I had now done something I never thought I’d do and had actually talked others out of doing. I leased a car. Secretly, I was overjoyed that I was finally able to fulfill my dream of taking advantage of one of those ultra-low lease deals for the advertised terms and payment. The icing on the cake: I loved the car.
I know. I could have taken advantage of one of these deals at any time prior, but we’re “buy and hold” kind of people. The only way I could convince myself to take the plunge was if my back was against the wall (it was), and it was the best of several bad options (ditto). I have to admit, it’s so much easier when you’re broke and are just shopping for the awesome deal and couldn’t care less about the car. I just helped my former roommate from D.C., after she totaled her car, buy a leftover 2019 Nissan Sentra S for $16,000 out the door. This is a car with an MSRP of $19,500. Is the Sentra a great car? Not even close. Is that a great deal for someone who needs a car right now and has little money and can only handle a small payment? Absolutely.
I remember being impressed by the Cruze when it was introduced. Although a global car, U.S. versions were built in GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant. It was the first domestically produced compact car offered by General Motors that was genuinely competitive. It followed a truly lackluster string of cars that include the Vega, Monza, Cavalier and Cobalt. Wikipedia has a great background on the Cruze.
“Just another crappy American car,” I thought, and moved on. Now, there was one sitting in my driveway! Aside from the fantastic deal – $165 a month with $0 down – there was a lot to like about the Cruze. To my eyes, it’s far more attractive than any of its predecessors except for maybe the Monza 2+2. From the outside, I loved the fact that it didn’t look like a base model. With body-colored bumpers, alloy-wheel-looking wheel covers, and chrome trim along the base of the side windows and between the tail lights, only an experienced eye could tell I was driving the poverty-spec version with the naturally-aspirated 1.8-liter motor. The only real visual give was the black side mirrors.
Inside, there was a handsome two-tone light- and dark-gray interior with soft padding on the dash and a chrome-brushed center stack. The steering wheel was a nice, thick three-spoke design, and the stubby gear shift featured a leather boot. The base LS was well equipped with a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, automatic head lamps, air-conditioning, an eight-way (manual) adjustable driver seat, a 60/40-split rear seat, 5-inch display in the dashboard with an additional display in the gauge cluster, power windows and locks and a six-speaker stereo with a CD/MP3 player and satellite radio. Most importantly, there were 10 airbags, stability and traction control, and antilock brakes. The only things missing were power mirrors and cruise control.
After the Grand Caravan, pretty much anything would feel sporty, but I was still taken with exactly how sporty the Cruze felt. The driver sits low to the ground, and with the small steering wheel in its lowest position and the body-hugging seats, I liked to pretend I was driving a budget 3-Series BMW. In LS trim with the 16-inch wheels, it didn’t come close to a 3-Series in actual handling. When I took it out to a twisty road near my house, the electronic power steering was easily over-whelmed. So, my driving would have to remain limited to feeling sporty. Living in a densely populated suburban area, ride quality and noise are bigger problems, and the Cruze excelled in those areas.
“Charlie” was immediately drafted into family-car duty. Even though Shadow actually had a touch more interior volume, the Cruze had a few tricks up its sleeve. The 15.6 gallon gas tank, when combined with gas mileage in the high 30s on the highway, provided a nice long “cruzing” range. There was also an exceptionally large 15.0 cubic-foot trunk which could swallow the luggage of a family of four. In addition to three free months of satellite radio, Charlie had a free year of OnStar, and I loved how they were able to transmit the maps not only to the center-dash display, but on the digital display in the gauge cluster as well.
While most people see this as a minus, the Cruze was several hundred pounds heavier than most of its competition. While that may have kept it from obtaining the status of most efficient car (although the Eco model came close), I like to think it contributed to its quietness and solidity. From what I’ve read, the following generation, while lighter, was not nearly as quiet or solid.
Any concerns I had about GM quality were put to rest with Charlie. The only issue I had to bring the car in for, besides the driver’s door weather stripping constantly coming off, was a loose driver’s seat frame that creaked when I pressed the clutch. The dealer discovered that they didn’t have the correct part after taking out the seat, so they gave me a Cadillac STS loaner for the night. I know I should have loved the STS, but I was happy to get my Cruze back the next day. That’s how fond I was of the car. I think children pick up on their parents’ feelings towards certain things, because they were just as fond of Charlie. The only one who wasn’t was my wife. I learned later that she was very uncomfortable in the passenger seat. Being so low to the ground, with her feet on the floor, her long legs rose slightly above the seat, giving her no thigh support. Also, her left leg constantly rubbed against the wide console.
My only other issue with the car were the syncros in the transmission. I’m not a power shifter. I like to smoothly, gently nudge the transmission into gear. Most of the time, the shifter moved from gear-to-gear like [in my best Sean Connery impression] “a knife through buttah.” Other times, no matter how far in the clutch and how gentle I was with the gear shift, I ultimately had to force it into gear. Since this wasn’t really something I could reproduce for the service department, I just learned to live with it.
Financially, things were working out just as I had planned. That fall, my son entered kindergarten, and I was immediately $1,000 per month richer. About a year later, my daughter won the magnet school lottery, allowing her to attend Pre-K3 for free with the only cost being after care. My original plan was to put the money towards the down payment for a new car at the end of the lease, but now I was planning on buying Charlie. At around $8,000, the residual was a bargain.
It was not to be. On December 6, 2012, 21 months and 18,000 miles in, I had to get to my daughter before a school function began at 5PM. After picking up my son, whose school was in the other direction, I found myself about 10 cars back from the stop sign across from the road that led to her school. The backup was due to the employees at a nearby large company leaving for the day, making it nearly impossible to cross the strange, 5-way intersection that only had stop signs on the road that I was on and the one directly across the busy state highway. My impatience was getting the best of me, and by the time I finally got up to the stop sign, I resembled a junkie hopped up on blow.
After waiting for the mass of cars to clear, I looked right and did not see any northbound traffic. Looking left, there were two cars heading southbound, with just enough room for me to dart between cars one and two. After the first car passed, I dropped the clutch and floored it. There was the sound of a horn, two headlights in my passenger-side window, and a loud crash that spun Charlie a full 180 degrees.
After I got my bearings, I felt Charlie rolling backwards and stomped on the brake, but nothing happened. Pulling the emergency brake did the trick. I then looked left and right, but saw nothing but the side-curtain airbags. Next came the hard part. Recall, my son was with me, sitting in the rear on the passenger side, which took the brunt of the impact. It was also very quiet back there. I slowly turned my head around [please God please God please God please God please God], and there was my son, just fine in his Graco TurboBooster, looking as confused as me.
I called 911 (I let my introductory OnStar subscription lapse), and the accident had already been called in. I said to my son, “Stay here,” and went over to check on the other driver. There was a circa-2006 Honda Civic that was now several feet shorter with a dazed looking elderly man at the wheel. I asked him if he was all right through the shattered window. He just looked at me like he didn’t understand. “ARE YOU OK?” He slowly nodded, thankfully, and I went back to my car where my son was starting to panic because he couldn’t open his door. I got back inside to wait for help and called my wife. Fortunately, she had just turned into the school about 30 seconds before the accident. After the ambulance arrived, they checked out my son and did not find any issues. The other driver went to the ER, but was discharged later that night (Don’t ask me how I know that). I do know there was a personal injury claim, but not the physical complaint or details.
Based on the skid marks – or lack thereof – it was estimated that we were hit at about 40 to 45 MPH. The fact that this little car was able to protect us so well is a testimony to GM engineering. My wife even wrote a letter to Chevrolet thanking them for making the Cruze such a safe car. We also contacted our state representative about fixing that intersection, which now has a light and no fifth leg. We weren’t the first nor last accident at that intersection before the changes, but I do believe we were the worst.
Remember in one of my first COAL’s, when I said, “behind the wheel, [impatience] can kill you or someone else?” It almost killed my son, myself, and an 87-year-old man from South Florida (the town next to the one where I grew up, coincidentally) who was driving a borrowed car. I keep the above pictures of Charlie on my phone as a reminder. The worst part is there wouldn’t have been a problem arriving after 5PM – my daughter would have been just fine. I just didn’t want her to be the only child in aftercare while everyone else was at the event.
Later that night, when I called my insurance company, I asked how the rental car coverage works. “Oh, you don’t have rental car coverage on the Chevrolet. You do have it on the Pontiac.” I so wanted to bitch-slap my insurance agent right then. I had to pay for the crappy Toyota Corolla rental (sorry, Matt) out of pocket until we bought a new car.
There was a bit of an upside. Since Charlie was such a spectacular deal, the insurance payout was about $3,000 more than the lease buyout. In addition, GM Financial only requires the buyout amount, not the full settlement. Therefore, we were able to keep the difference. Pretty good for a $0-down lease.
A few days later, we went down to the towing yard so my son could say goodbye to Charlie. There were tears, but I ended the visit with, “Now let’s go and see what just may be our next car!”