Small cars have been an integral part of Chevrolet's product mix dating back more than 50 years, although a few have been memorable for the wrong reasons (the Corvair, Vega and Chevette come to mind).
With the 2015 Cruze however, Chevrolet nailed it right from the beginning.
Now in its fifth model year, the Cruze demonstrates that a car with plenty of inherent goodness - including an affordable price - can keep with the front-running Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, et al. Its winning ways include crisp-yet-conservative styling, comfortable interior and no-slouch power teams.
Chevrolet reports that three-million-plus Cruzes have been sold worldwide, including nifty wagon and hatchback versions available only in overseas markets.
For 2015, Chevrolet has instituted some subtle tweaks to shore up the Cruze before an all-new model arrives a couple of years from now. There's a revised grille, enlarged lower air intakes and LED running lights designed to more closely align the Cruze with its larger Malibu and Impala relations. It could be considered change for change's sake, but at least the Cruze's understated attractiveness remains.
The same goes for the interior that remains unaltered except for larger cup holders, a new floor-console-located trunk release and door-lock switches moved to the door panels from the console. Chevrolet has also added an extra-cost built-in Wi-Fi hotspot to its OnStar emergency and concierge service. This allows Web access, should the owner choose a monthly subscription.
The starting point under the hood is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder that produces 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. Optional is a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes the same 138 horsepower, but the torque rating climbs to 148-pound-feet. A recently available (2014-model-year) option is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel that makes 151 horsepower and, most importantly, 264 pound-feet of torque. Its overboost function increases torque to 280 for up to 10 seconds under hard acceleration.
A smooth-shifting six-speed manual transmission is standard with the non-turbo 1.8 and turbo 1.4, while a six-speed automatic is optional. The turbo-diesel only comes with the automatic.
Along with impressive low-speed thrust, the turbo-diesel is rated at 27 mpg in the city and 46 highway. That compares to the next-best turbo 1.4's 26/39 rating (28/42 with the manual gearbox). These numbers belong to the available Cruze Eco that's lighter than base models, is lower to the ground and has grille shutters to keep unecessary air from piling up in the engine compartment.
Other than the higher cost of fuel, the diesel model is about 300 pounds heavier than the others. The engine also makes obvious clattering noises that can be detected from outside the car, but are significantly muted within the well-insulated cabin.
At $17,000 starting price, including destination charges, the Cruze L and LS arrive with primarily the basics, including air conditioning. The 1LT adds cruise control, 16-inch alloy wheels and some up-level interior/exterior trim, while the 2LT gets you the 1.4 turbo engine and automatic transmission plus four-wheel disc brakes, up-level suspension, 17-inch wheels and leather seat covers (heated in front). The Diesel trim follows the content of the 2LT.
The top-level LTZ Automatic comes with all the 2LT gear plus climate control, keyless pushbutton start, backup camera and 18-inch wheels.
Extra-cost content includes a navigation system and electronic anti-collision aids/intervention to help avoid contact with other vehicle.
Ultimately, the Cruze might never score big in the flash-and-dash department, but its proven road manners and amenities continue to impress legions of compact-sedan buyers on a global scale.
What you should know: 2015 Chevrolet Cruze
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact sedan
Engines (hp): 1.8-liter DOHC I4 (138); 1.4-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (138), 2.0-liter DOHC I4 turbo-diesel (151).
Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic (std. with turbo-diesel)
Market position: Compact sedans might not be the dominating models they once were, but there'll always be a demand for affordable, fuel-efficient five-passenger transportation with a traditional trunks and not hatchbacks or liftgates.
Points: Mild refresh changes very little, inside or out; Base four-cylinder engine lags behind competition in fuel economy, but turbo gas engine and turbo-diesel engines have both power and fuel efficiency; Manual transmission is surprisingly good; For something smaller, Chevy Sonic sedan and hatch come with same gas engines, but are less expensive.
Safety: Front airbags; front/rear side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; front knee airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 25/36 (1.8, MT); Base price (incl. destination) $17,000
Base price: $19,300
Sedan and coupe models come nicely equipped; Si versions are plenty sporty.
Base price: $18,150
Low-priced base model is also low on power. TDI is the fuel-economy champ.
Base price: $17,500
Compact sedan has a large cabin. Turbo gas engine is the hot setup.