THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Quiet and smooth ride, pleasant cabin, welcome diesel option
- What’s Worst: Poky acceleration, transmission woes, where did the coolant go?
- Typical used prices: 2011 – $9,000; 2015- $14,500
In its unholy war with the imports, General Motors launched its homegrown Chevrolet Vega in 1970 to challenge the Volkswagens, Toyotas and Datsuns that were amassing at ports of call on both U.S. coasts.
As part of its plan to engineer a better small car, General Motors developed a die-cast aluminum engine block that proved to be disastrous when faulty valve-stem seals and persistent overheating caused the Vega’s four-cylinder motor to consume oil and coolant before grinding itself to smithereens.
Undaunted, GM entered the front-wheel-drive subcompact segment with its Cavalier in 1981. The platform hung around for 24 years – time enough for Toyota to redesign the Corolla five times – while the diminutive Chevy received cosmetic makeovers and powertrain tweaks. It worked as basic transportation.
At the same time, GM established an entire new division to build a “different” small car. After a promising start, Saturn closed its doors as part of GM’s Chapter 11 reorganization.
Chevrolet signaled it was serious about crafting a refined small car when it unveiled the Cobalt for 2005. Unfortunately, it was subject to recalls to replace electric power-steering units that would spontaneously quit, as well as the notorious ignition switches that cut power to the engine while driving.
Mustering its resources, the General introduced the Chevrolet Cruze in late 2010, the automaker’s latest attempt to build a compact that would repel the waves of successful imports. It was like déjà vu all over again.
The Cruze utilized GM’s new Delta II front-drive compact car platform developed by Opel – the German subsidiary GM had almost sold off to Canada’s Magna International – along with help from GM Daewoo. Production began in 2008 in South Korea, then in Russia and India. Assembly of 2011 North American four-door-only models began at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, plant in July 2010.
Two-thirds of the car’s body structure was composed of high-strength steel to save weight and maintain integrity in a collision. It worked: the Cruze received the highest possible “Good” ratings in front, side, rear and rollover crash protection tests by the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
MacPherson struts held up the front end, while a budget-friendly torsion beam kept the rear tires in check (a Watt’s linkage located the axle laterally). To deaden noise and vibration, GM specified an isolating four-point engine mounting system and extensive sound insulation, as well as triple-sealed doors.
The cabin was smartly designed with good ergonomics and a handsome instrument panel. Designers used colour to great effect inside. Some buyers found the seats firm, but the kind of firm that works well over a long day of driving. The rear bench was a little short of legroom, while the trunk was cavernous.
Base models made do with an aluminum 138-hp, 1.8-L DOHC four cylinder tied to a standard six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The uplevel LT and LTZ variants used a turbocharged 1.4-L DOHC four that made no more horses, but noticeably more torque: 148 lb.-ft. compared to the 1.8’s 125 lb.-ft. Thankfully, it was a rare turbo that was happy with regular-grade fuel.
Other than some minor trim and equipment changes, the Cruze did not receive updates until the 2014 model year, when GM gave it optional diesel power. The Opel-supplied 2.0-L four-cylinder oil burner made 151 hp and a stump-pulling 280 lb.-ft. of torque.
For the final year of the first-generation model, the 2015 Cruze earned a restyled front grille and in-car WiFi hotspot connectivity through its OnStar system.
ON THE ROAD
Initial praise for the all-new Cruze gave way to the usual bleats about lacklustre performance seen in GM’s small cars. Zero to 97 km/h came up in a sleepy 8.9 seconds, and that’s with the turbo four. The turbodiesel turned in a more energetic 8.0-second time with the standard automatic tranny, tying with the benchmark Volkswagen Jetta TDI.
Despite the cheap torsion-beam rear suspension, the Cruze handled surprisingly well in the curves, revealing its Germanic breeding. The electric power steering required little effort, while highway tracking was excellent. It was also an exceptionally quiet small sedan, which many consumers equate with quality.
Compact cars are expected to be fuel sippers, yet typical fuel consumption reported by Cruze drivers was rarely better than 30 mpg (9.5 L/100 km) in mixed driving. On the other hand, Opel’s diesel proved more economical than VW’s TDI in a published comparison test, often surpassing 50 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) on the highway.
The Cruze attained a lot of the small-car targets the product planners had laid out for it. Drivers relish the car’s stylish interior, serene comfort, large trunk and pleasing door “thunk.” It telegraphs stout construction and quality assembly – yet owners have raised numerous concerns regarding mechanical issues.
Foremost, the automatic transmission can be troublesome. Cruze drivers have reported jerky or delayed gear changes, and very harsh downshifts. Some autoboxes have been replaced outright.
“At first it was shifting bad in 3rd and 5th gear. Then it progressively got worse. Eventually we got the dealership to replace the transmission. When the technician drained the fluid from the original transmission, the fluid was black with metal shavings in it,” wrote the owner of a 2011 Cruze LT.
Also worrisome are reports of antifreeze vapour in the cabin, which can irritate eyes and cause nausea (a class-action lawsuit over coolant leaks was launched in the U.S.). In addition, the water pump has been known to fail prematurely.
Some models have been recalled for a faulty right front axle half shaft. Other reported deficiencies include oil and fluid leaks, poor-performing air conditioners, intermittent brakes, peeling paint, loose door seals and odd electrical gremlins. Spontaneous stalling at speed has been reported.
“Engine stopped running unexpectedly due to blown fuel pump fuse while traveling at 50 km/h… lost power steering and power brakes, very difficult to control and almost got into an accident,” complained a driver of a 2013 model online.
Cruze Diesel owners have reported issues with clogged particulate filters not undergoing regenerative burn automatically, as well as faulty DEF urea fluid heaters that are dear to replace. Because parts are sourced from Germany, high diesel maintenance costs have largely negated any fuel savings.
Given the volume of complaints by owners, a used Chevrolet Cruze is not a recommended buy without a comprehensive powertrain warranty. Avoid the 1.4-L gas turbo engine. There’s no shortage of competing compacts that will serve used-car buyers better – many of them being import brands.
Read more “Buying Used” on Wheels.ca