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Chevrolet Cruze (General Motors/General Motors)
Chevrolet Cruze (General Motors/General Motors)

2012 Chevrolet Cruze RS

The Chevy Cruze: GM's best small car? Add to ...

If logic ruled and the law of averages applied, automobiles would, by this stage of the game, be perfect. Flawless paragons of convenience, transport, economy, comfort and performance.

How do I know this? Because every year, manufacturers trot out new models and lavishly extol their virtues, claiming that this edition really, really, really is the best one of all. It has better a) performance, b) comfort, c) handling, d) braking, e) styling, f) assembly g) quality, and, my personal favourite, h) torsional rigidity, than the last one – by a long shot.

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Sometimes it makes you wonder how we ever got by driving the previous generation, because the new one is so vastly superior to the old. And after all, they’ve been building cars for well over 100 years, so they should have figured things out by now, right? But, to paraphrase The Who: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Still once in a while, they speak the truth. This one is better than the last one, and the differences are real and tangible.

Which is the case with the Chevy Cruze. Compared to what came before it – Cobalt, Cavalier, etc. – it’s hard to believe this came from the same manufacturer. The Cruze may the best small car GM has ever put forward, and all the hype surrounding it could be true.

Available in four trim levels, with all kinds of options and extras, the Cruze can be had with either a normally aspirated 1.8-litre four-cylinder, or turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine. These have 136 and 138 horsepower, respectively, and you can choose either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission, depending on the model.

My tester, a Turbo RS, came with the latter engine, and a six-speed manual gearbox, and the transmission was specifically one of the reasons for my enthusiasm for this car.

In my experience, the design and quality of an automobile often comes down to its transmission. One of the things I’ve always liked about the Honda Civic, for example, is its transmission linkage and gear spacing. I can easily run up and down the gears in one without using the clutch – it’s that refined. The Cruze is almost as good in this department, and it passed my no-clutch test easily. As did the engine: quiet, linear power delivery, plenty of reserve grunt, good fuel economy.

There’s more to it than that, of course. After three decades of test-driving new cars for a living, I can pretty much tell within minutes if the manufacturer has gotten the basics right. Things like build quality, ergonomics, NVH, power delivery, drivetrain refinement, comfort and styling become apparent very quickly, and other issues, such as long-distance comfort, grace under pressure, fuel economy and so on, will reveal themselves over time.

To put it bluntly, the Cruze’s predecessors never got the basics right. You’d get behind the wheel of a Cavalier, for example, and know instantly that this was an inferior piece of engineering, built to a price and riddled with shortcomings. Ditto with the Cobalt, although it was a definite improvement over the Cavalier and dreadful Pontiac Sunfire. How GM managed to fob so many of these cars off on buyers I’ll never know. Oh, wait a minute: they were cheap.

The Cruze is too, actually. Base price for the LS is about $15,500, and my tester starts at just less than $19,000, reasonably well equipped. It didn’t have things like heated front seats, Bluetooth or a sunroof, but, aside from the heated seats (which should be standard equipment on every car sold in Canada), I’m fine with that.

And anyway, it came with Sirius satellite radio, four-wheel disc brakes, keyless entry, tilt/telescoping steering and cruise control, all of which are more important to me than being able to talk to someone on the phone while I’m driving or having the top of my head bathed in the glow of sunlight.

The LT turbo is also a pleasure to drive, with surprisingly decent handling. It’s quieter than some of its rivals on the freeway, has a nice sense of balance, and can handle twists and turns with equanimity. You can also order a special lowered/tuned RS suspension package ($1,875) which makes things even more interesting. Easily as driveable as any of its competitors.

Just keep things in perspective. The Cruze is not a BMW, Audi or Lexus. It’s charms are subtle and, after the dust settles, it is still an econo-box, with the appropriate trim quality and comfort level. But the thing is, GM can now legitimately claim to have a model in this market that is truly equal to anything coming out of Japan or South Korea. The Cruze isn’t better than a Civic, Corolla, or Elantra, but it’s just as good, and all things considered, that’s saying something.

You could make the argument that this should have been the case all along, but better late than never.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Chevrolet Cruze RS

Type: Compact four-door sedan

Base Price: $19,675; as tested: $23,145

Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte sedan, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, VW Jetta, Ford Focus

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