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2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Chevrolet Cruze in control Add to ...

The Cruze cruises.

More to the point, Chevrolet’s new compact serves up a quieter, more refined ride than does the Honda Civic, Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla, the Japanese cars that long have dominated the category.

With the Cruze, General Motors finally is in the running for the best-selling car in Canada – on the basis of quality and value rather than deep discounts.

Its predecessor, the Chevrolet Cobalt, passed its best-before date some time ago. It is a buzz bomb by comparison with the new model taking its place in the Chevy lineup late this month.

Careful consumers need to note, however, that these first impressions came to the fore driving a Cruze LT Turbo, $19,495 base, $22,615 including extras and destination charge, between Creemore, Ont., and Toronto.

The Cruze price leader, the LS at $14,995 or $16,750 depending on content, was not available on this preview. It will differ in noise levels because of its larger, non-turbocharged engine, which has less torque and uses more fuel than the 1.4-litre turbo of the LT and LTZ. Also, the LS has a six-speed manual transmission with an automatic optional, whereas our LT is equipped with the automatic six-speed.

The $14,995 entry model does deliver extensive standard equipment including 10 airbags, stability control, traction control and anti-locking brakes as well as power windows, locks and remote keyless entry.

Informed shoppers know the Cruze is going to be the newest thing on the block only briefly. The next-generation Ford Focus will go on sale next spring, and could be another game changer. New Civics, Corollas and Mazda3s are in the works. In the compact segment, the players keep changing.

For the moment, though, the Cruze is capable of winning everything but the spelling bee.

To make its case, the day after the Cruze LT cruise to Ontario’s prettiest beer town GM Canada offered direct competitors – Civic DX, Corolla CE and Mazda3 GS all priced in the $20,000-plus range like the LTs – for comparison in a slalom course at Ontario Place and in short drives along Lake Shore Boulevard and through Exhibition Place.

The Civic, perennially Canada’s best-selling car, was far noisier in hard acceleration and leaned in the slalom as though tacking through tropical strength gusts from Lake Ontario. The Corolla competed with the Civic for cheapest-looking interior, but otherwise impressed. The Mazda3 stood out among the three with lower noise levels and a higher standard in handling, but bumps in Exhibition Place hit it hardest.

For its part, the Cruze establishes a new standard of ride and handling among $20,000-range cars. Whether on the two-laners snaking through the country side, or at speed on Highway 427, its composure was calming, its responsiveness pleasing.

Cruze is larger than the segment leaders so its interior is noticeably roomier and its trunk more voluminous. The LT-level cabin appears richest with red or black cloth, it needs to be said, because the titanium (i.e., grey) appears not a whole lot more impressive than the Corolla’s or Civic’s shades of grey.

Whatever the colour choice, the seats are uncommonly supportive for thighs and back. Factor in impressively subdued wind and road noise and you’ve got one compact capable of pain-free long-distance travel.

Fuel efficiency? In its presentation to assembled journalists, GM Canada boasted that Cruze is best in class. As usual with GM, though, this claim of superiority is tied to highway driving, rather than city, where small and compact cars are driven most often.

Cruze LT is rated at 5.5 litres/100 km in highway driving and 8.5 city, using the Natural Resources Canada test method. Corolla and Civic both achieve better city ratings.

More indicative of real-life driving, the computer readout in our LT indicated we were averaging 7.7-7.9 litres/100 km in our country cruising. Not bad at all, considering we were on and off the throttle. Consumption in steady cruising on a multilane highway could be expected to fall into the 6.0-plus range.

What’s wrong with this car? Nothing serious, on first examination. Our hefty colleague in the passenger seat inadvertently and repeatedly changed the heater fan level, his knee brushing against the adjustment dial because of its location low and on the edge of the centre stack.

Seat heaters are not available with cloth upholstery. Engine noise during hard acceleration interrupts the “library quality,” as GM Canada presenter Paul Hewitt described the tranquillity in steady-state cruising. Still, it’s hard to imagine a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder engine not sounding off – and as noted earlier the LT Turbo does generate less racket than a similarly thrashed Civic, while accelerating with more oomph.

While the LT is expected to lead Cruze sales, the Cruise ECO, $19,495, minimizing fuel consumption with such measures as lightweight wheels and harder tires with lower rolling resistance, and the LTZ, $24,780, with leather seats and chrome door handles, target specialized tastes and each is expected to account for as little as 5 per cent of Canadian sales.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo

Type: Four-door compact sedan

Price: $19,595; as tested, $22,615 (including freight)

Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.5 city, 5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Civic, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus

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