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The Chevrolet Cruze raises the bar for Chevrolet, but not for rivals including Skoda, Hyundai or Kia

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The Chevrolet Cruze has been described as the most important model for General Motors since the company’s bankruptcy in 2009. Built in 11 factories around the world, this Volkswagen Golf-sized family car has, since 2008, been delivering growth for GM’s global ‘value’ brand. More than half a million have been sold in a little over three years.

So it might seem odd that the Cruze has yet to make a significant dent in the European C-segment. It’s actually a stark reminder that other territories – South America, China, Russia and India – are now much bigger priorities than the EU for one of the world’s true car-making giants.

Chevrolet has come a long, long way since the days of Daewoo

Chevrolet’s big European push seems like it is beginning to gather momentum. The impressive new Aveo supermini is on sale and the Cruze has finally been made available in the flavour most palatable to European tastes – as a five-door hatchback, powered by a compact and economical turbodiesel.The estate is expected to take around 12 percent of sales.

It certainly has the potential to suit tight budgets. The well equipped base model comes in at a keen price, while the top-of-the-range version remains shy of an entry-level Ford Mondeo.

Engine choices are nowhere near as wide as that from Ford: you’ve only got 1.6 or 1.8-litre petrols and 1.7 and 2.0-litre diesel to choose from in S, LS , LT  and LTZ trim levels (not every trim is available with every engine, though).

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Buyers have the choice of a five-door hatchback, four-door saloon or five-door estate - with the former taking the vast majority of sales.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Chevrolet Cruze rear

Acknowledging that hand-me-down, antiquated mechanicals are not acceptable these days, Chevrolet used GM's Delta II platform when it developed the Cruze saloon – the same component set used by the current Vauxhall Astra and Ampera. So there’s little that’s backward or old-tech about this car, even under the skin.

The Cruze’s body is a welded high-strength steel monocoque frame made up of beams, pressings and box sections. Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and a compound crank torsion beam at the rear. You could claim the Astra’s Watt’s linkage and the Focus’s all-independent set-up makes the Cruze’s look relatively unsophisticated, but it’s anything but crude. Hydraulic bushings are fitted to improve ride isolation, for instance, and the front suspension dials out lateral forces with specially designed springs.

The Cruze is a handsome effort from Chevrolet. The four-door looks more balanced than the five-door

The concave shoulder line, which runs from the front wings and along the car’s waist to blend into the rear, is a design feature of all Chevrolets, along with the crease and clutter-free lower body sides. The grille, bisected by a body-coloured strip is known as a dual-port grille and comes complete with an enlarged Chevy bow-tie badge in stippled gold.

Elongated, raked-back headlights are the most dramatic styling cue. They go a long way towards giving the Cruze a sharp, modern appearance. The LED rear lamps project the Chevrolet bow-tie shape when they illuminate, for night-time identification.

The Cruze looks inoffensive enough, but it’s bland and unadventurous in a class where the pace of change makes conservative designs date very quickly indeed. Buyers may not expect it to be as aesthetically pleasing as a Volkswagen Golf or an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, but the Cruze should at least be able to hold its own next to the latest Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30 – which it singularly fails to do. However, the estate appears far more contemporary against its rivals, and is the most appealing Cruze from a visual aspect.

The Cruze hatchback, in particular, follows a well worn budget car path by offering slightly more metal than the class favourites. It’s between 100mm and 300mm longer than most family five-doors and its 413-litre boot offers between 15 and 25 percent more cargo space than the norm. 

Build quality on the Cruze represents a big step forward for Chevrolet. Shut lines are impressive for being less than 3mm wide.

 

INTERIOR

Chevrolet Cruze interior

The Chevrolet Cruze is a huge improvement over its Lacetti predecessor in this area, and while it’s easy to say that it needed to be, this cabin now compares well with class standards for both value-brand and mainstream models.

Its twin cockpit theme, in which the dashboard is bisected by a centre console to wrap around driver and passenger, is said to be inspired by the interior of the original 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, of which this sculptural theme was indeed a feature.

The Cruze has a cheap gearknob; too big, hard to hold and it looks low-rent. Why do so many car makers get such an important control wrong?

The driving environment is comfortable and, in the main, it doesn’t look or feel cheap. This isn’t a cockpit to sit back and admire, but it’s a perfectly adequate, functional and pleasant place. Mid-spec LT models come with an interesting mix of materials: leather on the steering wheel and gearlever, high-gloss black and aluminium-look plastics on the centre console and a particularly tactile and attractive upholstered finish on the dashboard.

There are a few hard, cheap-feeling fittings, such as the grab handles and glovebox plastics, but the switchgear feels hardy.

Space is plentiful up front, but the saloon model's plunging, coupé-apeing roofline impinges upon second-row headroom, and its notchback rear end limits your cargo carrying options. Better is the hatchback, with a generously commodious cabin – not the biggest in the class, but above average on passenger space – and a large boot. A Skoda Octavia would still shade it on sheer usefulness, but little else in the class is more practical.

Luggage capacity in the hatchback has been reduced by 37 litres to 413 litres compared with the saloon, but the absence of a bulkhead allows 883 litres to be stowed with the seats folded down. The Vauxhall Astra offers 75 litres less boot space but better rear passenger accommodation. For those whom space is the primary concern, the Cruze estate offers 500 litres with the seats down and 1478 litres with them folded, which is broadly competitive with its rivals.

Cabin stowage space is excellent, with four door bins, a big glovebox, cup and bottle holders, a lined dash-top box and a central storage cubby, which all help to make this a practical car to live with.

A small but pleasing detail is the provision of proper iPod sockets inside the centre cubby, complete with a channel under the lid to accommodate the cable. A shame, then, that the same level of thought hasn’t been applied to the sat-nav’s control logic, which is frustratingly opaque in some respects and compounded by a set of display colours that sometimes makes the location arrow hard to read.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Chevrolet Cruze engine block
There’s a surprising amount of space around the engine by modern standards

‘Cruze’ is an appropriate name here, for that is what the Chevrolet Cruze does best. Its refinement and easy-going motorway pace make for a decent long-distance tool whatever engine choice you make.

This remains the case despite power delivery from the 1.8 petrol not rewarding high-rev adventures with an encouraging soundtrack. Instead, you hear the suppressed thresh between 3500rpm and 4000rpm of a busy four-cylinder engine that isn’t particularly eager to rev beyond this point unless pressed. It’s better to row it along on its torque, even though this is no more than adequate, and wait for your cruising speed to arrive.

The 1.8 is a petrol engine that’s sub-standard in its performance, refinement and willingness

The Chevrolet 1.8’s unsparkling 10.2sec 0-60mph time reflects an engine that does the job, gruffly, and only if you’re committed. At least there’s an even spread of power to work with, as demonstrated by a set of fourth-gear 20mph increment acceleration times that all come in at under 11 seconds.

That said, even its budget rivals can’t muster an engine of this size or output for the money and, gruff or not, the 1.8-litre Cruze does not have to strain too hard to maintain station and make decent cross-country progress.

The 1.6 petrol offers similar attributes for less money. However, the fuel and emissions savings are marginal at best, and the loss of performance is noticeable, especially if the car is fully laden.

The 50mpg 2.0-litre diesel offers first-class flexibility. Mated to a six-speed manual gearbox, it can hit 60mph in 8.3sec and go on to 127mph (9.1sec and 129mph with the six-speed auto ’box). It's decently refined, too.

The most favourable engine in the line-up is the 1.7 VCDi, the only diesel option offered with the estate. It offers around 20 percent more urge than an equivalenty-priced 120g/km Focus, Volkswagen Golf, Hyundai i30 or Octavia. With a 0-60mph time of 9.9sec, its around a second faster than its rivals too. The 45kg heavier estate takes half a second longer over the benchmark sprint.

Left in fifth gear, the Cruze will pull from 50mph to 70mph in 8.3sec, whereas the Hyundai i30 takes 10.8sec – which makes the Chevy that little bit more flexible and less demanding in everyday use.

GM’s 1.7-litre diesel engine is insulated effectively and is quieter than the VW Group’s 1.6 TDI lump, both under load and when cruising. Its power delivery tails off above 4000rpm, but torque between 1800rpm and 3000rpm is plentiful, and GM’s six-speed gearbox makes it easy to keep the engine within that range.

The Chevy is easy to drive, despite an engine management set-up that causes the revs to decay slowly when you lift your foot from the throttle. A forgiving clutch and a co-operative gearchange compensate, although shifting to fifth requires deliberate manipulation.

We enjoyed better performance from the brakes, which resisted fade well under duress in our tests and provided decent feel and progression with it. But even in its most powerful petrol form, the Cruze is in no danger of being mistaken for a budget-priced sports saloon.

RIDE & HANDLING

Chevrolet Cruze cornering

Economy models at this end of the C-segment spectrum don’t generally excite or inspire. The better ones strike a sensible balance between directional precision and stability on the one hand and quiet compliance on the other. Unfortunately the Chevrolet Cruze isn't quite one of the better examples.

Whereas the really good ones (Focus and Golf specifically) do that with fluency and finesse, and with greater grip and composure than they’ll ever need, the Cruze simply does enough. It’s a car you could drive every day for five years without it provoking a single emotional reaction or agitated response.

The Cruze’s bodyshell is strong and prepared for roll-over and rear-end crash legislation that not all rivals will be equipped to comply with

The car rides with plenty of soft, absorptive comfort. It has more than enough tyre sidewall and wheel travel to deal with broken surfaces and expansion joints quietly and without disturbing those in the cabin. The damping is adequate but not quite sufficiently well tuned to return the body of the car to a level equilibrium as smoothly or effortlessly as the class’s best dynamic performers.

Fairly wide tracks help to keep body roll in check most of the time and deliver consistent steering precision to the wheels. The electro-hydraulic steering is light and easy to use; it’s short on the feedback necessary to involve on a meaningful level but well enough paced to make the car feel both manoeuvrable and stable.

Narrow tyres and a good stability control system make for confident, secure handling in the wet. When the car does run out of lateral grip, it understeers – just as any car in this class would. It reaches its limits a little sooner than some and is a little less balanced and controllable on the limit than the very best in this class. 

Will any of that matter to the average Cruze driver? You wouldn’t think so. This just isn’t a car for keen drivers and, as such, baseline dynamic competence, security and ease of use are probably all it needs.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Chevrolet Cruze

Depreciation is almost always the biggest running cost, and that can apply especially to budget cars, whose fundamental draw is price rather than the car itself. That the Chevrolet Cruze is not without appeal should ensure a depreciation curve considerably less precipitous than was suffered by the Lacetti, something helped by it having air-con or climate control as standard across the entire range. However, it is worth noting that the hatch will fare far better than the saloon, whose value will plummet far faster.

Fuel consumption and emissions for the 1.8 petrol aren’t bad for an engine of this size, and insurance groupings are fair. But the cheaper-than-average purchase price certainly doesn’t indicate a car that will be cheaper than average to run. A sixth gear would undoubtedly improve the 1.8-litre Chevrolet’s fuel consumption, but the 31.2mpg that we achieved on test was respectable.

The Cruze is cheap to run, but makes more sense as a used buy

Officially, the 1.6 petrol claims very similar economy figures to the 1.8, but in our experience, in real world driving, you end up working it harder to keep up with traffic and therefore use more fuel.

The 2.0-litre diesel’s 50.3mpg claimed average is reasonably good, but mainstream rivals tend to go further on a gallon these days, which also equates to lower CO2 emissions; that does it no favours in the eyes of company car buyers.

Better is the 1.7-litre diesel which emits 117g/km making it far more appealing to tax-concious drivers. Although we were unable to match the claimed 62.7mpg (we rarely do), a 46.7mpg test figure is respectable, and 10 per cent better than the Focus 1.6 TDCi we have previously recorded. The problem is entry-level diesel versions of the class's elite are only £1000 more expensive, which is close enough to lure a good portion of customers away. Adjusting the price for the difference in spec, a Focus 1.6 TDCi 115 Edge has a virtually identical price tag.

Even considering the Cruze’s fine engine, strong performance and practicality, you can’t help but think that it needs to be even cheaper. You’d certainly still be looking for a healthy discount from your Chevrolet dealer to be sure of getting ultimate value for money. 

As with most budget brands, a strong warranty comes as standard – five years in the case of Chevrolet, two more than mainstream rivals and two more than the likes of Skoda, too. It’s still overshadowed by Kia’s seven-year coverage, though.

VERDICT

3 star Chevrolet Cruze

The Chevrolet Cruze has been conceived to provide conventionally engineered, contemporary family transport at a relatively keen price, and up to a point it delivers. Its chief drawback, as a petrol car, is an engine that’s sub-standard in its performance, refinement and willingness. The diesel is a much better bet, improving refinement, willingness and economy – although its 50.3mpg claimed average is no more than reasonable in this day and age.

This Chevrolet certainly isn’t a thrill to drive, either, but it’s capable, comfortable and civilised enough to make a decent motorway car. Cruising is what the Cruze does best, especially with the more relaxed diesel motor under the bonnet.

The competent, practical Chevy lacks charisma in this stella class of car

The cabin is attractive and spacious, too – more so than many of the Cruze’s mainstream rivals. On the whole it comes reasonably well equipped, and there are plenty of thoughtful touches that make the car easy to live with. Quality is okay, heightened by the use of cloth inserts across the dash and doors, although they may get grubby after time.

The Chevy also scores with the strength of its structure and contemporary styling that’s vastly more appealing than its predecessor’s. Quality is much improved as well.

However, the Cruze's ultimate success is blunted by the fact that, at best, it is no better than rivals from Skoda, Hyundai and Kia. The Skoda Octavia remains a strong choice in terms of space and quality, with strong offers making it great value.

Meanwhile, the ever-improving Korean brands are gaining in all areas, providing a strong challenge to Ford and Vauxhall.

It’s a tough ask for the Cruze, but it’s not without merits, especially in hatchback, diesel form. The estate is arguably even more relevant in a competitive class, and is our pick of the UK range.

Chevrolet Cruze 2011-2015 First drives