Everyone remembers (fondly?) his or her first car. The older you are, the more entertaining the story of yours will likely be. While I’m hardly “old”, my first car was a “Fire Engine Red” 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier, endearingly referred to as “Little Toot” by friends and family due to its hilariously puny-sounding horn that couldn’t scare a squirrel.
A lot has changed in two decades: the engine displacement has nearly halved, the number of gears in the transmission has literally doubled, and my own weight has probably doubled, to name a few.
Twenty years later, fate – or rather, the car rental counter – provided me with Little Toot’s reincarnation: a “Cajun Red Tintcoat” 2017 Chevrolet Cruze LT. They’re both red – brightly so – and the trim name even has the same initials as Little Toot!
A lot has changed in two decades: the engine displacement has nearly halved, the number of gears in the transmission has literally doubled, and my own weight has probably doubled, to name a few. Unlike my beltline, the Cruze and Little Toot both come in around 1,315 kg – impressive since the Cruze is 76 mm longer, and wider than its predecessor (twice-removed, counting the Cobalt). For what it’s worth, the first-generation Cruze (2008–2016) weighed between 170 and 272 kg more than this iteration – quite the nip and tuck for a compact sedan!
Little Toot’s power was thanks to the General Motors 2.2L “LN2” inline-four-cylinder engine making 120 horsepower with a staunch 140 lb-ft of torque, routed through a three-speed automatic (the base car had a five-speed manual). Fuel economy was about as poor as you’d expect for the time: 11.8 L/100 km city, 7.8 L/100 km highway. Ouch.
Modern Cruze models are powered by a 1.4L turbocharged and direct-injected four-cylinder engine making 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, an increase of 33 hp and 37 lb-ft over Little Toot’s unit. Its fuel economy is a comparative marvel of engineering: 7.9 L/100 km city and 5.9 L/100 km highway. A diesel variant is also available with 240 lb-ft of torque should your driving habits be largely highway-based or if you frequent hilly terrain. The diesel claims to sip slightly less at 7.6 L/100 km city and 5.0 L/100 km highway.
No matter your Cruze, the fuel tank is a stated 46 L, which must employ Montgomery Scott to hide therein to “give ’er all she’s got” as the driver calls down to engineering. How else could the stated “range to empty” onboard show 943 km? I’d still have difficulty believing it, except that we had about quarter of the tank left after a 776 km trek from Guelph to Ottawa, with a stop in Keswick to meet a friend (who, conveniently, leases a red 2016 Chevrolet Cruze LT Auto).
To confirm the above, the Cruze sipped only 36.5 L of fuel (of regular 87-octane), good for a measured-by-hand fuel efficiency of 4.7 L/100 km and beating the official highway rating by 1.2 L/100 km. No efforts were made to hyper-mile, as my wife thankfully need not testify to (in traffic court). For the record, we had the air conditioning running in 35 degree heat, passed at least 401 trucks (isn’t that how the highway got its name – from the number of trucks you’ll have to pass in any given drive?), and the weight of two adults (well, my wife is dainty and essentially weightless).
As a note, engine auto-stop while idling is standard, and cannot be directly defeated (the engine will continue running if you set the air conditioning to maximum, for example). Good thing its operation was smooth and relatively unobtrusive. I quite liked it – and surely it helps with city fuel economy, which I saw around 7.2 L/100 km according to the onboard readout in the less-congested City of Guelph.
Driving the Cruze is above average for the segment. While it lacks the sharp steering of its competitors, its handling is ideal and the suspension absorbs road imperfections marvellously. The Cruze is also very quiet inside at highway speed, with no disturbances due to wind or road noise. Brake pedal feel is linear and predictable, and acceleration is strong after some brief lag. The transmission is tuned for fuel efficiency, and so throttle input is a bit lazy. While there is no sport mode per se, the shifter can be put in “L” mode and manual gear changes are possible using a toggle switch oddly placed on top of the shifter knob.
Both this Cruze and Little Toot are the “volume” (read: most popular) trims, the latter also a “base” trim (as it was aptly called). The sole options back in the day were limited to a CD player (which of course was installed, to be ahead of the times), and an anti-lock braking system (ABS). Door locks, windows and headlight controls were of the do-it-yourself variety. Yeah, I’m not leaving anything out. Heated seats? Nah. Navigation? Dream on. Traction control? LOL. The Cavalier could be had as a coupe or a convertible, whereas the only other body style the Cruze offers is a recently released hatchback.
The 2017 Cruze tested was an LT Auto with the 1SD package ($21,595 MSRP). Cheaper units can be had for $16,295 in the L trim (manual transmission only); but most folk in North America have foregone shifting for themselves and would instead consider the LS Auto ($20,595), the as-tested LT, or the Premier at $24,195.
While Little Toot didn’t seem “bare bones” thanks to comparatively low expectations in the ’90s, the Cruze, as equipped, is a relative flagship in terms of feature content. My wife several times asked me to stop talking about the car after praising its value proposition, including the 7.0-inch touchscreen interface that runs Chevrolet MyLink software. The Cruze has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, in addition to OnStar, with its subscription-based 4G LTE and in-car Wi-Fi capabilities.
From my perspective, MyLink is fabulous. There’s nary any lag with inputs, which is great and all, but it’s the ease of use that earned my (apparently too-frequent) admiration. First, there’s the 25-channel preset that can store across sources (i.e. XM Satellite, FM, or AM radio), which far beats its competitors’ typical six channels (fine, 12 if you count both “FM1” and “FM2”). While there’s also the ability to play music from your cellphone via Bluetooth, USB and aux; it’s the thoughtful ways in which Chevrolet has included a button for “Direct Tune” that found my favour. Want to go from XM channel 79 (RadioDisney) to channel 4 (Pitbull) without having to jab at the screen some 60 times? No biggie – the Cruze has got your back. Sound quality from the six-speaker stereo (an upgrade over the L and LS trims) was fine by my amateur ears. Also incredibly useful is the steering-wheel-mounted controls, the buttons for which are on the rear to reduce clutter.
The clear and bright back-up camera, with guide lines, is displayed on this screen as well – great while driving on someone else’s lawn to take pictures of the car’s shiny red paint.
Just as I was leaving said photoshoot, a call came through from my father-in-law; no need to touch or check the phone, a simple press of a button on the wheel has the call connected. Remember that 35 degree heat? The fan speed for the air conditioning (manual, single-zone) was on full. Suddenly the fan speed drops to about 25 percent (despite the knob remaining untouched) so that I can hear the call. Brilliant!
Constructive criticisms include deplorable fit and finish in places (such as where the A-pillar meets the headliner, and the crooked installation of the USB/aux and 12V inputs in the lower centre stack). On the topic of USB/aux inputs, there are none in the centre storage compartment, meaning your cables have to be out in the open all the time. In terms of outward visibility, it’s average, though the windshield wipers stop a good three to four inches away from the edge of the A-pillar, leaving a larger-than-acceptable blind spot during precipitation events. Finally, the steering column stalks are positioned/angled too high for reach with hands properly placed at “9 and 3” – their placement suggests driving with hands at 9:30 and 2:30.
Despite the minor flaws, the Cruze is full of nice little touches. The fuel door doesn’t require that you pull a lever inside: you simply press on the back half of it while the doors are unlocked. The headlights are automatic (albeit output and flood width at night are merely adequate), and there’s the aforementioned MyLink interface. Rear-seat occupants also have a USB charging port in the back of the centre console (though only one to fight over), and there are rear HVAC ducts under the front seats.
In terms of safety, a major consideration when frequenting the “deathtrap” – my nickname for the Queen’s Highway 401 – the Cruze has ten airbags, including one for the driver’s knee. While you do not want to watch the crash-test video for the 1997 Chevrolet Cavalier, the IIHS rates the Cruze as “Good” overall (it’s not a Top Safety Pick as the 2016 model forward has not yet been fully tested).
From an ergonomics perspective, the Cruze has nice, wide seats with cushy bottoms. This trim doesn’t have any lumbar adjustments, but I had no issues after six-plus hours of driving especially considering that I have a (very, very) bad back. Seat length is plenty long to avoid thigh fatigue, and the headrests are set far enough back to not be obtrusive. The Cruze really is a fantastic highway cruzer (I’m not sorry).
Upon returning the car, I knew I had to do one thing to pay homage to my first love: blast the horn at an unsuspecting rodent. I’m a little sad to report that it’s a proper, “Hey, that’s my acorn” sort of sound instead of the Road Runner “meep-meep” from the Little Toot, but at least now your friends and family won’t laugh at you.
Come to think of it, I probably would have been more popular in high school if I showed up in a Cruze instead of Little Toot, updating Facebook in the parking lot via the onboard Wi-Fi. Hmm, I don’t think my high school had Wi-Fi back then… or internet at all. At least I never had to walk home in the snow, uphill, both ways.
|153 hp @ 5,600 rpm
|177 lb-ft @ 2,000–4,000 rpm
|7.8/5.9/6.9 L/100 km city/hwy/cmb
|2017 Chevrolet Cruze LT Auto 1SD
|Price as Tested
$595 – Paint $595