When we learned that the Dart will be dropped, we started looking at the competition...
by David Zatz
The Chevrolet Cruze is American made, and has good gas mileage and handling, with a long menu of advanced safety and comfort items. Like the Dart, the little Chevy is comfortable, quiet, starts out cheap and gets expensive when loaded with state of the art gizmos.
The Dart Aero and Cruze both use turbocharged 1.4 liter engines, and both have six-speed manuals and automatics, with optional eight-inch center displays and seven-inch trip computers. There are some big differences, though.
The Cruze has a smoother ride on city streets, but seems firmer on highways; with the Premier package (17 inch wheels, multi-link rear suspension), it can whip around turns more than quickly enough for most people. It was odd that this car, so quiet, soft, and refined car around town, felt so stiff on the highway. Wind noise is happily minor; road noise was fairly high. We consistently scraped the front on our driveway, which the Dart handled fine.
The Cruze’s light weight, almost 200 pounds lighter than the Dart, helps at the pump, as does a stop-start system that shuts off the engine at traffic lights. That system is quite conservative, only rarely operating; and isn’t available with the stick-shift.
The Dart has just one model with a 1.4 turbo; for the Cruze, a US-built 1.4 turbo is the sole engine. Our test car had a six-speed automatic. A manual-shift mode was controlled from a switch on the shifter, which had no stop between Drive and Manual. That led to a few “oops, I’m still in first” moments.
The 1.4 turbo helps the Cruze to turn in high gas mileage numbers; while the Dart Aero is rated at 28/41 mpg, the typical Dart gets 23/33, while the least thrifty Cruze is rated at 30/40 mpg. I was able to match the EPA ratings for the Cruze when I drove very gently; if you exceed 65 on the highway, or put your foot down too hard, you won’t come close to 40, and for that matter, 30 in the city is hard to get; realistically, I’d say most people will end up at around 27 city, 34 highway, which isn’t bad at all.
The downside of a tiny engine with a big turbo is that you don’t get instant motion when you want to launch quickly or pass, though it’s not noticeable most of the time. Floor it, though, and it takes a second or two to generate any real thrust, whether you’re at a traffic light or on the highway. You do get good acceleration after the turbo spools up, and if you are already at speed and the turbo is spinning, acceleration comes more rapidly (though on the highway, you need to wait for a downshift).
It’s a fine car to drive gently, and many drivers may not even notice anything being different. If you go gradually, the turbo lag isn’t noticeable. I tried taking a 30-mile trip as a typical, not-testing-a-car, just-commuting, laid-back driver, and the Cruze behaved exactly as though it was a conventional car. Even if you just stomp on it, the delay is not unsafe, if you expect it. Once the turbo gets up to speed, you get strong, consistent power throughout the rest of the engine’s range.
On the highway, there is power in reserve, but the transmission downshifts so the engine gets to 3,000 to 4,000 rpm, and then you get passing power. Sometimes I admit I found myself hitting the pedal more sharply or further than I needed to, to spur a downshift, on hills or on the highway. It’s all invisible when the cruise control is on.
The front seats are surprisingly comfortable in this day of leather stretched over concrete and headrests that push the driver’s head forward. The Cruze’s headrests stay where they should, and the front seats have ample padding and some side support. The headrests even slide out to cover more ground.
The rear seats are not quite as hospitable, despite heated seats and a flip-down console. The padding is noticeably thinner back here, and the roof isn’t that high up; getting in isn’t easy for a tall adult, either. The rear is not quite as well appointed as the front.
The Cruze has more legroom than the Dart, but it’s also a few inches narrower, side-to-side. This isn’t obvious from the interior and shouldn’t be an issue unless you try to fit three people into the back; the center console is a bit smaller, too. Legroom is usually more important.
Personally, I’d like to know how they made the trunk so large — and is it a side effect of having an efficient hatchback version? Either way, the trunk is considerably longer inside than you would expect, with room for a large “compact spare” and then the battery and computer. Why, you may ask, did they put those things into the trunk? The battery is heavy, and having it further back helps with the front/rear weight balance, for better handling, ride, and tire wear; and it will live much longer if it isn’t in the heat of the engine bay. The lower heat and lack of ambient dirt also helps the computer stay alive.
Storage spaces are well designed and clever; you can wirelessly charge your phone with an accessory, or store it into a little pocket that will firmly and safely hold phones from the iPhone 4S to bigger-than-a-6-Plus. The dual cup/mugholders have no padding and no way to hold smaller bottles firmly in place. USB and auxiliary ports are right out in the open, handy to reach but not so handy if you want to hide a gizmo feeding the audio system (not really an issue if you just use a USB thumb drive). The map pockets aren’t really serious.
Interior styling on our car was fairly severe, with its black trim relieved by light gray contrasting stitches and chrome trim. The outside styling is perhaps overdone, but that’s not uncommon; it’s distinctive without being ugly.
The gauges are clear and easy to read, despite the excessive 160-mph sweep of the speedometer; the tachometer swings all the way to 8,000 rpm even though you can’t go beyond 6,500. When the stop-start system is in play and the engine is off, the tachometer swings to “auto stop” rather than going to zero, so you know the engine will restart if you take your foot off the brake, move the steering wheel, or look at it funny. There are analog fuel and temperature gauges, easy to read. I get annoyed with GM’s traditional bright yellow warning about whether the passenger side airbag is on or off.
The steering wheel has cruise controls, (on premium packages) trip computer and voice controls, lane maintenance, and heated-steering-wheel buttons, with audio on the back. My complaint is with the headlight knob, which defaults to automatic — you can leave it on the parking lights or headlights settings, but not off. That’s a turn-to-the-left-and-let-it-snap-back routine, which might be okay if GM’s headlight sensor algorithm was better.
Pretty much everything is well backlit at night and the labels are clear and easy to read.
The MyLink system has some odd design choices that make it harder to use than it needs to be, though not exceptionally so. In artist view mode, it insists on showing the artist underneath every album; generally it’s easy to read and to use, not to mention very snazzy in its graphics — perhaps the snazziest system I’ve seen so far. It was a little annoying to have automatic album repeat, and to have to work my way back up from song view to album view to artist view, and if I went one too far, to start back at A again.
AirPlay and Android Auto are supported via USB, by linking up the phone and pressing the Projection button. The system seems flawless, letting you use Apple’s better music navigation system, though normally it’s easier to just drive with a USB thumb drive in the slot instead of putting a cable onto your phone. Built in maps are more convenient, too, because turn by turn directions show up on the driver information center between the gauges. (Darts don’t have Airplay or Android support yet.)
Our Cruze had the optional stereo, and the sound was amazing; the bass was there, thumping where it should but not where it shouldn’t, on the default settings. The clarity was fine enough to pick up all sorts of imperfections on a digitized recording from vinyl. Some systems are only good at one genre or another, but the optional Chevy system was good across the board. This is one option to check off (“Bose premium nine speaker system”).
The top-trim driver information center (DIC), or trip computer, is a seven-inch model like that in the Dart; depending on trim level, it’s operated from a stalk or the steering wheel and shows trip information (miles driven and fuel economy) for two trips, along with oil life, 50-mile economy, and tire pressures; allows for setting preferences, including a speed alert (e.g. for 75 mph); shows navigation or music settings; and has the turn by turn navigation if you choose it. It only goes on when the engine is running, and also shows the gear (the gear number if you’re in manumatic mode). It doesn’t show transmission fluid or antifreeze temperature.
If you want safety gadgets, you have the same panoply as Chrysler: blind spot detection, rear cross path (invented by Chrysler), front and rear distance sensors, front collision warning/prevention (pioneered by GM), and even lane maintenance up to 112 mph, if it can see the stripes. Most of these work the same way as their Chrysler equivalents.
Visibility is good in pretty much all directions, with relatively small blind spots in the rear quarters and a high trunk.
The Cruze has a good deal of interior space and a massive trunk for a compact car, with high gas mileage ratings, good handling (on Premier at least), a quiet interior, and lots of available gadgetry. You can get one for $16,620, but what did ours cost? More...
The Cruze is the top of the line, carrying a $23,995 price tag, with destination. That gets you the superior rear suspension, two free oil changes and tire rotations, four wheel disk brakes, stop-start system, automatic transmission, knee, head-curtain, and side-impact airbags, backup camera, heated mirrors with turn signals, 17-inch wheels, a 16-inch spare, projection headlamps, power windows, eight-way power driver’s seat, air, cruise, heated front seats, tilt/telescope steering column, USB port, six-speaker audio, remote starter, seven-inch information system, CarPlay and Android Auto, satellite radio, a WiFi hot-spot, and five years of OnStar Basic emergency services.
The warranty is 3-36 for the whole car and 5/60 for the powertrain, with roadside assistance.
Options on our car were pricey, starting with the $1,995 Sun and Sound and Nav package. That had the power sunroof, eight inch touch-screen with navigation, and nine-speaker premium audio. $995 bought the RS package, with a body kit, labels, 18-inch wheels, fog lamps, and a spoiler. Another $865 bought express power windows, automatic a/c, auto-dimming rear view mirror, wireless device charger, heated rear seats, and AC outlet.
Finally, the safety pack was $790 and included automatic high beams, rear park assist, a following distance indicator so you know if someone is right behind you, forward collision alert (but not “smart cruise” or forward parking), rear cross traffic alert (very handy in parking lots), lane-keep assistance, and blind-spot alert. The last item was $395 for the red paint, bringing the cost to $29,035.
The car is made in Lordstown, Ohio, with 60% US/Canadian parts including the engine and transmission. Engineering was global, led by GM’s South Korean group with Opel and GM North America included.
I found the Cruze to be a pleasant and friendly car, particularly around town; on the highway, it was stiffer, bumpier, and a little twitchy (without the RS package’s 18 inch wheels, this may not be an issue). It was enjoyable despite the turbo lag and some odd control choices, with unusually well padded seats. It’s worth checking out if you’re in the market for a small car.
* 2.4 Dart; 2.0 Mazda3. Mazda 2.5 yields 184 (185 lb-ft). Dart has two less powerful engines. Dart Aero is rated at 25 city, 36 highway.
** Lower figure is Premier model only.
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