For decades, Chevrolet filled out its lineup with compact cars that were adequate, but arguably not on par with segment leaders like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. But change is afoot at GM, and the 2012 Cruze is arguably better in many respects than those models—and with the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus, and Mazda3, it’s one of the segment leaders.
The Cruze was an all-new design for the U.S. last year. While it’s conservative on the outside, the interior makes a strong presentation, with rich materials, some stunning two-tone combinations, and an upscale feel. GM has borrowed some of the design cues from its larger Malibu sedan, and the Cruze’s cabin has an almost mid-size feel, with enough space for four adults (five in a pinch), plus excellent adjustability for drivers and a huge trunk.
Going just by the specs page might lead to a little confusion; there are two four-cylinder engines offered in the Cruze, but it’s the smaller of the two that’s the ‘premium’ pick. The base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine performs fine, though it’s a little bit loud when pressed and you do need to rev it to move quickly. But step up to the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four (1.4T) that’s offered throughout much of the lineup, as well as in the high-mileage Cruze Eco, and you’ll find that it’s not only smoother and more refined but produces more power down low and pairs well with the six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is offered, too). EPA ratings are best for the 1.4T, and in Cruze Eco form—with weight savings and special aero improvements—it gets 42 mpg highway.
In most other ways, the Cruze feels almost almost like a mid-sizer. You probably won’t call it nimble or tossable, but its isolated cabin and absorbent ride will please most day-to-day users. It’s one of the quietest vehicles in its class, damping out road and wind noise and soaking up major road shocks and potholes well—even if its ride is on the taut side. Seating is a strong point; you’ll find more front headroom than most vehicles in its class, and it’s a great pick for taller drivers as there’s so much rearward seat travel. Just beware, you’ll be crunching the knees of those in the back seat—which is, otherwise good for two adults across.
The Cruze is assembled in Ohio, but it’s a ‘world car,’ with specialized versions sold in Europe, Asia, and such. The structure has earned top crash-tests everywhere, and the U.S. market is no exception. Safety equipment is top-notch in its class, too, with standard side-thorax bags and knee bags, and Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and a USB port are offered on most models. Remote start, heated leather seats, automatic climate control, and a screen-based nav system are also available.