Big ride: Nothing small about new Chevy compact

Small cars are big this year, but there’s nothing compact about the new models rolling off the assembly line as manufacturers are rewriting the rules for fuel-efficient passenger cars that provide the room and features of what we used to consider mid-size vehicles.

The new Chevrolet Cruze is a classic example.

Manufactured at the General Motors Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant, the 2011 Cruze began rolling into Chevy dealership in the U.S. last fall — although it is already established as a popular model in Europe and Asia.

The front-wheel drive sedan comfortably seats five adults and is designed to go head-to-head against the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Nissan Sentra.

With a base price starting below $17,000, the Cruze has obtained Five Star safety ratings and features a long, long list of standard safety features, including 10 standard airbags, StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover sensing, traction control and anti-lock brakes, to name but a few of the safety features.

For the 2011 model year, the Cruze will be sold in five trim levels:

Cruze LS (starting at $16,995) includes the 1.8-liter engine (138 horsepower) mated to a six-speed manual transmission, power rear door child safety locks, OnStar with Turn-by-Turn navigation, air conditioning, power windows, remote keyless entry, driver information center, auxiliary jack for personal devices and XM Satellite Radio.

The 1.8-liter engine uses regular unleaded fuel and has an EPA fuel economy rating of 26 mpg city, 36 mpg highway (22/25 respectively when equipped with the six-speed automatic transmission).

The Cruze LT (starting at $18,895) is powered by a 1.4-liter turbo Ecotec engine (138 horsepower) and mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. It also includes 16-inch wheels.

The 1.4 turbo requires regular unleaded gasoline and has an EPA fuel economy rating of 24 mpg city, 36 mpg highway for LT models.

The Cruze 2LT (starting at $21,395) ads six-way power driver seat, heated leather seats and trim, Bluetooth connectivity, USB port with audio interface, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and remote start.

The Cruze Eco (starting at $18,895), features manual transmission, 17-inch wheels with ultra low-rolling resistance tires and enhanced aerodynamic performance package.

Cruze Eco models (powered by the 1.4 engine) are designed to achieve higher fuel economy. The Cruze Eco has an EPA rating of 28 mpg city, 42 mpg highway when equipped with the manual transmission (26/37 respectively when equipped with the optional six-speed automatic).

The Cruze LTZ (starting at $22,695) builds on the Cruze 2LT by adding cruise control, automatic climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, 18-inch wheels and ultrasonic rear-parking assist.

The Cruze is a nice vehicle — far from what you would expect from compact models of the past.

It is roomy, elegantly designed, nicely equipped and delivers a solid ride on the road.

I highly recommend it for a test drive.

Neal White has been covering the automotive industry for more than 20 years and is affiliated with the Texas Auto Writers Association.

MODEL:

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

5-seat compact sedan 

Front-wheel drive

Trim packages:

LS, LT, 2LT, Eco, LTZ

PRICE RANGE:

$17,000-$25,000

ENGINE:

1.8-L I4 (138 hp/125 torque)

1.4-L turbo I4 (138 hp/148 T)

TRANSMISSION:

6-speed manual

6-speed automatic

EPA: 26/24/28 mpg city, 36/36/42 mpg highway (1.8/1.4/1/4 Eco)

FUEL: Regular unleaded

TRACTION CONTROL:

StabiliTrak with traction control

BRAKES: ABS

LENGTH: 181 inches

WHEELBASE: 105.7 inches

WIDTH: 70.7 inches

HEIGHT: 58.1 inches

TRUNK: 15 cubic feet

TRACK: 60.7/61.3

(front/rear)

FUEL TANK: 15.6/12.6 gallons (Eco is 12.6 gallons)

TIRES: 16-, 17-, or 18-inch

SAFETY: Dual front dual-depth front airbags, seat-mounted head curtain side impact airbags, remote keyless entry, et. al.