There was a time when the Chevrolet brand was mostly associated with big-bruiser cars –swaggering machines gleefully commanding vast acreages of chrome-garnished sheet metal. They proudly wore evocative nameplates – Bel Air, Malibu, Biscayne, Impala – and usually gained their urge from equally massive, thirsty V8 engines.
Fast forward six decades and the Chevrolet you’ll find on modern-day roads is an altogether different beast. With a model inventory largely derived from Korean brand Daewoo, the international face of Chevrolet is sleek, compact and contemporary.
While the US market still demands – and receives – more generously dimensioned models, Eurocentric markets (including South Africa) have had to get used to smaller Chevs, including the Aveo, the Spark and the Sonic.
By comparison, the Toyota Corolla-sized Chev Cruze has more substance, more presence and a larger footprint. Offered in hatch and sedan formats, the C-segment Cruze has found a ready and growing support base, attracted by its generous standard spec and keen pricing.
Let’s be honest: if the Cruze were badged a Daewoo, rather than a Chev, it wouldn’t be nearly as successful in SA. Chev’s bowtie logo is not only instantly recognisable on local soil, but the brand itself is fondly remembered by generations of motorists.
As it turns out, that bowtie badge has provided enough initial reassurance for SA car buyers to take a keen interest in the Cruze. And as the sales prove, they’ve liked what they’ve seen – enough for the Cruze to attract between 600 and 700 buyers monthly.
If there has been a criticism of the Cruze, it’s been that the drivetrains aren’t exactly in the tar-burning league. The 1,8-litre mill, in particular, never lived up to the expectations created by its capacity. In real world driving – and especially at Reef altitudes – it felt too tentative, too asthmatic for its assumed role as the top petrol-powered derivative in the range.
Small wonder then that the Cruze spotlight has been hogged by the two-litre turbodiesel-powered version. It has 120kW of power and 360Nm of torque on offer – a lot more than the 1,800’s output figures.
It’s ironic that Chev’s answer to this dilemma is to replace the 1,800cc mill with a smaller-capacity powerplant. Admittedly, this is not just any small engine: it’s a smooth-revving, turbocharged design that finally delivers the kind of pep Cruze owners have been yearning for.
At 103 kW, the 1,364cc four-cylinder is a mere 1kW down on its bigger predecessor’s max power rating, and it sustains that power from 4,900 to 6,000rpm, ensuring a nice, flat slice of urge with no need to rev the living daylights out of the little engine.
The torque output rises to a decent 200Nm, already on song from just under 2,000rpm, and extending all the way to 4,900rpm.
The combination of sustained power and a flat, wide torque curve makes for a much more responsive drivetrain, with a level of midrange punch that belies the engine’s modest capacity. The cherry on top is six-speed manual gearbox with a set of ratios perfectly suited to the engine’s character.
No wonder that the Cruze 1.4T feels lively and willing from the word go. At 9.3sec for the 0-100km/h sprint, the smart sedan is almost 2sec quicker than the 1.8 it replaces, and the difference in tractability is even more pronounced. Top speed is 200km/h.
I’d wager that anyone unaware of the engine’s capacity would assume it to be a much bigger unit. Admittedly, I drove it at sea level in Port Elizabeth, but there was no initial lag to speak of, and no hesitation during in-gear acceleration.
Turbocharging means that most of the engine’s potential is retained at altitude, compared to the around 18 per cent power loss experienced in Johannesburg’s thinner air. And even though I’d expect it to suffer from a little lag at those altitudes, it’s likely to be minimal because of the way power and torque curves support each other in the midrange.
No wonder then that the Cruze 1.4T feels sporty and dynamic in almost all driving situations. The gearbox is a joy to use, with a short, incisive shift action that cries out to be used with enthusiasm, and adds to the overall appeal of the car.
A more conservative approach to driving may be less involving, but will certainly benefit fuel consumption. The factory claims a combined-cycle fuel thirst of 5,8l/100km, but expect actual consumption in mixed conditions to rarely venture below 7,5l/100km.
Let’s not forget that the Cruze is not a performance car, but rather a family runabout. So don’t expect firm suspension or quick steering. Indeed, the damping is on the soft side, and the steering feedback lacks heft and definition.
It means that the Cruze will cope with dips and bumps without jarring bones, even if its in-corner responses are soggy. The added-cost upgrade to larger 17-inch wheels and fatter rubber is worth considering, not only because the alloys look good, but also because the lower-profile tyres provide more grip and improved feedback.
The Cruze lives up to its name over long distances, easily cruising along at the selected speed, and providing a safe and comfortable haven for its occupants. The cabin is roomier than expected, especially at the rear, while 469 litres of luggage space in the boot will meet the needs of most families.
As one has come to expect from the Cruze line-up, this LS-spec car offers a full complement of features, ranging from remote central locking, cruise control, a trip computer and air-conditioning to electric windows and mirrors, USB and auxiliary audio inputs, and Bluetooth connectivity for telephony and audio streaming.
For those who want even more, the options list offers a sliding glass sunroof, leather upholstery, and rear park distance control. And with a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating, the presence of front, side and curtain airbags should come as no surprise.
The all-disc braking system gets latest-generation ABS with electronic brake force distribution, and emergency braking assistance, while full-scale electronic stability control, incorporating traction control, is also standard.
Have I mentioned that the Cruze is an attractive sedan, in a chiselled, almost austere kind of way? The high waistline, the prominent grille and the short, high deck at the rear give the car a poised, alert appearance, while the prominent bowtie logo on the grille confirms its Chev identity in no uncertain terms.
The Chevrolet Cruze is an attractive sedan, and one with loads of potential. Until now, there has always been some ambivalence about its execution (and the drivetrain in particular), but the 1,4-litre engine really transforms the car.
It now has ample urge for both urban dashes and cross-country journeys, while the comprehensive interior appointments, smooth ride comfort and decent space are further recommendations.
Should its rivals be worried? Absolutely! DM
Chevrolet Cruze 1.4T LS
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