In retrospect, it was probably a good thing that General Motors thought twice abut selling Opel to Canada’s Magna International during its bankruptcy proceedings in 2009.
GM was so cash-strapped that it was ready to dispose of its German subsidiary, a brand it had owned for 80 years. Magna teamed up with Sberbank, a Russian bank, in an ffer to buy the European automaker and expand Magna’s manufacturing footprint. GM hoped to retain 35% of Opel to maintain access to its engineering talent.
Luckily for GM, however, its rich restructuring plan, funded by U.S. and Canadian government cash, allowed it to suspend the sale and retain Opel’s assets – and just in time. Opel’s second-generation Delta platform would form the basis for Chevrolet’s all-new Cruze compact, while the mid-size Epsilon chassis underpinned several present and future GM models.
The Cruze represented GM’s most significant new vehicle at the time and played a pivotal role in the automaker’s comeback. It was the General’s latest attempt to build a compact car that would beat back the waves of imports in North America.
You know, like Saturn.
Features and powertrains
In addition to Opel, GM Daewoo had a big role in the car’s design and engineering. Production began in 2008 in South Korea, then in Russia and India. North American assembly began at GM’s Lordstown, Ohio, plant in September 2010.
According to GM, 65% of the car’s body structure was composed of high-strength steel to save weight and maintain integrity in a collision. It worked: the Cruze received the highest possible “Good” ratings in front, side, rear and rollover crash protection tests by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The Cruze’s electric power-assisted steering was supplied by Germany’s ZF; MacPherson struts held up the front end; and a budget-friendly torsion beam kept the rear tires in check, whilea Watt’s linkage located the axle laterally. To deaden noise and vibration, GM specified an isolating four-point engine mounting system and extensive sound insulation, as well as triple-sealed doors.
The cabin was smartly designed with good ergonomics and a nicely laid-out instrument panel. Designers used colour to great effect inside. Some buyers found the seats firm, but the kind of firm that wears well over a long day of driving. The rear bench offered unremarkable legroom, although the trunk was positively cavernous.
Base models made do with an aluminum 138-horsepower, 1.8-L DOHC four-cylinder engine tied to a standard six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The uplevel LT and LTZ variants used a turbocharged 1.4-L DOHC four that also made 138 horsepower, but produced more torque – 148 lb-ft compared to the 1.8’s 123 lb-ft Mercifully, it was a rare turbo that didn’t require premium fuel.
Other than some minor trim changes, the Cruze didn't receive any significant updates until the 2014 model year, when GM gave it optional diesel power. The Opel-supplied 2.0-L four cylinder oil burner made 151 horsepower and a whopping 280 lb-ft of torque. It had the distinction of being the first diesel-powered GM car in the North American market in 28 years.
The Cruze got a mild refresh for 2015 that included a tweaked front fascia and an updated cabin. It would be the last model year of the first-generation Cruze.
Driving the Cruze
Initial praise for the all-new Cruze gave way to the usual bleats about lacklustre performance seen in GM’s small cars.
Zero to 97 km/h came up in a somnolent 8.9 seconds, and that’s with the turbo four. The turbodiesel turned in a less sleepy 8.0-second time with the automatic tranny, tying with the vaunted Volkswagen Jetta TDI.
Even with the torsion-beam rear suspension, the Cruze handled surprisingly well in the curves, revealing its Germanic breeding. The electric power steering required little effort, while highway tracking was excellent. It was also an exceptionally quiet small sedan.
Compact cars are supposed to be fuel sippers, yet typical fuel consumption reported by Cruze drivers was no better than 9.5 L/100 km (24.8 mpg US) in mixed driving. On the other hand, Opel’s diesel proved more economical than VW’s TDI in controlled road tests.
Cruze drivers relish the car’s stylish interior, serene comfort, large trunk and pleasing door “thunk.” Yet while it telegraphs stout construction and quality assembly, owners have raised a lot of concerns regarding mechanical issues.
Foremost, the automatic transmission can be troublesome. Owners have reported slow and delayed gear changes, and very harsh downshifts. Some autoboxes have been replaced outright.
Also disconcerting are reports of antifreeze vapour in the cabin, which can cause burning eyes and nausea – never a good sign. A class-action lawsuit over coolant leaks has been launched in the U.S. Many owners have reportedly replaced the water pump, and often more than once.
“I'm on water pump number eight in 100,000 kilometres. GM extended the warranty on the part, but there is no engineering update. Needless to say, very inconvenient to have the car in the shop this often,” reads a post by a disgruntled owner of a 2011 model.
Other reported maladies with the Cruze include air conditioning woes, noisy steering columns, squeaky brakes, short-lived clutches, loose door seals and electrical faults. There are numerous recall campaigns involving the Cruze.
To be honest, there are many used compacts on the market that are more reliable than the Chevrolet Cruze. One U.S. magazine summed it up this way: “In replacing the Cobalt, the Cruze had small shoes to fill.”
2011-15 Chevrolet Cruze
- Smooth and serene cruiser
- Pleasant cabin
- Safety a strength
- Sleepy engines
- Jerky automatic transmission
- Rear bench a little tight
Things to Watch Out For:
- Overheating engines
- Leaky water pumps
- Faulty turbos
- Short clutch life
- Noisy steering columns