With questions surrounding the future of General Motors, it’s (surprisingly) business as usual for its highest volume brand, which means lots of new metal. We've just driven the Chevrolet Cruze saloon, which arrives in showrooms in July and marks a switch to bolder design, while the platform will spawn a production version of the Orlando MPV, a Cruze-derived hatchback, and of course the new Vauxhall Astra. The Cruze also marks the beginning of the replacement of Chevy’s old re-badged Daewoo products with completely new models.
Does Chevrolet have a future?
Yes it does. No matter how things turns out for GM, if you look at individual car brands, Chevrolet is number three in the world in volume terms, behind Toyota and Ford so it has a great deal of awareness and a degree of loyalty. The Cruze will be a more common sight in other markets around the world than in the UK: here about 1000 units a year will be judged a success.
Recognition will also be boosted through Chevy’s presence in the World Touring Car Championship, where the old Lacetti (prepared in the UK by Ray Mallock) was a regular threat to the BMWs, although failed to make an impression against SEAT diesel dominance in 2008. However, the Cruze scored a fifth place behind four SEATs in the first race weekend of 2009 and took some points home – not bad for a car’s first outing.
Isn’t motorsport an extravagance for a company in financial trouble?
It is an expensive way of marketing cars, especially if you’re not winning races, and Chevrolet is reviewing its participation. But we digress. The Korean-built Cruze is aimed at what used to be called ‘budget’ cars in the UK, but has since been rebranded in current marketing parlance as the ‘value sector’. As a four-door saloon there aren’t any direct rivals for Cruze at present, but obvious alternatives include the Hyundai i30, Kia Ceed and a recently facelifted Skoda Octavia.
>> Click 'Next' below to read more of our Chevrolet Cruze first drive
Those are decent cars aren’t they?
Indeed they are. But the Cruze is an incredible leap forward compared with the Lacetti saloon that went before it. A couple of petrol engines (113bhp 1.6 and 141bhp 1.8) are joined by a diesel with a choice of outputs, the range topper boasting 150bhp.
The Cruze also likes challenging roads, and if you ignore the rather inert steering it offers something a little more engaging than the i30’s reassuring but fun-free attitude. The diesel (from Italian specialist VM Motori, in which GM has had a 50% stake since 2007) offers reasonable performance on paper and is as modern as it needs to be, with a variable geometry turbo and common rail. There are quieter diesels out there, but we’re in budget car territory here.
The five-speed manual gearbox has tall fourth and fifth ratios so the Cruze is showing less than 2000rpm at 70mph in fifth gear. It’s pretty quiet on the motorway, but it does mean frequent downshifts are needed when fourth gear isn’t enough to get up anything steeper than a gentle incline, which is more often than you’d think.
How does it stack up against them?
The 150bhp diesel is no more frugal nor especially cleaner than equivalent engines from its Korean rivals. Although the interior design is far more interesting than we’re used to from budget cars, with some neat audio controls, and interesting use of materials, there are no genuine soft-touch surfaces on the doors or dashboard. And although it is reasonably well equipped Chevy wants nearly £12,000 for the cheapest air-con equipped Cruze whereas a 1.6 Ceed has it as standard for £500 less. The Cruze is a slightly larger car, more like the Octavia in size (and with a four-inch longer wheelbase than its Czech adversary), and while the Cruze is cheaper on a spec-for-spec basis, particularly the 2.0 VCTi LT driven here, the latest version of the Skoda is a far more accomplished vehicle and would be more satisfying to own.
People in the market for budget cars are more price sensitive than many other customers, but anyone comparing the Cruze to Korean rivals will see they could choose a larger product with more powerful engine options than Kia and Hyundai. Compared with the 2009 Skoda Octavia, the Cruze also looks good value, and Chevy is also planning to tempt the first UK buyers with a free servicing deal, too.
Although it doesn’t quite hit the mark, the Cruze shows there is some decent and relevant product in the pipeline at GM.
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