It was not that long ago that opting for a domestically-built compact car meant sacrificing a great many things in pursuit of a bargain. Vehicles like the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze emphatically demonstrate that those days are now behind us. The new Chevrolet Cruze, introduced last year as a replacement for the Chevrolet Cobalt, is a quantum leap forward from General Motors in terms of its approach to the affordable small car market. Stylish, comfortable, efficient and built to a quality standard previously unavailable from Chevrolet in an entry-level product, the Cruze erases the memories of a time when being assigned a Detroit-born compact at the airport rental counter elicited internal groans of despair.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze 2LT RS Road Test and Review
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Competition
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze finds itself in a segment that is currently going through a transition. Entry-level compact cars are increasingly divided into two distinct camps. The first is the old guard, represented by designs such as the Toyota Corolla and the Nissan Sentra, sedans that offer competent but unexciting low-frills platforms that deliver a reasonable ride and respectable fuel mileage. Next are the growing ranks of the tech-laden, attractively styled and ultra-efficient small cars such as the Ford Fiesta and the Hyundai Elantra. The Chevrolet Cruze fits snugly into the latter grouping, and as such enjoys an advantage over several traditional sales leaders in the compact category.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Pricing and Trim Levels
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze starts out in LS trim and retails for $16,720. Four additional trim levels are available - 1LT, 2LT, LTZ and ECO - with the LTZ model representing the most expensive and best equipped version of the Cruze (MSRP $23,110). The ECO edition is focused on delivering as many miles per gallon as possible, although all editions of the Chevrolet sedan offer solid EPA ratings.
The model we put through its paces for a week was a Canadian-spec Cruze LT Turbo+, which offers a level of equipment that is almost identical to the U.S. Cruze 2LT trim. Our vehicle also had the optional RS package installed, bringing its U.S. MSRP to just under $21,500. We'll break down what features the 2LT trim and RS package add to the Cruze as we take a more detailed look at the compact sedan.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Exterior
One of the first things you notice about the Chevrolet Cruze is that you notice it. That's not a redundant sentence - the Cruze is a compact sedan that rises above the anonymity that previously plagued the affordable car segment thanks to its bold design and pleasing proportions. A lowered stance gives the Chevrolet a performance flair, thanks to the sport suspension that comes standard with the 2LT trim level, and the RS package enhances the Cruze's chiseled sheet metal by adding side skirts, a rear spoiler and aggressive bumpers front and rear.
The aerodynamic improvements made by the RS package are joined by sculpted fog lamps sunk into the lower front molding, a discrete red "RS" badge on the lower front fenders and, on the model we drove, five-spoke 18-inch wheels that help round out the small car's visual impact. It's interesting to note that a mere five years ago, 18-inch wheels and tires were reserved for GM's sport sedans. Modern style now demands big rubber and rims on even the most practical of commuters.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Interior
The RS package also makes its presence known inside the car, where an upgraded set of gauges are positioned directly in front of the driver and come with pleasant blue-tinged illumination. The dual-cowl design houses the tachometer and speedometer, with a small LED display nestled between the two that displays other vehicle information including fuel efficiency details, the trip odometer and of course a digital speed readout. The interface for this screen is located on the same stalk used to operate the vehicle's high beams, mounted to the left of the steering wheel. The two-button design is not intuitive to use, and had us guessing as to whether we had selected the exact readout we were looking for on more than one occasion.
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze's center stack is laid out in a simple fashion that will be familiar to anyone who has driven a recent General Motors product. A grouping of flat buttons interact with the Cruze's Sirius/XM satellite radio, CD player and USB / AUX line-in, while larger knobs located at the bottom of the stack handle the heating and air conditioning controls. Another LED screen sits above sedan's entertainment interface, and it displays information relating to the track or station that is currently playing, as well as the climate control settings that are selected.
It's also possible to use this particular screen to access vehicle settings (such as menu languages and locking features) and manage Bluetooth pairing with your mobile phone. The latter is accomplished in part through Chevrolet's voice-recognition system - as is dialing through the Cruze 2LT's included OnStar phone service - two activities which repeatedly frustrated us in terms of the number of steps required and the system's inability to consistently understand our spoken commands.
In general, the passenger compartment of the Chevrolet Cruze is as easy on the eyes as the exterior, with a number of small design touches coming together to create a more upscale experience than one might expect at the sedan's price point. This includes avoiding hard plastics wherever possible, with parts of the dash and the front door panels instead covered with a tight fabric mesh that serves as a welcome accent. The vehicle's front cloth seats were reasonably comfortable and did a good job of providing support, while the rear accommodations were spacious enough that two six-foot passengers had no complaints at the end of a 30 minute trip around town. Popping the Cruze's trunk reveals a genuinely enormous amount of storage (15 cubic feet in total) that can be expanded via folding down the rear seatbacks.
Optional equipment available with the Cruze but not found on our test vehicle includes a sunroof, an upgraded sound system and a navigation system.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is available with a pair of four-cylinder engine options that represent two different technological approaches to getting from point A to point B. The base Cruze features a 1.8-liter unit that develops 138 ponies, while the all other versions of the car come with a 1.4-liter, turbocharged motor that matches the larger mill in terms of horsepower while adding an additional 10 lb-ft of torque for a total of 148 lb-ft. Despite being more powerful, the 1.4-liter turbo delivers the best fuel economy rating of the two, checking in with an estimated 42-mpg highway and 28-mpg city when found in ECO trim.
The Cruze 2LT that we drove featured the turbocharged motor matched with the optional six-speed automatic transmission, a combination that Chevrolet says will deliver 38-mpg on the highway and 26-mpg around town. We saw a combined 30-mpg during mostly city driving, which was impressive.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Driving Impressions
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze's turbocharger is largely transparent to the driver, with no real appreciable lag between putting the pedal down and power delivery. Chevrolet has succeeded in making the 1.4-liter motor feel like a larger engine without exacting a fuel mileage penalty or introducing any compromise into the experience from behind the wheel. While the Cruze is no rocket - the engine doesn't explode so much as pull slow and steady towards the redline - acceleration is brisk enough to inspire confidence from stoplight to stoplight. Torque comes on low in the powerband and it never interferes with the Cruze's steering even when the pedal is mashed to the floor. On the highway, passing power is also available with relatively little drama, although the surge traditionally associated with turbocharged engines is absent from the Cruze's power plant.
The six-speed automatic transmission delivered smooth, timely shifts under most circumstances. On occasion, applying the throttle while moving through a low-speed corner introduced a hesitation of a half-second or so as the gearbox puzzled out which ratio would be most appropriate. The six-speed tranny also featured a manual mode, which worked well enough as long as the driver provided his or her shift input roughly 300 rpm before the desired gear change.
Moving back and forth from the manual mode to the standard automatic operation of the transmission occasionally introduced rougher shifts, as well as more abrupt power delivery even on light throttle tip-in. The problem was not consistent, but when it did present itself it occurred exclusively after re-engaging Drive following a period of self-shifting. The low-mileage Cruze we were driving had yet to be completely broken in (less than 500 miles were on the odometer when it arrived at our door), which could explain this unusual behavior.
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze 2LT's lowered sport suspension was quite comfortable, even on the broken pavement that is an all-too-common feature of Montreal's roadways. From within the Cruze's quiet cabin the sedan's shocks and springs also delivered far less understeer and better road holding than one would expect in an entry-level sedan, with the Chevrolet almost egging drivers on through twistier sections of the road. The vehicle's electric power steering provided good feedback, while its four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes (not available on all editions of the Cruze) added confident stopping power to the mix.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Safety
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze 2LT came equipped with front airbags, side curtain airbags that protect all vehicle occupants from head injury as well as front and rear side impact airbags. A knee airbag is also included free of charge for the driver. StabiliTrak stability control and traction control are part of the Cruze's list of standard features, as is a three-month subscription to OnStar's full range of safety and accident assistance services.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze: Final Thoughts
There's a lot to like about the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze. The compact sedan is affordable, it manages to offer excellent fuel economy without sacrificing drivability and it offers an attractively designed interior and exterior package. The Chevrolet Cruze is also comfortable in terms of both passenger room and ride quality, and the cabin is surprisingly quiet for such an inexpensive car.
The American public has responded to the introduction of a high quality entry-level Chevrolet with enthusiasm, making the Cruze one of GM's best-selling models over the course of the past year. This is particularly noteworthy given the fact that the Cruze is facing some stiff competition in the compact segment thanks to a renewed investment in small cars from a wide range of different manufacturers.
What We Like About the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze:
• Frugal fuel consumption
• Good real-world power from a small turbocharged engine
• Smooth and quiet ride, roomy interior
• Upscale look and feel to go with entry-level pricing
We Aren't So Hot On:
• Clunky Bluetooth voice interface
• Having to buy replacement 18-inch tires