Researching a small car on Edmunds.com to find a top pick used to be pretty straightforward. Chances are we’d point you to a Honda Civic, a Mazda 3 or, if you really wanted to fly your freak flag, a Subaru Impreza. But now things are different. There’s been a regime change for small cars, and one of the rebel leaders is the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze.
The Cruze debuted last year as an all-new model and has gone on to be both a sales and critical success. The reasons are multifold, but the bottom line is that the Cruze is simply a quality car. It looks sharp inside and out. Attention to detail is apparent the first time you close the door and notice it shuts with a solid “thunk.” The feature content is up to date with options such as hard-drive-based navigation and keyless ignition/entry. Chevy’s come a long way since the Cobalt.
On the move, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze impresses with capable handling and a quiet cabin. Under the hood you have a choice of two engines. Base LS models have a 136-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but most Cruzes actually come with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine. Horsepower is about the same from this smaller engine (138 hp), but torque rises significantly to give the Cruze a boost in around-town acceleration. The turbo also sees duty in the Cruze Eco variant. Thanks to various tweaks, the Eco achieves an impressive 42 mpg highway EPA rating.
That said, looking at other models is still a wise idea. The redesigned Ford Focus is similarly impressive and holds advantages in handling and technology features. The stylish Hyundai Elantra is equally well rounded and arguably a better value. And even though they’re not the dominant choices they once were, the Honda Civic and Mazda 3 are still great cars. But the fact remains that the small car segment has changed, and the Chevy Cruze is a top contender.
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is a small sedan that comes in four main trim levels: LS, Eco, LT and LTZ.
The LS includes 16-inch steel wheels, OnStar, a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, air-conditioning, a six-way (manual) adjustable driver seat, a 60/40-split rear seat, a trip computer, full power accessories and a six-speaker stereo with a CD/MP3 player, satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack. A Connectivity package adds Bluetooth, a USB port and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
The Eco is equipped similarly to the LS but is optimized for maximum fuel efficiency with aerodynamic improvements, lightweight alloy wheels, low-rolling-resistance tires, a smaller fuel tank and a few minor feature deletions to further reduce weight.
The LT actually comprises 1LT and 2LT subsets. The 1LT comes with a turbocharged engine, cruise control, color-keyed power outside mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and the contents of the Connectivity package.
The Cruze LS is powered by a 1.8-liter inline-4 that makes 136 hp and 123 pound-feet of torque. The Eco, LT and LTZ are fitted with a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 that generates 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. On the LS, LT and Eco, power flows to the front wheels through a standard six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is optional on those trims and standard for the LTZ.
In Edmunds testing, a Cruze LTZ accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds, an average time for this class.
EPA fuel economy estimates stand at 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined for the Cruze LS with the manual transmission and 22/35/27 mpg with the automatic. The turbocharged engine (LT and LTZ) with either transmission receives 26/38/30 mpg estimates.
The fuel-economy-focused Cruze Eco earns a laudable 28 mpg city/42 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined with the manual transmission and 26/39/31 with the automatic.
All 2012 Chevrolet Cruze models come with stability control, antilock brakes, full-length side curtain airbags, front knee airbags and front and rear side impact airbags as standard. All trims except the 2LT and LTZ have a front-disc/rear-drum brake setup; those models are upgraded to four-wheel disc brakes.
In government crash testing, the Cruze earned a top five-star rating for overall safety performance, with five stars in both frontal and side-impact categories. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Cruze received a top score of “Good” in both frontal-offset and side-impact testing. In Edmunds brake testing, a Cruze LTZ stopped from 60 mph in 122 feet, a good distance for this class of car.
Interior Design and Special Features
The Cruze’s “twin cockpit” interior design and two-tone color schemes deliver an upscale ambience. Overall interior quality is respectable, too, with soft-touch materials in the right places and very little that’s shiny plastic. For the most part, the Cruze’s controls are straightforward, though the optional navigation system can be a bit awkward to use when it comes to inputting information.
The Cruze’s front seats are a bit narrow, which might be an issue for some drivers, but they offer plenty of adjustment and are both supportive and comfortable. A low cushion for the backseat diminishes comfort for longer-limbed riders, whose thighs will have minimal support. Actual legroom is only average for the segment; you’ll find more space in the Civic and Volkswagen Jetta. Considerably above average, however, is the Cruze’s large trunk, which measures an impressive 15.4 cubic feet.
The most surprising characteristic of the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is its combination of genuinely athletic handling with a comfortable, controlled ride quality. The Cruze’s chassis isn’t particularly sophisticated as far as economy cars go, but its design ensures secure handling and a compliant — but not mushy — ride. The standard suspension rides as well and as quietly as just about any compact car, while the sport suspension on the 2LT and LTZ is firmer, though without harshness.
Most drivers should be satisfied with either of the Cruze’s engines. The upscale turbocharged engine is pretty average in terms of outright acceleration, but it’s peppier around town thanks to its increased torque. The main issue, however, is the automatic transmission. Programmed for maximum fuel economy, it’s reluctant to downshift for quick acceleration and passing unless you really boot the throttle.