2011 Chevrolet Cruze sails into new era of small cardom

Until now, General Motors hasn't exactly taken the small-car market seriously. While Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyondai and Kia have built their empires on the hoods of pint-sized, fuel-efficient transportation, history has shown the captains of Detroit tend to offer up parts-bin afterthoughts. Cars like the Chevrolet Cavalier and Coblat have left a sour taste in the mouths of buyers thanks to noisy and de-.......ed cabins, rough engines and build quality that would make a Yugo blush. As a result, Americans have developed a sort of Pavolovian retch when we hear the term "compact car."

But a new dawn may be approaching – one heralded by a rash of new straw-weight fighters that aim to bring a global small car philosophy to the U.S. GM intends to be part of that party with the introduction of the 2011 Chevrolet cruze, a sedan that, for all intents and purposes, is more of a landmark model for the company than the endlessly-hyped Chevrolet volt. To get our meaning

This is not the next Cobalt. To saddle the Cruze with its rental ancestor's moniker would only hobble the product before it manages to get off of the ground. The two are only similar in the fact that one will take the reins from the other, and for proof, you need look no further than the new model's design. Whereas the Cobalt sedan always came across as having more than a little Fisher Price on a beer-thirty Friday feel to it, the Cruze presents itself as a well-scaled version of the Bowtie's larger four-door offerings.

Up front, the car wears the same handsome split grille found elsewhere in the Chevy line. Aggressive headlights peel from the nose to the sides of the Cruze and follow the contour established by a sharply defined wheel arch. Buyers who opt for the RS trim will be rewarded with a slightly spunkier front fascia, along with matching side skirts and a reworked rear bumper cover. Likewise, a smattering of chrome accents help link the Cruze to the likes of the larger Chevrolet Malibu and separate it even farther from the bargain basement leagues of its predecessors. The look is about as far from a teenage throwaway as you can get, proving that small can be striking.

But it's the interior that does the heavy lifting in a small car. Typically, designers and bean counters wage a tireless war over material quality and convenience goodies, and nearly without fault, it's the accountants who stand victorious over their art-school foes. But this time, the halls of GM headquarters were lined with a carpet of lifeless forms still desperately clutching their adding machines. There are expletives to describe how nice the Cruze interior is compared to the long parade of Dollar General cabins we've seen in the past, but since we try to keep this place as family friendly as possible, we'll just say that it's fantastic. And it's about time.

In LTZ trim, the dash is dominated by a tech-laden but well-sorted center stack and accented with broad swaths of leather. We're not talking vinyl with real leather grain here, either. The dash trimmings, seats and steering wheel are all coated in hide that was once roaming a hillside. Their touch has the effect of distracting you from the fact that the rest of the dash and door panels are hard plastic. Nicely grained, sure, but the material is more along the lines of what we expect out of a GM compact. Put the two together, though, and you're rewarded with a duo that looks gorgeous. Simply put, we love it – especially in the dark brown/cream combo of our tester

GM has also done a great job of making sure that nearly anyone can fit behind the wheel – and we do mean anyone. The driver's seat can be positioned so far back that someone of normal height will have no chance of reaching the pedals or the steering wheel. Speaking of the tiller, even the base Cruze comes with a tilting and telescoping steering wheel that, when combined with the highly-maneuverable seat, means the driving position can be adjusted to fit people of nearly any stature. The seats are comfortable, though don't expect to be firmly held in place by any faux-sports bolsters. The Cruze makes no qualms about the fact that first and foremost it's here to, well, cruise.

This is a compact, though. Lock the front seat in place for a driver around 5-foot-11 and there's just barely enough room for the same gent to squeeze into the rear seat with his knees in the seat back. There's plenty of head room, though, so the ride would be more than tolerable for short commutes. Thanks to the roof design, GM lost just two inches in rear headroom compared to the front. Ask the driver to scoot forward an inch or two, and all should be right with the world.

GM will be offering the Cruze with two engine combinations when it hits showrooms later this year, though we were only able to get our grubby paws on the more potent turbocharged 1.4-liter direct-injecion four-cylinder bolted to a six-speed automatic gearbox. GM claims the engine produces 138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at 1,850 rpm, though the good folk at the Society of Automotive Engineers haven't gotten around to verifying those figures just yet. Regardless of what the final figures turn out to be, the little powerplant is perfectly suited to life in the Cruze. It serves up modest but adequate power with neither buzz nor vibration, and it does so without having to rev itself to oblivion. As a result, GM is shooting for an astonishing 40 mpg-plus EPA rating on the highway once the feds wrap up testing.

If you're looking to save a few dimes, GM is also offering a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder on lower trim rungs. Interestingly enough, the engine produces only marginally less grunt – 136 hp and 124 lb-ft of torque – though is expected to return slightly lower fuel economy numbers. Why GM bothered to offer the engine as an option is something of a quandary to us, but we suspect they were shooting for the lowest base price possible and the 1.8-liter costs less to produce than the high-tech 1.4-liter turbo.

Shifts from the six-speed automatic are smooth and well-handled under normal driving conditions. Thanks to some clever gearing, the little 1.4-liter feels like it has more torque than it does off the line. Really mash the throttle, though, and there seems to be a miscommunication between the engine and transmission. The manifold-integrated Honeywell turbo takes half a second to spool, which confuses the gearbox. The transmission then drops a gear just in time for the engine to begin pouring on every ounce of its grunt, causing yet another shift. In the meantime, you're left with your foot to the floor and no noticeable increase in speed. In fairness, GM says that the models we drove were all pre-production, and any acceleration issues would be ironed out by the time the cars hit dealer lots.

Of course, you can skip that issue altogether and order your Cruze with a six-speed manual transmission if your heart so desires. GM didn't have any row-your-own models on hand for us to play with, but we can only assume that the third pedal would take some slack out of the drivetrain

Hesitating passes aside, the Cruze is a smart driver. GM says that it was interested in moving the car's handling away from the sport side of the spectrum and more towards the comfortable, if somewhat soft, dynamics of the Malibu. While this means that the car serves up a plush ride, it also means that you won't be hustling it through the cones of an autocross anytime soon. That fact may help to explain why GM isn't planning a major social marketing effort to combat Ford's Fiesta campaign in that arena, nor will it push the Cruze on the motorsports world despite having a successful (and mighty-fine looking) World Touring Car Championship version in Europe. Instead, the company wants to point Cruze marketing to the post-college/pre-kid crowd as a more mature mode of transportation.

That news helps to explain the level of refinement the Cruze delivers once you're on the road. GM has taken pains to ensure the cabin is an isolation chamber unmatched in this price point. Triple-seal doors, a laminated windshield and hydraulic engine mounts make the cabin Lexus-quiet. We know that sounds absurd, but we don't make the comparison lightly.

Steering is just this side of over-assisted, but we wouldn't call it twitchy, either. It simply feels at home with the rest of the car – comfortable, but somewhat numb at the same time. Similarly, the brakes aren't what we would call high-performance ready, even with the rear discs of the LTZ. GM says that lower rungs on the trim ladder will come with rear drums as standard equipment, and it's safe to assume that stopping performance will be slightly degraded to match.

What you're left with is more of a teacup breed of Malibu rather than an evolutionary step in GM's small car species, and that's fine. The Cruze manages to do more than nail all of the basics of transportation. For the first time in GM's history, it's created a compact car that's a pleasurable place to spend time in. American buyers used to a plush ride and a quiet cabin will likely feel right at home in the driver's seat, and judging from the MSRP, we're guessing that it won't take much convincing to get them there. GM says that the Cruze will start at $16,995, complete with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder and a six-speed manual transmission. If you want the cozy leather interior, you'll still only have to ....l out $21,395. Our tester, complete with four-wheel disc brakes and LTZ trim, came with a very manageable $22,695 price tag.

More than any other vehicle we've seen from The General recently, the Cruze is proof positive of the company's new attentiveness to market needs, customer desires and quality construction. Do we wish GM had taken the time to put the Cruze through all of the necessary changes to bring the car to the U.S. when it debuted back in 2008? Sure, but after generations of choking down the company's interpretation of a small car, it's better late than never