My Week with a 2011 Chevy Cruze

Thanks to the fine folk at Chevrolet, my recent road trip from Boulder, Colorado to Santa Fe, New Mexico ended up as a chance for me to have an extended test drive of the popular Chevy Cruze, a cute little four door compact.

The trip itself was about 800 miles: 320 miles, Boulder to Taos, NM. An overnight at the cool Dobson House “earthship”, then a pleasant 70 miles to Santa Fe, NM, where my traveling companion and I enjoyed a terrific massage at 10,000 Waves and a night at their peaceful Japanese-style lodgings, followed by 420 miles Santa Fe back to Boulder.

2011 chevy cruze

I’m a gadget enthusiast so the first thing I always check out with a new car is its ability to deal with my own gadget collection. Can it interface with an iPhone 4? Does it have a USB jack for charging my devices? The Cruze did pretty well in this department, having both an AUX in and USB jack hidden in the arm rest between the front seats. I like that because I can plug in an iPod and hide it from sight. Problem was, it worked fine with my iPod Touch, but the iPhone 4 didn’t quite interface properly (thanks, Apple, for constantly tweaking the interface) so while the program information showed up on the car display, the control buttons didn’t all work, notably Play/Pause. This meant that we kept unplugging the phone from the system if we wanted to take a break from our audio book (Water for Elephants, if you’re curious), which kinda stunk.

Then again, the Cruze included a subscription to SiriusXM Radio, which is just amazingly perfect for road trips because you can pick a favorite channel and listen to it for hundreds of miles. I’m a long-time veteran of road trips and spent way too much time in the past trying to find stations that weren’t drowned in static as I drove through rural areas. After much experimentation we settled on the jazz classics station, mixed up with 70s on 7 and 80s on 8 for some variety.

Having said that, I also have to say that I think XM still has its subscription model wrong, which is why I’m not a subscriber today. I could probably handle $20/yr for an online subscription that let my computer & smartphone tune in to any XM content I wanted, and another $25/yr for my vehicle (plus, I realize, the cost of hardware in the latter case). But $10/mo per device and another $5/mo for online access? Way overpriced when I have over 20gb of music and thousands of Internet radio stations from which to choose…

Not Chevy’s problem, right? Agreed.

dobson house, santa fe taos nm

The other fun thing that was included in the Chevy Cruze that was also a favorite part of my loaner Equinox (see Thoughts on a week with the 2010 Chevy Equinox) is OnStar. If you haven’t tried this, it’s really pretty darn cool and, as integrated into the Cruze display system, a terrific GPS navigational tool that’s 100x easier than punching in addresses or using a Garmin or similar third-party device.

It’s as easy as pushing a button and saying “Can you please give me driving directions to Trader Joe’s in Santa Fe?” and 60 seconds later having your car tell you how close you are and where to turn to get there as quickly as possible. There’s more you can do with OnStar, of course, but we primarily used it for driving directions and found it really terrific.

If I didn’t have a $3000 nav system installed in my Toyota Highlander, I think a retrofit OnStar system really would be a smarter use of that money and cheaper in the long run too: $28/mo gets you the full service and soon enough you’ll be able to retrofit any car with OnStar (I saw it demonstrated at CES in January).

I should mention that I’m pretty tall (6′ 3″) and when I pushed the driver’s seat back to get comfortable, the legroom in the seat behind me shrunk down to no more than 5-6 inches. My kids would not have appreciated being stuck in the back with so little room! It’s a typical problem with compact cars: there’s just not that much space in the passenger area so if you’re tall and push your seat back, you’re definitely impacting the space behind.

One thing about a road trip is that you really get to find out what kind of gas mileage a car gets. Not the sticker numbers (estimated is 26/37) but actual data. And we found that the Cruze got 33.2 mpg averaging across all driving, quite respectable! In fact, my Toyota Prius (2nd gen) was rated to get 45-50mpg, but in practical use my mileage was always in the high 30s, surprisingly close to the Cruze mileage for a car that was way more expensive and a ‘flagship’ vehicle for the green car revolution. My thought as I drove the $21K Cruze? That I’d really been ripped off with that Toyota hybrid tech. But that’s another story, I suppose.

The car was definitely comfortable to drive and had surprisingly good performance. As configured, we were driving the 2011 Cruze ECO with its Austrian 1.4L ECOTEC VT DOHC 4 Cylinder turbo engine and a 6-speed manual transmission with ECO overdrive. The base cost of the Cruze is $18,175 and with everything we had on the tricked-out car Chevy loaned me it was $21,130 (without haggling) (ugh)

One funny thing I noticed on the sticker (loaner cars come with their price sticker so reviewers can see exact configuration and options) is that the car had as a standard feature a “tire sealant and inflation kit in place of spare tire”, but the ECO model had a $100 “compact spare tire” upgrade. I guess that’s the norm nowadays, but I couldn’t help think that a shredded or trashed tire wasn’t going to magically become usable from a sealant and inflation kit, so it seems to me that everyone would choose this $100 upgrade. Am I wrong?

The car also had a remote start capability, but I couldn’t figure out how to get it to work. That’d be sweet on those cold Colorado winter mornings, though. OnStar’s iPhone app also offers this sort of feature (another good reason not to lose your phone!) but since I wasn’t the owner of the OnStar account, they couldn’t give me the data needed to test it out.

Typically for American cars, the Cruze has five different models, all named by someone who can’t afford a vowel: LS, 1LT, 2LT, LTZ and ECO. I think it’s confusing as can be and have to say that one of the things I dislike about buying any car is the complexity of figuring out optimal package combinations, add-ons, etc. Why not have one model and two or three variations but have all the cool stuff be standard and make the manufacturing process easier at the factory too?

In summary, I really enjoyed taking the Chevy Cruze on a road trip. 800 miles was more than enough to find it was fast, comfortable, safe, and well able to handle even the 11000ft pass on our route to Taos, wet, snow-slicked roads and all. If I were in the market for a compact car, this would definitely be on the short list, along with the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla. It’s definitely great to see an American car manufacturer that is producing a quality product.

In case it’s not obvious but in the spirit of full disclosure, Chevrolet supplied me with the Chevy Cruze without charge for my test drive and road trip. I didn’t receive any payment or other consideration for this writeup.

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