Compact Cruze will find many fans

For years, Chevrolet flogged the Cobalt as its compact offering. The drawback with this car was simple — it was very long in the tooth and desperately in need of replacement.

The Cruze effectively addresses these things. It has size, substance and an overall solidity to its drive that’s a rare find at the affordable end of the price ladder. In this regard, it is a great family car that will find many fans.

The Cruze is surprisingly comfortable on a long drive. Credit goes to its wide body and 2,685-millimetre wheelbase. The combination makes the Cruze feel much roomier than its dimensions suggest. The additional width means there is plenty of shoulder and elbow room up front, while the wheelbase brings good legroom and generous fore/aft front-seat travel. The seats are comfortable and feature decent bolstering in both the base and backrest. However, it’s not so good for the rear occupants. Certainly, there is generous headroom, but the available legroom disappears quickly as the front seats are moved rearward. It is also out of step in that it features a large central tunnel. This effectively limits the rear seat to two passengers on all but the shortest trips.

For the driver, things are very good. The height-adjustable seat and tilt and telescopic steering wheel adjustment make it a snap to find the right driving position. The sightlines are also commendably clean. Yes, a shoulder check is still required before switching lanes, but the Cruze proves to be very easy to wheel around in an urban setting.

The cabin is also refreshingly well conceived. The materials are better than many entry-level rides and the layout is logical. Brightening up the LT’s interior is a cloth insert that rings the cabin. It is different and imparts a classier feel than the usual plastic trim. There’s also a ton of content — everything from air conditioning and cruise control to power door locks, windows and mirrors. In fact, there really are only two beefs — Bluetooth and a USB audio input are conspicuous by their absence in the lesser LS and base LT models. Ditto the lack of heated seats. All should be standard across the range.

The 15.4-cubic-foot trunk is also right sized. It features a large opening that’s nicely squared off and 60/40-split/folding seats. The bad news is the hockey-stick style hinges. Put anything beneath them and closing the trunk puts a dent in things, which I found out the hard way.

Two very different engines provide the Cruze’s motivation. The base 1.8-litre four-cylinder is more than adequate for most eventualities, but it lacks the driving crispness of the up-level 1.4L turbo engine. While the horsepower remains the same at 138, it is the turbo’s torque and the manner in which it comes online that makes the difference. The base engine has to put 3,800 rpm on the tachometer before its 129 pound-feet show up for work, which creates a somewhat soft launch. Conversely, the blown motor twists out a healthy 147 lb-ft at a very low 1,850 rpm. This brings much more punch off the line and a far more rewarding mid-range. The LT Turbo scampers to 100 kilometres an hour in 9.8 seconds and turns the 80-to-120-km/h trick in 7.6 seconds.

The tester arrived with a six-speed manumatic transmission. It works well with the engine as the ratios bring good off-the-line performance and relaxed highway cruising. However, there’s an annoying anomaly. The transmission tends to stumble its way up through the gears until things are fully warmed up. It put a crimp in the car’s overall sense of refinement.

Where the Cruze makes a statement is the manner in which it handles, as its European heritage shines through. In fact, the driving feel is one of substance and control. On one hand, the suspension takes the sting out of rough roads, which delivers the demanded comfort. Conversely, unwanted body motion is limited to a few degrees. There is very little body roll through fast corners and even less pitch and dive under hard acceleration or braking. Likewise, the steering feel is excellent. It is light at low speeds, yet communicative at higher speeds. In this regard, the Cruze sets a high standard for the class.

The Chevrolet Cruze is a decidedly decent compact car that delivers on nearly all fronts. It is competent in a corner, it has a comfortable cabin and it has all the right safety items. However, a week with the LT Turbo proved one thing conclusively — this engine is the only way to go. It not only puts appreciably more snap at the driver’s disposal, it actually boasts better fuel economy than the base engine married to its optional automatic transmission. At 8.5 litres per 100 km in the city and 5.5 L/100 km on the highway, the LT Turbo requires 0.7 and 0.1 L/100 km less fuel, respectively. Of course, the fact it does not demand premium fuel is a huge bonus.

Photograph by: Derek McNaughton, Postmedia News