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Posted at 03:40 PM ET, 03/18/2011

Cruising with the Cruze


When I told my wife that I was bringing home the newest small car from General Motors, she recoiled as if I had just announced that our 10-year-old daughter was going on a playdate with Lindsay Lohan. Years ago, a body shop gave my wife a Geo Metro as a loaner car, and the experience scarred her for life. “Don’t bring that thing anywhere near me,” she cried - or words to that effect.

Alas for GM, my wife speaks for legions of U.S. consumers. Beginning with the breakdown-plagued Vega in the 1970s, and continuing through such forgettable models as the Cavalier and the Cobalt, GM has a so-so record, if that, when it comes to building small, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicles. Yet with gas prices headed over $4.00 per gallon, the company can no longer afford to cede this market segment to the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Mazda 3.

Indeed, with GM stock now trading below the $33 per share the Treasury Department got at November’s initial public offering, and taxpayers still in possession of one-third of the company, I’d say no one in America can afford another GM turkey. Furthermore, GM needs an answer to Volt critics like me who contend that advanced internal combustion engine vehicles are a far more commercially viable solution to our energy and environmental issues than electrics.

Et voila: the 2011 Chevy Cruze, the car I was about to take on an extended test drive -- my better half’s protests to the contrary notwithstanding.

GM has already sold more than a quarter million Cruzes abroad. In its six-speed automatic version, the car gets an EPA-rated 37 MPG on the highway and 26 MPG in the city. But a manual version, the Cruze Eco, boasts a 42/28 EPA rating. The stripped-down Cruze carries a sticker price of $16,275, which means you won’t have to wait until well into the next millennium for the fuel savings to pay for themselves, as you might with a Volt. The fully loaded version GM provided me - leather interior, navigation system, the whole nine yards - would probably run you about $25,000. That’s competitive with a comparably equipped Civic. And it still boasts 36 MPG highway and 26 in town.

Anticipating that it finally has a winner in this category, GM is producing 20,000 Cruze units per month at its plant in Lordstown, Ohio. (Compare that to a planned 10,000 Volts in all of 2011.) The question is: Can a normal person actually bear to drive it?

Well, if you consider me normal -- admittedly a stretch -- the answer is, quite possibly, yes. My family and I took the Cruze through its paces over a long weekend, including a run around the Beltway to Tyson’s Corner and other typical errands, in fair weather and foul. The car’s 1.4 liter turbocharged engine delivered consistent, peppy acceleration and it took bumps and curves without any noticeable problems.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I only clocked 22 MPG in 110 miles of mostly urban driving. Still, that’s within shouting distance of the car’s EPA rating, and probably would have been better if a) I had not spent a lot of the test drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic and b) I had made more and better use of the car’s optional manual transmission setting, which is actually easy to use (no clutch pedal) once you get the hang of it.

I gave GM’s much-touted On-Star system a try, with mixed results: The first operator made me wait almost five minutes for her crashed computer to recover; but the second downloaded my route to the car’s on-board navigation system without incident.

The Cruze’s exterior is handsome, if a bit derivative (almost a carbon-copy of the Mazda 3). But the biggest advance over GM’s past is evident inside the car. This is one Chevy that actually doesn’t rattle and hum as if slapped together by drunken Oompa-Loompas. The leather steering wheel felt like firm silk in my hands; the dashboard emitted a comforting glow; and the doors closed with a solid, Hondaesque thump.

But who cares what I think? If the Cruze can’t pass the wife test, it has no chance. After a couple of days, I figured it was safe to invite her on board, but, as I feared, her initial response was negative: she griped about the smell of the leather, and scoffed at the alleged inaccuracy of the navigation system. As we went along, however, I could sense her skepticism receding. By the end of our ride, she furrowed her brow and pronounced it “fine.” High praise, coming from her.

I concur: GM has produced a car that a rational person might buy instead of a Corolla, Civic or Mazda 3, even if it is not clearly superior to any of them. The biggest question mark, of course, remains reliability. If a lot of Cruzes run great for 3,000 miles and then start breaking down, this model is toast. In that regard, I would note that the Lordstown plant from which the Cruze will emerge is the same factory - albeit greatly modernized - that gave us the Vega. We won’t know if the Cruze has won the small, fuel-efficient game until U.S. drivers actually start trying to sell them on the secondary market a few years hence. Still, the fact that GM can even compete represents progress.

By  |  03:40 PM ET, 03/18/2011

 
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