Most pictures come from my first day of ownership. The car’s dull paint is due to dew.
Most pictures come from my first day of ownership. The car’s dull paint is due to dew.

This is a review of my personal 1st gen Chevy Cruze drawing from 18,000 miles and over 2 years of experience. Mine is a 2012 base model with the 1.8 liter NA engine, automatic transmission, and painted a curious shade that may or may not be autumn red metallic (I’ll get back to this). This post also features Snuze: is a mustang’s take on his higher trim 2012 Cruze LT with the manual gearbox and turbo engine.

Most importantly, I picked up my pristine example with 100k on the odometer in July of 2018 for just $4,900! The Cruze is a fantastic value used and is unmatched in modern design and features at that price. It also has a surprising amount of character for a modern compact. The first generation is easily the most competitive small car GM has ever made.

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The black plastic behind the rear windows is the only part of the exterior that feels cheap. Additionally, the chromed plastic suffered UV damage
The black plastic behind the rear windows is the only part of the exterior that feels cheap. Additionally, the chromed plastic suffered UV damage

What is it?

The Cruze is GM’s small world car for the early 2010s, based on the ubiquitous Delta II platform. Designed in a collaboration between Opel and Daewoo, it was also badged as a Holden. The US did not receive the wagon or hatch bodystyles. The US market models were all manufactured in Lordstown Ohio (RIP).

The Cruze blurs the line between compact and midsized, in an attempt to get Americans into small cars again. It largely worked, selling over 250,000 units every year of its production run.

Essentially, it is a largish compact that fits 4 Americans comfortably and 5 in a pinch. The overall minimalist design is also surprisingly Germanic (Opel roots) but with South Korean running costs (Daewoo roots). The Cruze was one of the first cars to get Chevy’s new design language for the 2010s.

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How does it drive?

Ride

It drives way bigger than it is, which was always the point. The steering is firm and slower than expected, with almost no on center dead spot. The car does not encourage you to drive it fast, but doesn’t complain too much when pushed hard. It doesn’t understeer much until pushed hard, but body roll is significant. The tuning puts its limits well outside its comfort zone, but hard cornering can still be rewarding.

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Overall steering feel is good and the front wheels are easy to place. You forget how small the car is behind the wheel. However, most road feel comes from the rear end and not the front.

The suspension is very soft and soaks up most bumps well. The ride is much more comfort oriented than many compacts, but unsophisticated suspension dampening detracts from the experience. Vibrations from the suspension, particularly during rebound, are readily felt on bumps. Additionally, wind and tire noise are noticeable.

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Surprisingly, the car suffers from some highway instability at high speeds. Semi backwashes and strong winds can push it slightly off course.

The front approach angle is very bad. Also note the attractive hubcap design. The car’s paint is great at hiding dirt and grime without being silver.
The front approach angle is very bad. Also note the attractive hubcap design. The car’s paint is great at hiding dirt and grime without being silver.
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However, this is the easiest to see out of modern car I have ever driven. Visibility is fantastic, and completely effortless. There is no backup camera, but the rear window is large, low, and close, making backing easy.

Unfortunately, the front approach angle is very poor. I scrape the rubber air dam under the bumper on everything.

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Engine

My Cruze has the base naturally aspirated 1.8 liter Ecotec engine making 138 hp and 125 lb/ft of torque. A turbocharged 1.4 was available that produced the same horsepower and 23 more torque at a higher RPM. The 1.4 has slightly better fuel economy, but significantly decreased reliability. I have had no problems whatsoever with my NA 1.8 engine, and parts and repair costs are low. The engine is not powerful, but can move the 3,000 pound (1360 kg) Cruze along without fuss, with about 22 pounds to a horse.

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The optional 1.4 suffers from several problems, as related by Oppositelock’s own Snuze: is a mustang.

The problem is, that in the long term, the Cruze has been one of the least reliable cars I’ve owned. In 140k miles I have to repair/replace the turbo, camshaft VVT actuators, radiator & hoses, intake manifold, and 2 valve covers. The intake and valve cover thing in particular really chaffs me. It’s such a dumb design - the PCV system has valves built into the intake, valve cover, and a hose at the turbo inlet. GM says it’s a “lifetime” system, but they go bad, often in as little as 50k miles, and when one valve goes bad it usually takes the other 2 with it. Unlike other cars that use a $5 check valve you can get at the auto parts store, you’re stuck replacing the entire intake manifold ($155), and/or valve cover ($75), and/or intake hose ($55).

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Transmission

The 6 speed automatic suffers loss in horsepower and torque over the 5 speed manual. Additionally, it can suffer from rough shifts on low speed coasting. The transmission is geared very low to allow for better low speed acceleration, but ample torque allows it to retain sixth gear on most roads.

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The manual mode on the 6 speed auto is the most difficult semi-auto I’ve used but also the most rewarding. The car responds well to shift inputs and there is great tactile feel. Sometimes, the automatic gets upset during low speed coasting, ignores your inputs, and puts it in first at slightly too high an RPM.

The 5 speed manual is not easy to find, but would be a vast improvement over the automatic with its superior fuel economy and horsepower rating.

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Illustration for article titled 1st Gen Chevy Cruze: The Oppositelock Review and Buyers Guide

The interior

The car really shines with its cavernous interior and modern technology. The cabin has an upscale feel and attractive design with a large airy greenhouse.

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4 American adults can fit comfortably, and 5 in a pinch. Headroom and knee room is unparalleled in the compact segment. The narrow deeply bolstered seats are reminiscent of a VW Golf’s, and hold you in place in the corners while remaining comfortable.

The cloth seats are supportive and highly adjustable. The seats can be a bit hard on long trips however. The tan cloth inserts are a different, harder wearing material than the black cloth. Leather seats were available.

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The rear has ample leg and headroom, but the front seats are far back in this picture
The rear has ample leg and headroom, but the front seats are far back in this picture

The biggest difference in interior volume over a much larger car is not in headroom or leg room, but in elbow room. The car is narrow, and you will knock elbows with your passengers.

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The two tone interior design works well and appears upscale. The bright tan cloth lightens up the cabin, but differing trim levels came with various combinations of single or multi color interiors. The trim is mostly plastic with a medium quality glossy finish, but soft touch materials on the dash and armrests give the cabin a premium feel.

Additionally, the car has an absolutely enormous trunk. The same handle that lifts the trunk floor up doubles as a hook to hang the carpet from the trunk opening lip. It is a really clever feature, and saves taking the whole carpet out to remove the spare tire. I have found that a basketball can be wedged perfectly between the wheel well and side of the trunk.

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Illustration for article titled 1st Gen Chevy Cruze: The Oppositelock Review and Buyers Guide
The quad tail lamps both light up at night. The car also has amber turn signals in the rear
The quad tail lamps both light up at night. The car also has amber turn signals in the rear
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The exterior

The most striking feature of this car is its color. Due to a strange issue where the paint code was not printed in the proper place, I have no way to verify what color exactly it is. My research indicates autumn red metallic, but I could be wrong. The Cruze also came in several brighter reds, a deep blue, and British racing green. However, finding one not painted white or black is difficult.

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The steel wheels are uncommon, but have some of the better modern hubcaps I’ve seen. I have since repainted the steel wheels black, because the paint tends to wear off where exposed.

The large greenhouse, subtly aggressive grille, and quad taillights combine to create an understated but distinct enough design. Not overly remarkable but not boring either.

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The car has a digital display for the radio and one integrated with the gauge cluster
The car has a digital display for the radio and one integrated with the gauge cluster

Features and quirks

The Cruze boasts many features not present in other $5,000 used cars. Automatic engine oil life tracking, tire air pressure sensors, OnStar, and Bluetooth are standard. The doors lock automatically when put into drive, which I have grown to like.

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I have found the steering wheel stereo and hands free calling buttons to be useful. On the center stack, commonly used switchgear has great tactile feedback, particularly the volume knobs and lock button. The lesser buttons do not feel as well dampened, but still fall to hand better than many cars more expensive than it.

The only lock/unlock button in the car. Very satisfying to push
The only lock/unlock button in the car. Very satisfying to push
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In addition to the RPM and mph gauges, a digital display is nestled in the instrument cluster. It can be configured to any combination of digital mph readout, trip info, and mpg tracking. A compass next to the odometer is a useful touch.

My pre-facelift Cruze has Bluetooth connectivity, but only for hands free calling. Music cannot play over the Bluetooth. Fortunately, both a USB and aux jack are found in the center console. There is a cigarette lighter in the front, as well as one in the back for the kiddos. The car has OnStar capability through a trio of buttons on the rear view mirror that all seem to do the same thing. I have never bothered to find out much about it, though.

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The car has only one lock/unlock button, located on the center console. The doors unlock after 1 pull on the handle, but guests always look for the lock button unsuccessfully. Also, the trunk cannot be opened from inside the vehicle. The key button does not work while in the ignition, and there is no interior trunk release. The only way into the large trunk is a button located above the license plate on the outside of the vehicle. Also, the seat sliding adjustment handle is ergonomically molded for easy grip, but is placed off to the side where no one can find it.

Safety and fuel economy

The Cruze is easily the safest car you can buy for less than $5,000. It not only received 5 stars overall on both the American and European crash testing cycles, but received 5 stars in the then new Small Front Overlap Crash Test! This means the car was one of the first to ace the most difficult crash test used today. Only recently did most modern cars begin to regularly pass this test. You can watch a video of this here. It also received marginal scores on the European pedestrian impact tests.

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The Eco trim can get up to 28/42 city/highway, but I average about 26/34 mpg in my car, which is the least efficient configuration. The car starts to run out of gearing at about 80 mph, and efficiency drops at those higher speeds.

A word about trim levels

The base LS trim still gets good equipment and independent rear suspension, but comes with steel wheels, crappy rear drum brakes, and is missing cruise control. The Eco trim is to be avoided. As per Snuze: is a mustang:

My car in particular is fun because it’s an LT manual, so I get the 1.4L + close ratio manual, and good suspension, vs. the Eco models which are the same 1.4L engine, but a wide ratio gearbox with triple overdrives, crappier ties, a beam axle out back to cut weight, less sound deadening, etc. The trade off is that the Eco picks up a few MPG. But I’ll take my LT which is more fun and still gets great mileage.

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Issues

This car is very well put together, and I have no quality or reliability concerns. A bad thermostat was the only failure in 17,000 miles of driving.

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However, the plastics, chrome, and rubbers on the outside could have held up better from the elements. Inside, the dash is slightly warped on one side from many Georgia summers.

The climate control on the Cruze is not strong. The fan is loud, and does not have enough increments. The AC and heat take much longer to come into effect than expected. GM blames it on making the engine too efficient, but no one buys that. Here is Snuze: is a mustang’s explanation.

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Conclusion

I still believe that the 1st gen Cruze was the most competitive small car GM has ever made. Everything from the build quality to the driving dynamics is far superior to its predecessors and much better than most 5k used cars out there. I would recommend the Cruze to anyone who doesn’t demand sporty feel or horsepower. Snuze: is a mustang feels similarly:

I bought mine brand new at the end of 2011 and I thought it was the best small car GM has ever made, and that’s probably still a true statement. I had a Cobalt before it, and the fit, finish, design, and quality of the Cruze was light years ahead of the Cobalt. I believe that, in terms of initial quality, the Cruze was just as good as the Civic, Corolla, etc. GM was also on the leading edge, making the jump to the small displacement + turbo formula - at the time the Cruze debuted most manufacturers were still running 1.8-2.2L non-turbo engines (at least in US models).

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A solid car with a beautiful interior, let down slightly by weak engines.

Hey Cruze owners! Did I miss something? What did I get right? How does the second gen stack up? Let me know.

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