Tuesday, July 10, 2012

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Wagon

Since it came on the scene in 2009, General Motors' first truly global modern-day product, the Chevrolet Cruze, has become the company's best seller. Over 1.5 million deliveries – admittedly 46 percent to rental fleets, 12 percent to company car fleets and 42 percent as private purchases – have helped firmly establish the Cruze in people's minds worldwide.

And we've really liked our Cruze experiences so far. It won't necessarily win all the comparison battles going head-to-head with competitors (it did win one of ours – Ed), but it could well win the whole sales war, which is ultimately the best sign of a well-done mass-produced small car when it carries a Chevrolet Bowtie.

We've had drives aplenty in the original four-door sedan, and in 2011 we tooled around in the five-door hatch. Now it's the station wagon's chance to impress us. Besides the Cruze wagon's above-average load lugging credentials for everyday practicality, this li'l Chevy is important enough to warrant the simultaneous launch of a new range of turbo-diesel engines as well as the Euro-launch of the 1.4-liter turbocharged gasoline four-cylinder we've had from the start. The packages we tested definitely take the Cruze's game up a notch or two.

And then came the announcements of mass recalls right after our recent drive. Ah, well, it's gotten to the point where automakers' quality control people are using voluntary recalls with near enthusiasm, doubtlessly in an effort to fend off ugly court cases and/or government fines later on. But, all in all, this is a good trend toward corporate responsibility. May those 413,418 Cruze sedans in North America have their engine shields fixed post-haste and get back on the road to happy motoring.

This time around, the majority of our time was spent with the all-new 1.7-liter turbocharged four-cylinder Ecotec diesel powerplant developed at GM of Europe's studios in Turin, Italy. The engine is built at the Tychy factory in Poland – the same plant that formerly built all Isuzu diesels before GM took it over. Taking the pleasant Euro-ness of this drive to the max, our tester's compact 131-horsepower 1.7-liter with 221 pound-feet of torque arrived attached to a likewise new and solid six-speed manual transmission. With the start-stop feature chiming in at seemingly every lit intersection, this is the most efficient Cruze powertrain yet, delivering an estimated average on the (routinely over-optimistic) European cycle of 52.3 miles per U.S. gallon. Driving our accelerated version of 'average,' though, we realized actual consumption of 36.2 mpg, a decidedly more ordinary figure. Acceleration to 60 miles per hour is just fine at 10.2 seconds.

If the Cruze were already doing well in Europe, this powertrain in a wagon bodystyle should help sales zoom off the charts. GM Europe anticipates that just over 25 percent of Cruze sales on The Continent will be wagons, and that around 90 percent of those vehicles will rely on diesel propulsion.

The finest aspects of the Chevrolet Cruze station wagon as tested, besides the new engine and shifter, are the sheer space for cargo and the upmarket comfort we noticed in this top LTZ trim. Room behind the passengers ranges from a minimum of 17.7 cubic feet with rear seats up and a load that stops sensibly at the windows. Drop all seatbacks and load it like a collegiate, however, and those cubed feet rise to a full 52.2.

Driving the 1.7 Cruze LTZ wagon is an altogether sober and sturdy experience. It is not particularly nimble, nor is it surprisingly uppity under hard acceleration. Forget about it, but also don't criticize this noble little wagon for these issues. We left the little green Eco light on almost the entire time and were determined to simply drive more or less like an owner who obeys laws and such. Taken in this context, it's easy to understand why the Cruze is a runaway success. Cruising at 85 miles per hour at a smooth and quiet 2,200 rpm is a right good feeling. And the livability factors are huge here. In this trim, the 3,250-pound wagon is lovingly built like a tank. At least thus far, its dependability record – recent self-induced precautionary recalls aside – has been very good, too.

What we mainly noticed by switching from the strong diesel over to the equally strong little 1.4-liter turbocharged gas engine is its throttle response behavior, which is much cleaner and smoother, and with almost no turbo lag. Acceleration to 62 mph (100 kmh) with this little gas unit in the wagon is a commendable 9.5 seconds with the standard six-speed manual transmission.

As far as the energy-efficient electric power steering goes, there are no surprises here, either: it's soft to the hands but it's also precise heading down the road. GM of Europe reps are freely comparing this Cruze estate evolution to the sensation caused by the two-door, compact Nomad station wagon of 1955. Sadly, there is no V8 or six-cylinder available(!) and no evocative fins in the metal, but we get their point. This configuration of the Cruze lineup is, for us, the best yet, as it fills out the body and makes the front end's edginess feel more balanced with the design as a whole. The 17-inch wheels and tires that come with the LTZ trim don't hurt either.

We asked the engine guys on hand in Germany for this test what exactly happens when one switches on or off the Eco function. It felt as though more was going on than just the advertised Start & Stop deal. Well, we were wrong; the little Eco button governs just the Start & Stop deal, so it's not terribly sophisticated in the end. Having tested our fair share of diesel-powered cars and trucks with this technology aboard, the restart moment doesn't really bother us anymore like it used to. It used to feel slow, and in commuter stop-and-go traffic it could eat at us after a while, but either these implementations are getting slicker or we're getting duller. Maybe both.

Living inside the ample cabin of the Cruze wagon is a truly comfortable experience, and there's plenty of space for above-average-sized humans in front and back. Keeping with the tradition of the old Nomad, visibility for all aboard is terrific, though not quite so tour-bus expansive as on the Nomad, which didn't have to answer to the same crash regulations as today's Cruze.

By the time this model launches in Western Europe in September, LTZ wagons will not only come equipped with standard navigation and a backup camera, they will also be available with Chevrolet's MyLink integration system for smart phones and portable music players. We played with a demo version of this enhanced display and it's good, friendly tech that shouldn't actually jack the price by much. That price, could you get an LTZ trim Cruze wagon here, would most likely begin at around $25,000.

So, the Cruze station wagon completes the lineup in this first generation of Chevy's successful compact – no convertible model is planned. GM has already confirmed that it will market the Cruze in the U.S. with a diesel in 2013, but it won't be this new 1.7-liter engine. Instead, Stateside consumers will receive the larger 2.0-liter diesel that's already on sale in other markets. Under the hood of Australia's Holden Cruze, the 2.0 generates 160 hp and 265 lb-ft of torque, both numbers that compare favorably with its most natural rival, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI (140 hp/236 lb-ft).

Here's hoping that America's re-acquaintance with this diesel goes swimmingly enough that GM reconsiders bringing over this wagon, too. After all, not everyone who needs space and frugality wants to ride high in an Equinox.