2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+. Click image to enlarge

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Review and photos by Chris Chase

Photo Gallery:
2011 Chevrolet Cruze

When you’re talking about car engines and units of power, most people focus on horsepower as the most important number and don’t worry about anything else. But of the many factors that can affect a vehicle’s performance, the figure typically listed just below the horsepower number – torque – is arguably just as important as horsepower, if not more so, in day-to-day driving.

In simple terms, torque is the measure of how much power an engine makes, but horsepower indicates how quickly that power can be produced. A motor with significantly more torque than horsepower (think VW’s TDI diesel, with its 140 hp and 236 lb.-ft. of torque) produces a lot of pull but won’t move the car as quickly as an engine like the VTEC 2.0-litre in the Honda Civic Si, which makes an impressive 197 hp, but just 139 lb.-ft. of torque.

In the showroom, horsepower is the number more likely to sell a car, and more money typically gets you more horsepower.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+. Click image to enlarge

Enter the Chevrolet Cruze, General Motors’ newest compact sedan, replacing the Cobalt and Pontiac G5. Its base engine, a 1.8-litre four-cylinder used in the entry-level LS model, makes 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque, figures that aren’t out of place in this kind of car.

Normally, if a car company offers a second engine to power up-level models of a car, they give it more horsepower to help justify the extra cost. In the Cruze’s case, a 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder (powering the fuel-sipping Eco model, as well as LT and LTZ trims), does indeed make more power – just not where you expect it. It has the same 138 horses as the LS, but ups the torque to 148 lb.-ft., peaking at 1,850 r.p.m., instead of the 3,800 r.p.m. peak for the 1.8-litre’s 123 lb.-ft.

While the turbo engine doesn’t wow on paper in the place most shoppers might expect, it’s a different story on the road. As the specs suggest, the 1.4-litre is very responsive at low revs and provides satisfying thrust from a stop. It’s less thrilling at the top end, which is where the horsepower takes over and the engine feels more typical for the class. I noticed a bit of turbo lag (the delay between the right foot calling for power and the mechanicals delivering it) which is common in turbocharged motors, but while evident here, it wasn’t annoying.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+
2011 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo+. Click image to enlarge

The industry is seeing six-speed automatic transmissions starting to filter down into the compact class. All Cruze autos are six-coggers, as are the 2011 Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra; even the subcompact Ford Fiesta uses a six-speed auto. The Cruze’s automatic – GM’s Hydra-Matic 6T40 – has relatively short gearing (meaning the motor spins at a higher speed for a given road speed) that makes for great performance off the line, where the gearing and generous torque make the 1.4-litre turbo engine feel even stronger than it is. The short gears and close-coupled ratios also make for a lot of shifting in regular driving. This in itself is no big deal, but my tester didn’t exhibit the smoothest shifts, particularly from first into second gear. Acceleration felt non-linear, with a tendency to surge when the transmission moved into second gear. Out on the highway at 120 km/h, the motor spins at a respectable 2,800 r.p.m. in sixth gear.

The Cruze LS is the only one to use the 1.8-litre engine, which can be matched with either a six-speed manual or automatic transmission. The other three trims – Cruze Eco, LT and LTZ – get the 1.4-litre turbo motor, and of those, only the Eco can be had with a manual. Don’t get your hopes up about the Eco being anything like fun; its fuel-frugal gearing would take all the joy out of full-throttle running.

Natural Resources Canada rates the Cruze with 1.4-litre turbo engine at 8.5/5.5 L/100 km (city/highway); my tester averaged 9.6 L/100 km in city driving. For comparison’s sake, the 1.8-litre engine is rated at 9.2/5.6 L/100 km when paired with its optional automatic transmission. The Eco is rated 7.2/4.6 with the manual transmission and 7.8/5.1 with the automatic.

The overboosted steering is responsive, and the Cruze handles nicely for what is otherwise a rather ordinary car. The suspension limits body roll in corners and yet is compliant enough that the ride never punishes the car’s occupants, even on rough roads. Particularly impressive is the lack of road and wind noise; even at highway speeds, there’s virtually none of either, making the Cruze feel richer than its price-tag suggests.

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