2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1.4T 1LT 4 door (USA)

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To Europeans, the global significance of the family-sized Chevrolet Cruze may well be somewhat mis-understood. Despite offering significant improvements over its direct predecessor, the one-time “Reasonably Priced Car”, the Daewoo Lacetti, the Cruze has not sold in particularly significant volume in any Western European market, even when the initial offering of a petrol engined 4 door saloon (not exactly what Western Europeans buy in that great a quantity these days!) was augmented with a diesel engine, and then the range grew with the addition of both a 5 door hatch and an estate model. But review the Cruze’s place in the global scheme of things, and it is clear that this is a very important car. Based on GM’s Delta 2 platform, although a lot of the design and development was led by a South Korean team, this car was conceived with a view to selling it in quantity in every continent of the world, a feat which it has now achieved. It took a while to build up to this. The Cruze was first premiered in the summer of 2008, but it was not until well into 2010 before the US market got the car, to replace the unloved and unlovable Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5. Although there are subtle differences in the Cruze for all those different markets, it is essentially the same car, whether you buy one made in Ohio for the American market, or Port Elizabeth and with Holden badges on it as an Antipodean customer, a Korean made one, or a Russian one or whatever. GM declared that they wanted people to buy the Cruze because they liked it, and not because it was cheap. It plays in the most competitive market sector of them all, and encounters formidable competition in each of those markets. In the US, it is now one of the staples of the rental car fleet, so, it is not surprising that one came my way. The photographer in me picked out a test car in Red Hot, a brilliant red that is not unlike that on my Audi, which I think suits the car well, even though you see far more of them in white, silver and light metallic hues. More important than the colour, though, was to find out how the Cruze fares in its chosen market battleground.

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US market Cruze is offered with a choice of three engines. Entry level LS cars get the familiar 1.8 petrol, but as with some of GM’s other smaller offerings, the 1.4 turbo model is also offered, and this features in the majority of the rental cars. It was fitted to mine. New for 2013 in the US market was a 2 litre diesel, as a tentative step to try to get US consumers, still very prejudiced against fuel from the black pump, to try to gain the benefits that the rest of the world has seen for years. Raw horsepower for the two petrol engines is the same, at 138 bhp, though the former requires 6300 rpm for this, whereas the turbo engine will be spinning at just 4900 rpm, and there is a big difference in the torque, with the larger capacity unit generating 125 lb/ft at 3800 rpm, whilst the turbo generates a maximum of 148 lb/ft at 1850 rpm. The 1.4T does its job generally well, endowing the Cruze with a decent turn of speed and class competitive acceleration. It’s not all good, though, as I found that at around 2000 rpm, when you started to accelerate, the engine emitted an odd and not particularly pleasant noise until you built up more revs. This happened in any gear, and after a while got a bit wearing. Given that the overall gearing is decently high, so typically you will be doing around 2000 rpm at a steady speed on the freeway, every time you need a sudden burst of acceleration, say to pull out and past a slower vehicle, you will get this unwanted sound effect. Other than that, noise levels are very well suppressed, with minimal wind and road noise, and an engine which keeps its noise to itself as well. This is a level of refinement that few competitors (especially the latest Nissan Sentra) just do not achieve. Some of the credit for that probably goes to the choice of gearing. A six speed manual is standard in all US market Cruze, but a six speed automatic ‘box is available, and it was fitted to the test car. It shifts very smoothly between the gears. There is a manual control available, by pressing a button on the side of the gear knob, but I let it work out the appropriate gears for itself. What really impressed me was the fuel consumption. Admittedly much of the test mileage was conducted at a steady speed on the freeway, but when I did the maths having refuelled the Cruze, it came out at 35.85 mpg (US), which is 42.85 mpg Imperial. Not bad at all. Also not bad is the steering and handling. The former is well weighted, lacking the over assisted vagueness that permeates all the Japanese competitors bar the Mazda 3, and the Cruze seemed to be keen to go round the line I chose for the bends, rather than finding its own course. It rides well, too, doing its best to smooth out the ridges, bumps, pot holes and craters of Southern California’s roads. The brakes at least on the test car felt a bit mushy, with a surprisingly firm push needed before anything happened at all, though once you had put enough pressure on the pedal, they seemed to do their job as you would expect. A pull up handbrake lever is fitted, between the seats. All round visibility is generally good, though the way the door mirrors taper off does mean that there is something of a larger blind spot than you find in some vehicles.

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Anyone who remembers the Cruze’s antecedents is going to be surprised and impressed at the interior. Although not quite at Audi standards of fit, finish and quality of materials, this is a revelation compared to the old Cobalt and Daewoo Lacetti, with a cohesive design, soft touch plastics abound, and everything fits together very neatly, without being in the slightest bit fussy or over stylised. The dashboard and interior trim in the test car were a mixture of dark and lighter grey, with a gunmetal coloured fillet on the dash in front of the passenger, and a leather wrapped steering wheel in what was not a top of the range morel was a nice touch. The instruments are presented in deeply recessed cowls, all of which are grouped together under a single curved binnacle. All are clearly marked and easy to read. The two larger instruments of speedometer and rev counter flank the central fuel and water temperature gauges and the on board vehicle info display. You can cycle through a series of different displays for this by twisting the end of the left hand column stalk.  Twin stalks from GM’s standard parts bin, with slightly rough serrated ends operate indicators and wipers, whilst the lights function from a rotary dial on the left of the dash. The central part of the dashboard contains the display screen for the XM satellite radio capable audio unit, which is flanked by a series of buttons to operate it. The test car had the optional MyLink set up, which uses a colour touch screen for a series of functions, most of which proved quite intuitive to use. Air conditioning is set using two rotary dials and a small row of buttons between them. Small repeater functions for the audio unit are on the right hand spoke of the steering wheel, whilst the cruise control is on the left spoke.

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Seat adjustment is all manual in this version of the Cruze, with the lever to make stepped changes for backrest angle set well back, and quite awkward to reach around the base of the seat belt mounting, but once adjusted, and the column set to the right place, I was comfortable, and able to sit on the seat for several hours without feeling any ill effects. Although this is still classed as mid-sized car, it is one of the larger and more commodious models in its class, and that is obvious when you look at rear seat space. Even with the front perches set well back, there is a good amount of leg room. Headroom is not an issue, and the Cruze is wide enough for three adults without them feeling unduly squashed. The boot is quite a generous size, with more depth than you find sometimes in cars of the class, but the opening area itself is smaller than usual, so it may prove harder to get particularly bulky items into the Cruze than it is to accommodate them there. The rear seat backs are asymmetrically split, and fold down to create a much longer luggage platform should this be required. Inside the cabin, there are door pockets on all four doors, there is a decent sized glove box, a modest but deep cubby under the central armrest, a shallow cubby under a lid on the top of the dash and a couple of little holes in front of the gearlever. There is a map pocket on the rear of just the passenger seat. Rear seat passengers get a pair of cup holders in the top surface of the drop down rear central armrest.

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US model Cruze comes in LS, LT and LTZ trims, with the LT version sub-divided, as GM seem wont to do, into 1LT and 2LT models. There is a separate ECO model, and the Diesel has its own trim, too. The LS model has the 1.8 litre petrol unit, whereas the LT and LTZ cars have the 1.4 Turbo. Priced from $18,345, even the entry level LS is reasonably well kitted out, with the standard spec including GM’s OnStar, 10 air bags, remote central locking, tilt/telescopic adjustable steering column, cloth seats, split folding rear seats, air conditioning and a 6 speaker AM/FM radio with XM satellite, single slot CD, bluetooth, AUX and MP3 slots. As well as the different engine, the 1LT adds 16″ alloy wheels, power adjustable body coloured door mirrors, a USB port, steering mounted audio repeater controls, cruise control and a leather wrapped steering wheel and gear lever,  It lists for $20,735 when the automatic gearbox is added to the spec. The 2LT gains 17″ alloy wheels, all round disc brakes, sports suspension, a premium sound system, leather seats, the driver’s being heated and electrically adjustable  and remote engine starting. The top spec LTZ adds to this with a 18″ alloys, fog lamps, chromed door handles, the MyLink infotainment system with 7″ colour display, a back-up camera, keyless starting, and automated climate control.  The Eco version has the 1.4T engine, but with revised gearing, a different design of 17″ (lightweight) alloys, low rolling resistance tyres, a rear spoiler, a different front lower bumper, lower front grille air shutter and has the MyLink system as standard. The Diesel model has a spec that is very similar to the 2LT model, with a 151 bhp 2.0 TDi engine, and standard 6 speed manual gearbox.

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The day before I tested the Cruze, one of my friends posted one of those “what would you recommend” questions for cars in this class, and my instinctive answer was a Mazda 3 or a Kia Forte (this was a US question for a US buyer). Having driven the Cruze, I think I would put it onto the short list, as well. With the exception of that slightly gravelly engine noise at 2000 rpm, it had no real shortcomings at all. It is a roomy, well finished, and economical car. Whilst not exciting in the least, it gets the job done, and rather well. And that’s just what an awful lots of buyers are looking for. So yes, GM, people should buy the Cruze because they like it, and not because it is cheap.

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