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Critics of the Chevrolet Volt often support their animosity toward it by proffering the argument that the plug-in hybrid hatchback is a $41,000 car that competes with sub-$20G conventional compacts, and who’s going to buy something like that?
While this position doesn’t quite meet the standards of Aristotelian logic, let’s assume for a moment that they are correct, and that potential customers are seriously cross-shopping one of the most technologically advanced vehicles ever created against run-of-the-mill econoboxes. If this is true, then they don’t have to travel very far because the Volt’s stiffest competition is parked right next to it in the showroom.
The Cruze is Chevy’s latest compact sedan, and the replacement for the unimpressive and unprofitable Cobalt. Designed and engineered primarily at GM’s outposts in Europe and Asia, the compact sedan went on sale in those markets in 2009 and has proven to be a sales success.
It comes to us for the 2011 model year with few changes and a starting price of $16,995. It is also eerily similar in size to the Volt. In fact, the two cars share an identical wheelbase. This isn’t a coincidence.
The platform that underpins the Cruze is the one that was used to create the Volt, and the two have more than a few parts in common beneath the skin. They are so similar that if you Google “Execs Drive the Volt to Capitol Hill for Bailout Hearings” you’ll find pictures of former GM CEO Rick Wagoner behind the wheel of a prototype that is essentially a Cruze outfitted with the Volt’s hybrid drivetrain.
Despite these commonalities the Cruze maintains a distinct identity. It has a neat and tidy exterior design that’s generally unadventurous, but features a slight wedge and bulging arches that give it a little visual muscle. The interior, on the other hand, may actually be Chevy’s best. The collection of arcs and polygons falling somewhere between the Bowtie Brand and Buick in visual appeal, and all of it is finished to a surprisingly high-quality. The designer of the instrument cluster alone should be given the job of redesigning the one in the Camaro -- if not that car’s entire cabin.
Front seat occupants of Brobdingnagian size are accommodated nicely by seats that slide all way back at the expense of rear passengers who already face a shortage of leg and headroom, the latter a result of a deceptively swoopy roofline. Installing child seats and the children that use them is not a lot a lot of fun in this four-door. Chevy brags that the Cruze has more interior space than a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic, but I think my three-year-old has toys cars that can make the same claim. The 15.4 cubic-foot trunk is relatively enormous, however, which comparison shoppers will note is 50 percent larger than the cargo bay in the battery-laden Volt and a slight bit bigger than the one in the midsize Chevy Malibu.
On the features front, the Cruze has come to our shores to play. OnStar telematics with turn-by-turn directions and XM radio come standard on all of the five available trim levels, as do 10 airbags and stability control. Bluetooth, a USB connection, in dash navigation and ultrasonic backup sensors are among the options that pop up across the range. There’s also an air quality sensor that monitors pollution and automatically switches the climate control system to its recirculate mode if smog levels start rising in the cabin.
The base Cruze contributes to local ozone alerts with a 136 horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission, while more expensive models are fitted with a 138 hp 1.4-liter turbo that outguns the larger motor in the torque department 148 lb-ft to 123 lb-ft, a 20 percent difference. And a compact powerplant it is.
I was shocked by how much empty space there is under the hood of the top of the line Cruze LTZ that I tested. It’s like looking into the engine bay of a scaled-down ’66 El Camino with an inline-6. The road surface is fully on display. I’m now less impressed by the engineers that managed to fit the Volt’s tri-motor powertrain in there, but only slightly so.
The engine itself emits a pleasing note, and more than enough power for around town duties. On the highway it’s a quiet cruiser, but generates more sound than fury when you ask it to pass another car. It’s not slow, but could prove to be an embarrassment if a high-performance Cobalt SS pulls alongside and challenges you to a grudge match, especially if you’ve shelled out for the sporty $695 RS appearance package. You’ll have more luck keeping pace on a twisty road where the LTZ’s firm suspension does an excellent job at minimizing body roll and the no-slop steering instills you with the confidence that the Cruze will go where you point it.
This is an economy car, of course, and it also measures up well there. The fuel efficiency rating for the 1.4-liter is 24 mpg city and 36 highway, which is about as good as it gets in the current crop of compacts. Unfortunately, there’s a new harvest coming soon that includes new Hyundai Elantras and Ford Fusions that both promise at least 40 mpg.
This is not a problem as you can opt for the $18,995 Cruze Eco, a lighter version that sports low rolling resistance tires, a manual transmission with taller gearing and aerodynamic tweaks that include active vents in the front fender that can close at high speeds to cut down on aerodynamic drag. The result is an EPA rating of 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway.
Oddly, one of the changes to the Eco is a smaller gas tank -- 12.6 gal vs. 15.6 gal -- which means that it has a shorter range between fill-ups than thirstier versions of the Cruze. Apparently this is the result of a lighter, lower cost rear suspension design and is one of those trade-offs you need to make for better fuel efficiency. At least it still has electric windows and door locks, which is more than you could say about the old high-mileage Cobalt XFE which could only manage 37 mpg highway. Come to think of it, the Volt gets just 37 mpg combined after its usable charge has been depleted and it switches to hybrid mode.
Hmm: semi-electric car or $22G in the bank? Maybe there’s something to this cross-shopping after all.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ
Base Price: $22,695
As Tested: $24,415
Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 4-door sedan
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged inline-4-cylinder
Power: 138 hp, 148 lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
MPG: 24 city/36 hwy