With the spectre of financial collapse now a fading figure in the rear-view mirror, General Motors has started to drive some impressive new vehicles off the assembly lines and they are accelerating impressive profits.
Now, the really hard work begins.
Somehow, the General needs to convince nearly two generations of American motorists that it is producing cars that will stand up to and perhaps even exceed the vehicles they have come to know and trust. You know the ones. They come from Europe and Japan.
This point was driven home to me recently as I was testing the new front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Cruze, an impressive compact sedan that came across as an entirely viable alternative to the nearly ubiquitous Civics and Corollas.
( I can’t personally vouch for quality and durability, but this car has been through more than four million miles of testing and it has been on sale in Europe and Asia for more than a year before its recent release in the United States. If there were any serious bugs, I believe they would have been reported by now.)
Anyway, the Cruze drew attention from a couple of 30-something men, who automatically assumed that it was simply an updated version of the late and unlamented, rental-fleet-quality Chevy Cobalt.
They remained skeptical and unimpressed, unwilling to listen seriously as I explained that the Cruze is actually a globally developed close relative of the all-new, semi-electric Chevrolet Volt and the European Opel Astra.
One simply said his next car would be a 9-year-old BMW, the other said he would put his money into a proven Japanese car.
If someone could open up their minds — and this is what the General needs to do — the skeptics would find that the Cruze has the roominess and utility of a mid-size sedan, a comfortable interior and drivability equal to or exceeding comparable compacts traditionally accepted as the cream of the crop.
And, most appreciated, it has sound-damping equipment placed throughout the vehicle that keeps outside noise to a minimum and even muffles engine noise when it gets into the upper end of its power band. The result is a quiet, upscale environment inside the Cruze.
Admittedly, the car provided for my inspection was a top-of-the-line 2011 Cruze LTZ with a sport-tuned suspension, comfortable leather seats and lots of luxury features.
So, I can’t comment on the entry-level model and its slightly less powerful,1.8-liter four-cylinder engine as a source of driving pleasure. But I do know that it will be as practical and, with a base price of $16,995, even more economical to own.
The LTZ gets the Cruze’s upscale powerplant, a turbocharged 1.4-liter, four-cylnder engine with direct fuel injection that generates 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It is teamed with a six-speed automatic transmission.
A six-speed manual shifter is available only on the entry-level Cruze and a special-edition Eco model that stretches the Cruze LTZ’s EPA estimate of 24 mpg city/36 mpg highway to 28 mpg city/42 mpg highway. The Eco Cruze combines the turbo engine with taller gearing, low rolling resistance tires, an enhanced aerodynamcs package and, of course, the manual shifter.
For the record, the best I could do was 24 miles per gallon in suburbia and 31 mpg on the interstate. Not bad, but not exactly what is promised.
In routine driving, the Cruze I piloted had adequate, if not peppy, acceleration and was a relaxed cruiser out on the open road. It didn’t even start to break a sweat at 75 mph.
That said, even with turbo assist the little engine’s 1.4 liters were hard pressed occasionally to muster up the necessary acceleration for merging onto fast-moving freeways or to pass on two-lane blacktops.
And speaking of two-lane blacktops, the sport-tuned Cruze acquits itself well when the road starts looking like the letter “S” over and over again Credit the sport-tuned MacPherson strut suspension up front, the Z-link setup at the rear and four-wheel disc brakes. The electric power steering was a little light for my tastes, but it was responsive to my commands.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, despite its seemingly generous dimensions, the Cruze still is a compact. Put two large persons in the front bucket seats and the rear-seat passengers will definitely find their legs in a bind.
Additionally, the front seats cannot be moved too far back or it is not possible to fold the 60/40 rear seatbacks forward.
On the other hand, the trunk is surprisingly large, able to swallow 15.4 cubic feet of luggage, golf bags or whatever.
Now, to the specifics of the LTZ I drove:
The well-equipped LTZ is available for $21,875. Add in a few options and the price rises to $23,935.
Standard equipment includes satellite radio, a port for the Ipod, cruise control, power outside mirrors, Bluetooth hands-free cell phone technology, six-way power driver’s seat,, six-speaker stereo system and the OnStar emergency communication and information system.
The extensive list of safety equipment includes seat belts,air bags, side curtains, a rollover sensing and protection system, collapsible pedals, stability control, traction control and rear parking assist.
Optional equipment on the test car was the RS package ($695), which adds sporty trim and fog lamps; a premium sound system ($445) and a compact spare tire $100), which replaces the standard tire sealant and inflator kit.
After a week and several hundred miles behind the wheel, it was obvious that this GM-made compact has the goods to take on all comers.
The big question now is how to convince two generations of automotive skeptics and cynics.