The six-speed automatic is pretty smooth on the upshift, but I sensed some lash — basically some slack — in the drivetrain in the first car I drove. It was less pronounced in the others, so it might have been because these were early-production models. More prevalent was a hesitation in dropping down to passing gear when I jabbed the accelerator. Modern automatics are "learning" transmissions designed to adapt to your driving style, and drivers of all styles were hopping in and out of the test cars.
For this reason, it's possible the transmissions didn't know which way was up, but I've been criticizing GM for this characteristic in its six-speed automatics — both front- and rear-wheel-drive applications — since their introduction, so I have my doubts. Not everyone will notice this behavior, or care, but it's definitely worth looking for when you go for a test drive. There is a manual mode you can activate by moving the gear selector to the left and pushing it forward and back. Here, too, there was some delay, and it seems to step down multiple gear changes sequentially rather than jump directly from, say, 5th to 3rd.
The Cruze takes to the curves ably, with a competent suspension and good body control. The electrically assisted power steering is a far cry from GM's early efforts, which located an assist motor on the steering column rather than the rack. The feel is much more natural and well tuned for all speeds.
Critics will focus on Chevrolet's use of what's arguably a semi-independent rear suspension rather than an independent design, a variation on a torsion beam supplemented by a Z-link Watt's linkage, which keeps the suspension centered. At Cars.com we focus on the results, not the formula, and the Cruze behaved quite well in spirited driving on normal roads. I wouldn't call the Cruze's handling exceptionally sporty like that of the Mazda3, but the foundation for sport tuning is clearly there. A track test will be the final arbiter, but most people don't drive on a track, so I'll say the mission has been accomplished. The compact rear suspension design is partly responsible for the large trunk and accommodating backseat.
I rode around in the backseat and was impressed with the ride, which can vary from the front, especially in a small car. Though the long front-seat travel can make the backseat legroom appear limited in photos, it's actually quite good. Most drivers and front passengers don't need that much legroom and can share.
It was reasonably easy to converse with front occupants, though occasionally some noise crept in. The cabin is quiet overall, which made a couple of sounds stand out: There's some wind noise along the B-pillars when you hit and exceed 60 mph; this might actually be from the side mirrors, but I really heard it right next to my head when driving. The tires also tended to sing on grooved pavement and rumble on coarse asphalt. I detected no real difference between the 17-inch Continentals and the 18-inch Michelins, both all-season tires.
The Cruze features 10 standard airbags: two frontal and two knee airbags for the front occupants, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for all four outboard seats, and a pair of curtains that cover the side windows. Also standard are antilock brakes and the StabiliTrak electronic stability system with traction control. Front disc and rear drum brakes are standard, and rear discs can be had on the LTZ or as an option on the LT.
Chevrolet provides OnStar as standard equipment with six months' free service, after which a subscription fee applies. Rear sonar parking assist is a notable safety option. For all the standard safety features, see the Safety and Security section on the Standard Equip. & Specs page.
Standard features on the base LS trim level include the manual transmission, air conditioning, an analog auxiliary input for MP3 players, three months of XM Satellite Radio service, and power windows and locks with remote keyless entry.
The 1LT adds the turbo engine and automatic transmission. The 2LT adds alloy wheels, a heated power driver's seat, leather upholstery throughout, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, Bluetooth, a USB port for controlling an iPod through the stereo, steering-wheel stereo controls and remote engine start.
The LTZ adds 18-inch alloy wheels, cruise control, automatic climate control, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and rear parking assist.
The parking assist can also be had as an option. Some other options include a Pioneer premium stereo and a navigation system with a hard drive that can store MP3 files and allows you to pause and resume a radio broadcast.
Cruze in the Market
One of the highest compliments you can pay a car is to say it feels more expensive than it is, and that's the case with the Cruze versions I drove. Note that I'm tempering the praise because the minimum base price of the trim levels I tested was $20,675.
Chevrolet learned its lesson with the Cobalt, and the Cruze is more than simply competitive in its class — as any new model must be to draw buyers until its next redesign. Whenever a new model debuts, we look at its long-term prospects, and our predictions depend on how well the vehicle covers the basics. It needs a solid structure, passable and not trendy design, usable interior space and a competent suspension. These are all things that can't be changed — at least not easily — until the next redesign, which is years away.
Any problem a shopper might have with the Cruze — perhaps not enough power, not sporty enough handling, the wrong mix of features — can be addressed practically at any time with a new engine or engine tuning, more aggressive suspension rates or a reworking of the feature packaging. For too long, GM slogged through with a value proposition based on things like extra space and low price. The Cruze is a balanced package offering a lot of everything. This is exactly where Chevrolet needs to be.