As the economy stumbles along in recovery, bargains continue to define the marketplace, whether it's dinner at McDonald's, refreshing a winter wardrobe at Target or buying an affordable car.
Take the new Chevrolet Cruze, a compact sedan that advances the economically induced ideology of building fuel-efficient cars that customers might actually want.
Like many compact and subcompact cars of late, the Cruze, which starts at $16,995, is equipped with features that haven't traditionally been available on budget cars. But downsizing customers have been primed to expect them.
Built in Ohio, the Cruze comes in five trim styles, four of which use a new 1.4-liter engine — the same inline-four used to extend the range on Chevrolet's plug-in electric Volt. The 1.4-liter engine is equipped with a turbocharger (to simultaneously boost power and fuel economy) and variable valve timing (to improve performance and also lower emissions).
The Cruze LT that I tested gets 24 miles per gallon in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes the Cruze comparable to its two biggest competitors, the Honda Civic (26 mpg city/34 highway) and Toyota Corolla (26 mpg city/35 highway).
Like its competition, the Cruze travels a somewhat beige road, stylistically. Attractive without being beautiful, its exterior is curvaceous and au courant but otherwise unremarkable. Although its interior is a step up from the long-derided General Motors Co. parts bin, it demonstrates a simplistic design mentality rather than subtle elegance. The center console is outlined with metallic-looking silver plastic. The waffled fabric details on the dash and door panels aren't tactile so much as rugged.
Buying the Cruze is like marrying a man because he's a good provider. He may not ignite passion, but he'll at least bring home the bacon. It depends on the type of a person you are, but the Cruze may be a better long-term bet than buying into flash.
The Cruze is for people for whom a car is merely a means of getting around, and getting around economically. It is not a status symbol, nor is it a car for driving aficionados. But it does achieve exactly what it intended.
It's an affordable, easy-to-drive car that provides enough creature comforts. The six-speed automatic I tested was smooth enough. And the cabin was quiet enough to hear the stereo without having to crank it to cover road noise.
The Cruze employs a Z-link design, rather than a multilink axle, for its rear suspension, which helps reduce noise and vibration. Nylon baffles in hollow body parts and recycled-denim sound insulation were some of the more than 30 acoustical treatments designed into the car, making it a far quieter ride than one might expect for its price point.
Although the MacPherson strut front suspension on this front-wheel-drive, four-door won't inspire owners to take any canyon detours on their commutes to work, its steel unibody and safety features might at least set their minds at ease.
Electronic stability control, traction control, tire-pressure monitoring and anti-lock brakes are all standard, as are 10 air bags. OnStar, which automatically dials 911 when cars equipped with it have been in a crash and also enables drivers to manually call for help when they press a button on the rear-view mirror, is built in and free for the first year of ownership.
Options include Bluetooth connectivity, nine-speaker audio, XM Satellite Radio, 40-gigabyte navigation system, heated leather seats, remote vehicle start and front fog lamps.
Ultimately, the Cruze is about economics. Its price upfront is reasonable, and its fuel economy makes it less costly to operate. The Cruze Eco, available early next year, will dramatically improve the math on this already cost-conscious vehicle.
Using some of the aerodynamic and weight-saving tricks employed on its Volt, the manual transmission Cruze Eco recently received the EPA's best fuel-economy rating for a compact car — 42 mpg on the highway, 28 in the city — and it's doing so for a price equal to the cost of one of its most economical Cruzes: the $18,995 LT.
Keeping the price reasonable while significantly boosting the mileage is impressive. And it will become increasingly important as manufacturers strive to increase their fleets' fuel-economy averages and as consumers wrestle with creeping-up gas prices.
Sixty-three percent of Americans desire a significant increase in fuel economy from the next vehicle they buy, according to a Consumer Reports study out this week; 94%, however, said paying a higher price for better fuel economy was a sales deterrent.
The Cruze is a big step in the right direction for storied Chevrolet. It isn't likely to inspire lust, but when it comes to consumers' pocketbooks, it hits all the right marks.