by David Finlay (3 July 2012)
At the time of writing, the most recent alteration to the Chevrolet Cruze range was the introduction of a new 1.7-litre diesel engine. Producing a maximum of 128bhp, it replaces the less powerful of the two-litre diesels previously available, though the 161bhp version (as fitted to the hatchback tested recently) is still on the books.
The arrival of the 1.7 is one of the best things that has ever happened to the Cruze. It may not have as much power as the surviving two-litre, but it performs very well from low revs, being quite happy to accelerate hard when the revcounter is showing just 1300rpm. 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds and a top speed of 124mph are entirely adequate, while the 62.7mpg combined fuel economy figure, helped by the fitment of a start/stop system, is impressive (though unlikely to be matched in everyday motoring) and the 117g/km CO2 emissions mean annual payments of £30 in Vehicle Excise Duty - easily the lowest in the Cruze range.
In terms of opinions rather than figures, the 1.7 also strikes me as being the correct engine for the Cruze. It has not too little power and not too much, and it's well-balanced with the handling, which is really rather good.
Hold on a minute. Did I really say the handling was good? Well, this is a first. In the past I have only ever driven Cruzes because it was a requirement of the job, not because I actually wanted to, and that's mostly because they have been unpleasant to drive. But I rather like this one.
"What is going on here?" I demanded of the Man from Chevrolet. "You know as well as I do, even if you can't say it, that Cruzes are rubbish to drive, but now here's one that is agile on corners, rides well and is generally a pleasure to be with. You must have done something to the suspension. What was it?"
"We haven't done anything to the suspension," he responded with some heat, and for a while we batted mild insults backwards and forwards without actually getting anywhere. But then the Man from Chevrolet had a brainwave. "I know what's happened here," he said. "All the Cruzes you have driven in the past have had 17" wheels. This one is on 16s. That's all. There have been no other changes."
Goodness. A one-inch difference in wheel diameter (matched by the all-important fitment of tyres with taller sidewalls) turns the Cruze into a car I would prefer to avoid if at all possible to one I could almost imagine owning. Never let anyone tell you that this kind of thing isn't important.
All the same, it's still the case that one of the Cruze's chief attractions is its low price - £17,825 in the case of this mid-range LT example (the better-equipped LTZ is still fairly cheap at £18,685, but it sits on 17" wheels so to hell with that). There are several signs of how Chevrolet managed to achieve this, perhaps the most obvious being that the plastics used for the interior trim are surely the cheapest the company thought it could get away with it.
The load sill at the rear is annoyingly high, which makes getting luggage in and out that bit trickier than it needs to be. Luggage volume with the rear seats in place, on the other hand, is quite impressive at 413 litres - that's 62 more than in a Vauxhall Astra hatchback, and nearly 100 better than the Ford Focus offers.
So: low purchase price, low taxation, high fuel economy, a surprisingly good driving experience and very decent load-carrying capacity. If I had to have a Cruze, it would certainly be this one.