Pros: Solid, well-connected ride; spirited turbo; 40-mpg highway fuel economy; refined interior; abundant cargo space; good list of features

Cons: Bland styling compared with some foreign competitors; poor seat positioning; relatively pricey at the top end

The Cruze has a cool-sounding name. And that's just the beginning. The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze is so refined and well put together that many believe it transcends its status as a compact car. This, along with the Ford Focus, inspires confidence that American automotive brands can make an efficient, well-built, smooth-driving car for the masses.

From a quality standpoint, the Cruze is on par with popular offerings from Honda and Hyundai, two brands that consumers tend to trust most. It offers a wide range of models to fit just about anyone shopping in the compact category. And it's a standout thanks to its turbo engine and Eco model, each helping to make the Cruze a distinctive offering in its segment.

The Cruze isn't the most stylish car, especially next to rivals like the Mazda3 or the Hyundai Elantra. For that reason, it draws a slightly more mature buyer. Also, at the top end, the Cruze is a little pricey, definitely a turnoff for cash-strapped younger buyers.

For 2012, the Cruze receives a handful of minor model-specific changes.

The turbo engine gets a slight increase in fuel economy.

A Connectivity Plus Cruise package is now standard on the Eco model, and the range-topping LTZ model features newly added push-button ignition and fog lamps.

Overall, the Cruze is a very competent offering from Chevrolet. And buyers are beginning to take notice. Perhaps small-car leaders such as Honda and Toyota have something to be worried about.

Comfort & Utility

It's hard to find much wrong with the Cruze's five-passenger cabin. It is spacious, high-quality and well configured throughout. The gauges and controls within its unique twin-cockpit design exude refinement, interior materials feel solid to the touch, and the optional two-tone color schemes are downright upscale in appearance. It's hard to believe this is a Chevy.

Although the seats are well padded and supportive, there is an issue with positioning. They're slightly lower than they should be, which hurts forward visibility a little. The back seats are worse than the front in this respect.

Passenger space is abundant in both rows. There's plenty of legroom up front and an adequate amount in the rear. The back seat is ideal for two adults, but can certainly fit three in a pinch. Three kids in the back seat is no problem at all.

In the same way, cargo space is phenomenally roomy. If vehicle classification was based on the size of a trunk, the Cruze would definitely be a mid-size car.

The Cruze is available in four primary trims: LS, Eco, LT and LTZ. Notable standard convenience features for the LS and Eco models include power mirrors, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker stereo. The LT1 and LT2 models add such features as cruise control, leather upholstery, seat heat and power adjustments for the driver. The range-topping LTZ brings automatic climate control and push-button start. Key options include a sunroof and a premium audio system.

The Cruze aptly delivers a comfortable, well-appointed space for both driver and passengers, making it a solid choice as a small family car.

Technology

For a compact car, the Cruze's technology is surprisingly premium. The roster includes Bluetooth connectivity, a USB +interface, a navigation system and rear parking sensors to offer assistance with backing into tight spots.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Cruze offers a choice of two engines. The base engine is a 1.8-liter inline-4 producing 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque.  Output is managed by either a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic. EPA-estimated fuel economy is 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway with the manual and 22/35 mpg with the automatic.

The more intriguing powerplant is the 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4, mated to the same two gearboxes. This is the first year that the six-speed manual is offered with the turbo. Output is 138 horsepower and 138 pound-feet of torque.  Fuel economy is an impressive 26/38 mpg with either transmission choice.

The Cruze Eco model is propelled solely by the 1.4 turbo but also adds a series of aero upgrades and low-rolling-resistance tires to optimize efficiency. Its fuel economy tops that of virtually all subcompact cars and even some hybrids. It's rated at 28/42 mpg with the manual and 26/39 mpg with the automatic transmission.

Safety

The Cruze stands alone in the compact-car segment by assuring occupant protection with a barrage of 10 standard airbags. Aside from front, side and head curtain bags, the Cruze puts airbags at the knees of the driver and front passenger and adds two side bags for the rear outboard positions. The Cruze also has ABS and stability control.

Driving Impressions

The Cruze displays a driving experience that's split evenly between ride and handling. On one hand, it offers a solid and comfortable ride that's ideal for virtually any type of driving. Road noise is almost nonexistent, thanks to a deliberate effort to buffer the cabin with advanced sound-deadening materials.

On the handling front, the Cruze is confident in corners, showing off a decidedly sporting character when pushed to its upper limits. Calling it nimble may be going too far, but the Cruze is definitely well composed through fast turns.

Both engines are adequate for normal driving, but the 1.4-liter turbo has a more spirited feel.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Focus - The Focus is the Cruze's most direct competitor. Both vehicles mark a turnaround for their respective carmakers. The Focus is a slightly better handler and offers more youthful styling.

Hyundai Elantra - The Elantra beats the Cruze with a more stylish exterior and a richer equipment list, but the Cruze is more fun to drive.

Honda Civic - The Civic and the Cruze are comparable in fuel economy and road manners, but the Cruze actually feels more solid inside and out. Believe it or not, the Chevy beats the Honda in the refinement test.

AutoTrader Recommends

We think the best Cruze for cruising is the Eco model with a manual transmission to manage its 1.4-liter turbo. This combination makes the Cruze truly fun to drive, while offering class-leading highway fuel economy. As a bonus, it's on the lower end of the Cruze's price range, affordable both to buy and to drive. The Cruze Eco is solid, smooth, quick-footed, well equipped and efficient. With credentials like those, it's no wonder if its competitors are starting to feel a little uneasy.

author photo

Shamit Choksey has a love for automobiles that worked into an early career writing and developing cop shows for network television. Later, diving even further into the world of wheels, he became a writer/producer for the Emmy-nominated PBS/Discovery Channel series "MotorWeek." These days, Shamit lives in Southern California, serving as a media consultant and journalist within the automotive industry. Incidentally, his wife and two sons are not impressed by any of this.

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