Cavalier. Cobalt. Cruze. For the past three decades, GM’s “C” compacts provided American shoppers with an affordable small car for its customers. And for the majority of those thirty-odd years, those vehicles weren’t very good. The Cruze, unquestionably the best of that bunch, met its final end for North America on Friday when the last example rolled off the assembly line at the Lordstown, Ohio plant which produced the model since 2011. Cause of death: superior competitors and the ongoing death of sedans in every size and at all price points.
Introduced for the 2011 model year, the Cruze, like the third generation Focus and re-introduced Dart, debuted as a world car developed by an overseas subsidiary that had more experience building modern small vehicles than its American equivalent. With an assist from Opel and GM Korea, the car boasted competent driving dynamics and a solid interior. The first generation represented a substantial improvement over the Cobalt and it arrived just when GM needed a boost in the compact segment. It was a reassuring sign that the bailout money would be spent on worthwhile products that could resonate with customers and keep thousands of factory workers off unemployment.
The Cruze debuted with two engines: a naturally aspirated 1.8 liter Ecotec four cylinder and a 1.4 liter turbocharged Ecotec four. Both engines had 138 horsepower. The 1.4 boasted an additional twenty three Ib-ft of torque over the 1.8 liter. A turbocharged diesel was also offered, which positioned the car as a direct competitor to the TDI Jetta.
That 1.8 powerplant was arguably the greatest weakness of the first generation Cruze. Virtually no one recommended it. Otherwise, the Chevy was legit. The car was commended for its crisp handling, smooth highway ride, and overall refinement.
The interior was equally praised for the upscale atmosphere it brought to the segment. Here is what Car and Driver had to say about the Cruze when it first reviewed the sedan in late 2010:
“Cabin surfaces and fit and finish are both best in class, easily matching or exceeding what you’d get in a VW Jetta or a Mazda 3. The vanilla headliner, the glossy-black dash inserts, the faux brushed-aluminum accents, the blue backlit gauges—all are warm, inviting, and expertly grained. The center stack is sensibly organized; there’s a real hand brake between the seats; and the free-floating shade over the instrument nacelle would look fine in a Lexus. In fact, the only nasty surfaces are the squalid black-plastic inserts at the base of the C-pillars, possibly obtained from a DIY recycling center in Zanzibar.”
Chevy debuted a second generation model for the 2016 model year. Once again, the platform came from Opel, and it was also an all new architecture. The exterior evolved beyond the relatively anodyne looks of the previous generation towards something a bit more passionate.
General Motors also decided to give America the option of purchasing the hatchback model. The Mexican built variant is arguably the best looking Cruze money can buy, but I highly doubt it won over many conquest buyers.
For the second generation model, Chevy finally ditched the 1.8 liter and made the 1.4 turbo the sole gasoline engine option. A diesel is still offered, this as a 1.6 turbocharged unit that boasts 240 Ib-ft of torque and some impressive fuel economy numbers.
Unfortunately, GM’s cost cutting resulted in an incredibly low rent interior. The center stack, door inserts, and pretty much any location below the arm rests don’t measure up to its predecessor or the competition in general.
Reviewers generally liked the second generation Cruze for its excellent highway ride and well engineered powertrain. Was that enough? Obviously not. I suspect my alternate universe counterpart also wrote a postmortem on the Cruze of his Earth, which debuted to rave reviews in 2011 while developing a reputation for unbeatable reliability. On his planet and ours, three factors lead to the demise of Chevy’s small car (and others): the long term memory of customers burned by GM’s older products, shifting consumer preferences toward utility vehicles, and the Japanese segment leaders. Honda, Mazda, and Toyota never faltered with their sedans while GM offered mediocre vehicles that couldn’t compete. The Cruze was at least ten years too late.
With the impending demise of the Cruze, new models embody the ethos of pre-recession GM: they’re the vehicles you buy if you’re willing to compromise a bit for a rock bottom price.
The fact that a refreshed model arrived just before its cancellation is a sign that the Cruze probably wasn’t axed until very recently. Ford’s discontinuation of its own sedans likely gave the company a bit of cover to do the same. Whatever the cause, Chevy’s last compact offering brings back ugly memories of the worst moments in the history of the American auto industry. The closure of Lordstown Assembly is the result of bad decisions that occurred in the past finally catching up with the company. Customers won’t be impacted by the absence of the Cruze because more compelling alternatives are available from the Japanese. That is cold comfort for the laid off workers who will be out of a job once the plant fully shuts down next week.
Editor’s Update: Toyota’s new 2020 Corolla, now available in sedan (above) as well as hatchback versions, with either conventional and hybrid drive, has a sales target of 250,000. Ed Laukes, head of marketing says: “the decline in car sales has not been as severe in several key regions — notably Southern California, Northern California, Florida and other markets in the Southeast — where Toyota’s lineup still fares well.