WITHIN THE FIRST 10 seconds of laying eyes on the Cruze, we knew this is a car with a lot of promise. If it has to do what Chevrolet, or should we say General Motors, wants it to do (take on the Civic, Corolla and the Laura), it’s imperative that it look special. That it does so with utter conviction is a small but significant victory in what will be a hard-fought battle against established brands.To say that the Chevrolet Cruze is merely an important car for General Motors is a massive understatement. In reality, it is the proverbial silver lining for the company, the first of its new-generation cars and the first of a raft of new models that GM has planned for India in the hope that it will catapult the company from the sidelines of the industry to the centre stage. The Cruze, which is internally known by its code J300, is the first of the ‘300’s series from Chevrolet to be followed by the M300 (Chevrolet Beat) and T300 (next-gen Aveo).The Cruze was styled inside and out at GM DAT in Korea and is the result of a development programme that spanned over 27 months. During this time, 221 GM-built prototypes were tested in Australia, Canada, China, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. That it’s got its focus set on the world and Europe in particular is a good thing. It means India-built cars will boast European quality, safety, refinement and dynamics, all of which it needs in generous quantities if it has to take on the Japanese and the Europeans already established here. The Cruze comes in with a few key advantages — there’s a powerful diesel engine on offer and an equipment list we’ve only seen in cars that cost an arm, and maybe a leg.
Despite these pluses, it has to be priced competitively to have any chance at success. Chevrolet hasn’t announced prices yet, but expect it to be in the Civic/Corolla ballpark, which isn’t a bad starting point. Anyway, we’ve got our itching hands on it first. Here’s the story of our exhaustive, exclusive drive.
It’s a clear step ahead of any Chevrolet we have seen in India. It’s aggressive, sharp and taut; not words we would have associated with any Chevrolet in the recent past. There’s a reason for this. New-generation Chevys aspire to make a style statement and this car is proof that GM is paying a lot of attention to the styling. Those angular headlights, gaping split grille and sharp chin give the Cruze fantastic presence. In fact, the massive grille which now wears the new ‘stippled gold’ Chevy logo won’t let you mistake this car for anything else.
Run your eye along the side and it’s the striking coupé roofline with that steeply raked rear windscreen that grabs your attention. Keep looking and you’ll also notice the very BMW-like swage line that runs from the front wheel arches right up to the tail-light. It’s the rear styling that comes as a bit of an anti-climax. It does look good, with its twin LED-filled tail-lamps and the thick chrome bar between them, but doesn’t really live up to the sense of anticipation you get after the striking front and side styling.
There’s no doubting what’s under the taut skin though. This is the first GM model to be built on the latest Delta 2 platform, which, among others, is the platform of the next-gen Opel Astra. The monocoque shell is constructed by using high-strength steel for the main load-bearing body parts and helps the car meet forthcoming legislation that includes the US rollover rules – GM says the structure can withstand 2.5 times its own weight. The fuel tank is mounted low between the rear wheels for protection during a heavy rear impact, and other safety features include a collapsible pedal box, ABS and two airbags. Strangely, there’s no form of traction control system – with 33kgm of torque going to the front wheels in sharp bursts, it would be nice to have some sort of safety net. Noise and vibration are kept at bay using an isolated front sub-frame, separated from the body by four rubber mountings.
The suspension itself follows the staple layout of MacPherson struts up front and a twist beam axle at the rear, unlike most of its rivals who are independently sprung. There are big disc brakes all around though. Indian cars also have specially developed JK Vectra tyres with a softer sidewall to improve the secondary ride or comfort over sharp ridges and ruts.
The stunning exterior styling also carries on to the insides. There’s a distinct twin cockpit theme which GM says it is inspired by the interior of the 1953 Corvette and makes separate spaces for the driver and passenger. The V-shaped design looks original and there’s a hint of a driver-focused cabin here.
The first surprise comes when you look for the keyhole to start the engine. There isn’t one. It’s got a keyless system dubbed PEPS for Passive Entry, Passive Start. All you need to do is keep the key fob in your pocket, press the clutch and push a clumsily located start-stop button on the left of the steering wheel. You realise the convenience of the PEPS system when you don’t have to fumble for the key to lock or unlock the car. Pulling the door handles automatically unlocks while a touch sensor on the door handles locks the car. Of course, the key fob has to be within range. It’s something women, who constantly hunt for keys in their handbags, will truly appreciate.
The manual adjust driver’s seat is comfy and superbly bolstered and there’s good thigh support. It’s easy to find a suitable driving position as the steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake. The thick-rimmed steering wheel is nice to grip with toggle-type steering-mounted switches that have a nice tactile feel. In fact, all the switches are well damped and feel expensive and in particular the large knobs for the air-con controls which have a grippy, rubberised finish and nice chrome highlights. This is also the first Chevy to come with the right-hand-drive configuration for the wiper/headlight stalks which also have a meaty feel.
As much as the switchgear impressed us, the interior plastics disappointed as they are simply not up to the class standard. The interiors of the Jetta and Laura may not have the same design flair as the Cruze but they have a much higher level of quality. Even the Civic’s more futuristic dashboard is better put together. The Cruze’s plastics around the door pockets have sharp edges, the cubbyhole on top has an ill-fitting cover and the glossy black finish on the centre console looks pretty cheap. Even the seat material doesn’t feel as rich as its rivals.
Space in the rear is decent if you need legroom, there’s lots of it and under-thigh support is also very good even though the seat squab is a bit short. However, the seat back is a bit too upright and headroom is in short supply. The coupé-like roofline and steeply raked rear screen will mess up the hairstyle of anyone who is reasonably tall.
Storage space in the cabin is generous with four decent-sized door bins, a big glovebox, cup- and bottleholders, a lined dash-top box and a central storage cubby, which all help to make this a practical car to live with. However, where the Cruze really scores is with all the gizmos it comes with; apart from the PEPS system, you get a six-CD changer, aux-in port, a large screen that displays multiple functions and an on-board computer which calculates a range of parameters from average speed to real-time fuel consumption. There’s cruise control also. The massive equipment list which included a sunroof and alloy wheels is one of the Cruze’s strengths. It is certainly more loaded than any other car in the Rs 12-15 lakh range. We only wish it had more than two airbags.
Everything you need to know about this engine, you’ll know in the first 9.6 seconds spent off the clutch – that’s the time it takes to get to 100kph. The good bit is that this 148bhp diesel has the performance to leave all of its rivals, including most of the petrol ones, red-faced. The mid-range is wrestler-strong and there’s petrol-like top-end performance too – we have reaped the benefits of the high-speed environment in Europe this car was designed for. In a straight line, this car will cross the 150kph mark in 21.2 seconds and run to 180kph without breaking into a sweat. Keep it floored and it will get to its 210kph top speed without too much huffing. There are not too many petrol saloons, and even fewer diesel saloons in this class, that can boast of such effortless performance. It doesn’t run out of steam as it nears the redline, like most diesels do. All this makes the Cruze a very accomplished highway cruiser.
The bad news? There’s prominent lag below 1800rpm, and that’s where you’ll be most of the time in the city. For the Indian Cruze, GM has shortened second gear to improve drivability; it has to a certain extent but it’s also accentuated the gap between second and third gear ratios. The non-linear power delivery can be a bit annoying in slow traffic but there’s that forgiving clutch and a stubby, short-throw gearshift to help you along. A six-speed ’box with closer ratios would have helped.
The engine is a familiar unit, the same 1991cc common-rail turbo-diesel from the Captiva and it makes an identical 148bhp and 33kgm of torque. It’s got the same variable geometry turbo, a common-rail system that delivers fuel at 1600-bar to the cylinders, has four valves per cylinder and a single overhead camshaft to open and close them. The big difference between the Captiva and Cruze engines has nothing to do with the internals. The ECU calibration and fine tuning of the intake and exhaust lengths are all that separates them. It’s geared taller than its bigger cousin, but it’s still quite short for a saloon car. Top speed is achieved in fifth, just 300rpm shy of the redline. Still, the Cruze, like its name, is happy on the highway. Fifth gear keeps the engine spinning right in its powerband, making it easy to maintain three-digit speeds. The fact that the engine is quite refined when cruising, makes it all the more relaxed on the highway. However there’s a fair bit of diesel clatter when the engine is idling, and it gets pretty vocal when it is nearing the redline.
The Cruze, which is tuned more for top-end whack, is difficult to drive economically. The turbo-lag calls for frequent gear-changing in town and greater throttle inputs. In this light, the 10.2kpl city figure we achieved in our ? ? preliminary tests is pretty impressive. Highway cruising delivered a more frugal 14.1kpl and with a 60-litre tank you can cross several States before tanking up.
The highway is where the Cruze feels best. Straight-line stability, though not as unflustered as its European rivals, is good and helped to some extent by the long wheelbase. There are not too many bumps that can throw it off line. The steering weights up nice and gives you confidence but it doesn’t have the ultimate feel or precision of others in its class. The chink in the Cruze’s armour pops up when you are driving in the city. Sharp bumps thud through into the cabin, but even these are more heard than felt. At lower speeds, the ride is slightly on the stiffer side and there is a distinct lack of compliance which we feel is largely down to the tyres’ inability to cushion the shocks. Long-wave undulations are absorbed with a well-damped pliancy and the Cruze is at its best skating along a rough road at high speed. The suspension, stiffened mainly to keep the ground clearance in check, offers a flat and consistent ride with no heaving and pitching.
Though stiffly sprung, the Cruze’s handling can’t be described as sporty. A passive steering and a reluctance to change direction suddenly makes it more a car for long-distance cruising.
The easy-to-twirl steering is a boon in town, especially while parking, because the Cruze’s 4597mm length (longer than the Civic, Corolla, Jetta and Laura) will show up in the tight confines of town.
The Cruze could be the game-changer for GM. It’s a car that is truly aspirational and one you want to own rather than need to have. The sharp styling, trendy interiors and stonking performance are going to appeal more to individuals than families. Sure, it doesn’t have the ultimate quality of a VW or a Skoda, or the finesse of a Civic, but the fact that it’s the quickest diesel this side of a BMW makes it phenomenal bang for your buck. Its long equipment list drives home the point further. But no matter how accomplished the car is, its pricing will be the crucial. We expect it to undercut its diesel rivals and be more on a par with the Civic. That gives a very good reason for you to wait for its launch this month.