily on its Opel design team to craft this model, which first went on sale in South Korea in 2008 as the Daewoo Lacetti Premiere. Opel is GM’s Germany-based brand that has produced a number of vehicles that have crossed the pond including the Saturn AURA and the current Buick Regal.

Cruze Facts

    ► Four-door sedan; five trim levels
    ► Up to 42 mpg highway with Cruze ECO
    ► 10 airbags standard
    ► MacPherson strut front suspension
    ► Priced from just over $17K
    ► Five-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty
    ► Made in Ohio, USA

My most recent weekly drive was a Chevrolet Cruze LT, or more accurately, a 2LT, representing the second highest of this model’s five trim levels. Powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder engine paired with a 6-speed automatic transmission, at this level you get heated leather front seats, a navigation system and 17-inch alloy wheels. Air conditioning, 10 airbags, and trial OnStar and Sirius satellite radio subscriptions are available with every Cruze, demonstrating Chevrolet’s intention to bring to the market a car that is well equipped, not stripped.

Gone are the days when you had to beg off from the dealer an AM/FM radio to fill the void in the dash. What void is there with the Cruze? Really, there are none as this car has many amenities that most people want, but might not expect to find in a compact car.

What about a rear back up camera? That’s perhaps the only amenity missing. Given the Cruze’s size one isn’t necessary, but such an option would be desirable for some buyers.

Malibu Resemblance

The Cruze looks very much like the midsize Malibu sedan and is known within Chevy circles as a “baby Malibu.” That’s quite a compliment as the Malibu is a handsome vehicles and one of Chevrolet’s best-selling models. It didn’t take the Cruze long to overtake the Malibu in sales, with Chevy’s newest compact routinely 20,000 or more units per month in the U.S. alone.

Inside, the Cruze offers plenty of room for driver and front seat passenger. Overall seating is for five, with three seating places in the rear. How much space the rear passengers get depends on the height of the driver and front passenger. I’m 6-feet and I don’t like to sit too close to the wheel. Still, there is enough room for a similar sized passenger to sit behind the driver as long as the driver is reasonable with his seat adjustment.

The driver’s seat is comfortable, providing ample hip and thigh support. On a long trip, I can see where thigh support might be an issue, a problem I’ve experienced with similar sized cars I have owned or driven. You’re not likely to find a seat bottom extender in compact cars in the under $25,000 segment, something routinely offered in cars costing far more.

Chevrolet makes it easy to see and quickly access important controls without having to having to deviate your eyes from the road. The transmission stick is at the base of the center stack with controls for cabin climate, music and navigation above that. On the steering wheel you can set and adjust cruise control, adjust the lights and the audio system. The readouts are mostly analog with a digital interface listing trip miles driven, the odometer and estimated gas mileage.

Climate control works great, offering plenty of heat or a/c as needed. In my initial 2010 drive I took note of and reported to GM the annoying crackling noise that came out of the vent with the air-conditioning operating at full blast. That problem has been corrected, although don’t expect to carry on an in-cabin conversation until after you turn down the a/c.

Another problem involving the steering wheel not engaging properly was also fixed. The old GM wouldn’t have been on top of such things, but the new GM apparently is.

Storage Galore

There are plenty of storage compartments in the Cruze, found in the door insets, seatback pockets and in the drivetrain hump for the front passenger. But, the trunk is a real gem, offering 15 cubic feet of storage room, what most medium sized sedans offer and not too far off of the mark for some large sedans. A rear seat pass through provides extra room to transport a lamp, ski equipment or other similar items.

The first Cruzes to hit the market were equipped solely with a 1.8-liter four cylinder engine. The turbocharged 1.4-liter four came later and was originally available only in the Cruze ECO, a top of the range, specially tuned 42 mpg highway model. For 2012, the smaller, but more powerful engine is standard with the four highest trim levels, matching the larger engine’s 138 horsepower, but offering more torque — 148 v. 123.

Turbo Edge

Having driven both, I vote for the turbo. You get the additional power that you want and for those of you who like to work on your car, there is more room to move around under the hood.

During my weekly drive, not once did the Cruze lag in power, providing plenty of get up and go and a generous burst of energy when passing. The 6-speed automatic shifted smoothly, even more so then what I’ve experienced with some of GM’s larger and heavier models. The ride was fairly smooth with only minimal jarring as the Cruze passed over bumps and railroad tracks. We can all think of compact cars where road impacts were felt right through the steering wheel. The Cruze does a good job of minimizing such shake downs.

Fuel & Price

Rated at 26 mpg city, 38 mpg the turbo Cruze with automatic offers gas mileage within range of its chief competitors including the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. For the week I averaged 30.7 mpg, just above the 30 mpg combined estimate offered by the EPA.

Priced from $17,275, the 2012 Chevy Cruze can easily push well above $20,000 as equipped. Indeed, the model I tested carried a total vehicle price of $23,980 to about $25,000 for the LTZ. Those prices may seem steep for a compact car, but according to Chevrolet, are opting for the upper trim levels. Chevy realizes that people are holding onto to their cars longer and when buying new they want all of today’s amenities, something the Cruze generously offers.

You may also want to consider the Chevrolet Sonic, the brand’s all-new subcompact car that can be had for upwards of $5,000 less than the Cruze. Featuring the same engines as the Cruze, the Sonic is peppy, surprisingly room and offers a fun drive.

See AlsoFirst Drive: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Specifications

Chevrolet Cruze
Segmentcompact car
Base Sticker Price$17,275
Price as Tested$23,980
Standard Engine1.8L DOHC I-4
Transmission6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic
Horsepower138 @ 6,300
Torque (lb.-ft.)125 @ 3,800
Optional Engine1.4L turbocharged DOHC I-4
Transmission6-speed automatic or 6-speed manual
Horsepower138 @ 4,900
Torque (lb.-ft.)148 @ 1,850 (automatic); 2,500 (manual)
Curb Weight (pounds)3,200
Wheelbase (inches)105.7
Length (inches)181.0
Width (inches)70.7
Height (inches)58.1
Head room (f,r -- inches)39.3, 37.9
Leg room (f,r -- inches)42.3, 35.4
Shoulder room (f,r -- inches)54.7, 53.9
Hip room (f,r -- inches)53.0, 52.4
Storage (cubic feet)15.4
Gross weight (pounds)TBD
Towing (pounds)1,000 (not recommended w/Eco)
Fuel Tank (gallons)15.6 or 12.6 with ECO manual
EPA Gas MPG 1.825 / 36 (manual)
22 / 35 (automatic)
EPA Gas MPG 1.426 / 38 (LT, LTZ)
28 / 42 (Eco manual)
26 / 39 (Eco automatic)
Manufacturing PlantLordstown, Ohio

Photos: General Motors Company