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2011 Chevrolet Cruze is the game changer the compact segment has needed for years

Up until recently, the US consumer really couldn’t expect much from the compact car segment. Did it have four wheels, a cheap price, and get decent fuel economy? If so, then that was all you could really ask for. Special features like USB ports, heated seats, or a decent comfortable interior were, at most, a pipe dream. Small cars were only for folks who couldn’t afford a larger one.

Then, as is always the case, things changed. The precipitous fuel price increase to near four dollars a gallon in 2006/2007 time frame drastically changed the buying habits of the American consumer. Small cars were suddenly looking at a rather large increase in popularity. The problem was that while the compact car buyer had changed, the compact car had not.

<<Click here to check out our full 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Photo Gallery>>

This has led to a rather fierce battle among the automakers for current and future small car buyers. A once neglected group of vehicles is finding new found glory as Ford and Chevrolet introduce brand new models in 2011. The idea of a full featured compact car, once laughable, is turning out to be the fuel both companies plan on using to propel themselves into profitability for the foreseeable future.

The first of these newly redesigned compact competitors to hit the scene for us to sample is the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva / AutoInsane.com

The Cruze is a new model, from the ground up, intended to replace the outgoing Chevy Cobalt. Cruze will be offered in four trim models and with two engines. The base Cruze LS will feature a 1.8L Ecotec engine and 6-speed automatic transmission. The LT, 2LT, Eco, and LTZ models will feature a brand new 1.4L turbocharged Ecotec engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

The 1.4L engine is tiny, yet powerful. 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque doesn’t read like much, but a light car like the Cruze doesn’t need much. Even at highway speed only a slight tip in of the throttle is needed to spool up the turbo, delivering a small river of torque for smooth downshift-less acceleration.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva / AutoInsane.com

The 2011 Cruze starts at $16,995 for an LS and goes up to $22,695 for an LTZ. For those who wish a slightly more sporty exterior, the RS package adds unique rocker panels and front/rear body treatments for $695. Cruze ECO, a fuel economy package, will be priced at $18,895.

To compare the outgoing Cobalt to a Corolla or Civic would have been laughable. Now with the Cruze, I’m fairly confident Chevy has beaten both Honda and Toyota at their own game. On the road the Cruze drives with much of the feeling you’d expect from something larger and more expensive. The ride is solid at speed on the highway, almost Cadillac like in isolation. Steering is superbly crisp and communicative. Handling is tight, although geared towards comfort.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva / AutoInsane.com

On the inside, the Cruze continues to revolutionize. Chevy options two types of interior trim. On the LS, and LT models, a highly textured fabric covers the front dash. You can get the fabric in full black or black with red accents. On LTZ models (and with leather seats), the dash is covered in a soft leather like trim.

GM’s new entertainment/navigation system with 40GB hard-drive, XM, USB/Aux/iPod ports, and the ability to pause/rewind live radio is an option on the Cruze. So are heated seats, remote start, and OnStar.

The Cruze will play as a roll out vehicle for OnStar’s new application for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry phones. OnStar subscribers will be able to access live information about their vehicle, including fuel levels, odometer, recent fuel economy, tire pressures, and lock status on their mobile smart phone. You’ll even be able to lock, unlock, and remotely start your vehicle using the phone app. This new service will debut on the Volt and Cruze this fall and is completely unique to General Motors.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive - Photo: Zane Merva / AutoInsane.com

The Cruze is the game changer the compact segment has needed for years. However, new versions of the Ford Focus and Honda Civic are both on the way and how well the Cruze stands up to them has yet to be seen. With that said, the Cruze raises the bar so high, it’s going to be one hell of a fight that poises to give the consumer a huge win.

We can’t wait to spend more time behind the wheel of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.

<<Click here to check out our full 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Photo Gallery>>

Notable features

– Advanced Z-link rear suspension design

-Acoustically treated body/chassis for noise reduction

– Laminated front windshield

– 10 standard airbags

-neodymium magnets used in speakers for weight savings

– ECO model will get around 40mpg

Strengths

– Turbo 1.4 engine delivers exceptional low-end power and competitive fuel economy

– Solid driving performance on the highway befitting of a larger sedan

-All the tech goodies from the rest of GM’s line is available (Navigation, USB, Heated Seats)

Weaknesses

– Not enough interior storage space for small items, such as cell phones

– “Upscale” exterior styling is potentially too conservative

– A perfect evolution of the compact car but not revolutionary

Price/Trim Levels

Cruze LS, starting at $16,995, includes:

• Standard 1.8L Ecotec engine and six-speed manual transmission

• The most standard safety features in the segment, with 10 air bags, StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover sensing, traction control, anti-lock brakes, collapsible pedal system, power rear-door child safety locks

• Standard OnStar, with a six-month subscription including Turn-by-Turn navigation

• Standard convenience features including air conditioning, power windows, power door locks with remote keyless entry, driver information center, an auxiliary jack for personal playback devices and XM Satellite Radio with three-month trial subscription

Cruze LT, starting at $18,895, includes:

• Standard 1.4L Ecotec turbo and six-speed automatic transmission

• 16-inch wheels

Cruze 2LT, starting at $21,395, includes:

• Standard 1.4L Ecotec turbo and six-speed automatic transmission

• Standard six-way power driver seat, leather seating surfaces, heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob

• Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB port with audio interface, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and remote vehicle start

• Standard 16-inch alloy wheels

Cruze Eco, starting at $18,895, includes:

• Standard 1.4L Ecotec turbo and six-speed manual transmission

• Segment-leading expected 40 miles per gallon highway

• Standard 17-inch alloy wheels with ultra low-rolling resistance tires, and enhanced aerodynamic performance package

Cruze LTZ, starting at $22,695, includes:

• Standard 1.4L Ecotec turbo and six-speed automatic transmission

• Standard six-way power driver seat, leather seating surfaces, heated seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob

• Standard cruise control, Bluetooth phone connectivity, USB port with audio interface, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and remote vehicle start

• Standard automatic climate control, auto-dimming inside rearview mirror, and ultrasonic rear-parking assist

• 18-inch alloy wheels with four-wheel disc brakes

RS appearance package, available on LT and LTZ models for $695, includes:

• Unique front and rear fascias

• Rocker moldings

• Front fog lamps

• Rear spoiler

Major available option features on Cruze include:

• In-dash navigation system with 40-gigabyte hard drive, enabling pause-and-play radio, downloading of audio CDs or transferring MP3 files from a USB memory device

• Pioneer Audio system, with nine speakers and 250-watt amplifier

• Ultrasonic rear park assist

On Sale: September 2010

Editor’s Note: The lodging,  transportation, and access to vehicles required to write this article were provided, free of charge, to the author by General Motors. AutoInsane.com routinely accepts such offers from automakers to expand our coverage, however no special treatment, bias, or special consideration is given in return.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive photo gallery

Although we’re under embargo for our driving impressions of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, we are allowed to share with you all the photos we took on our drive of the new compact competitor yesterday.

Our full first drive review will be posted at 12:01am, Saturday, July 31st, 2010.