THE TIMES, as Bob Dylan sang, are most certainly a-changing - and nowhere in the automotive world right now is this truer than in America?s largest automaker, General Motors.
As bankruptcy looms and global market share falls (GM was recently overtaken by Toyota in the manufacturing stakes), the company has been shedding brands and cutting model lines to rationalise its operations and put the ledger back in the black.
A key part of the strategy is the introduction of more globally-shared model lines ? like Ford?s ?One Ford? global strategy - rather than the myriad variants we?re used to seeing across GM?s various marques. The Cruze, Holden?s new small/mid-size warrior, is right at the pointy end of this new initiative.
Some critics may dismiss it as being ?just another re-badged Korean import?, but such statements miss the mark entirely. While Australia?s first batch of Holden Cruzes will be sourced from GM?s plant in South Korea, this is no more a Korean car than it is European, North American, or, for that matter, Australian.
Development of the Cruze was carried out in a number of locations around the world (including Australia), with the epicenter of the project being in Europe. The Cruze is well-and-truly a global effort by GM, and the company has poured megabucks (US$4 billion, to be exact) into creating it.
But has it been worth the expense? We?ve already told you about the goodies the Cruze will pack for the Australian market (read up on them here), but how does the thing drive? Does the whole package ?work? and, more importantly, what doesn?t work?
TMR got an invite to the launch of the Cruze, and we were only too happy to go along and see what all the fuss was about.
Let?s start with the easy stuff first. While we first saw the Cruze ?in the metal? at the Melbourne Motor Show earlier this year, this was the first time we?d laid eyes on it away from the glare of the spotlight and out in the real world.
First impression? It looks good.
Granted, that face might not win any beauty contests, but the Cruze?s styling is inoffensive, modern and, to my thinking, occupies a sweet spot between the anonymity of the mild Corolla sedan and the wilder Mazda3. It?s conservative, but handsomely so.
It?s also well-proportioned and has a far more cohesive body-shape than that of its sedan competition from Toyota, Nissan and Ford, which ? arguably - are compromised by being based on hatchbacks.
The up-spec CDX model gets some additional brightwork, foglamps, a subtly-changed front bumper and a set of 17-inch alloys. But for the most part, it doesn?t look all too different from the base Cruze CD.
Venture inside, and you?ll find yourself ensconced in a rather pleasant interior. The centre stack dominates the dash and most controls are within easy reach of the driver, while the steering wheel on all models carries controls for the audio system and cruise control.
Buttons and switchgear are all reasonably large and feel solid, but the gearshift in auto-equipped models does feel a touch plasticky and sits far too high.
The instruments are clearly legible and the steering wheel is pleasingly thick, however some may take time to warm to the CD?s cloth-trimmed dash panels (which are wrapped in faux-leather in the CDX). I was rather fond of them, but given its unique treatment some buyers may not know quite what to think of it at first.
There are no complaints with the seating position, however, with the seat rails offering a huge range of movement and the steering wheel adjusting for both reach and rake. Tall drivers should have no problems fitting into this one, but I have one suggestion to Holden: give the Cruze a footrest.
The back seats are comfortable, and there?s loads of headroom and a decent amount of legroom too. Built-in storage is also plentiful, with bins in each door, four cup-holders, a map pocket in the front passenger?s footwell, a mobile phone pocket at the base of the centre stack and a decent amount of space in the glovebox and centre console.
The rear seats boast a 60-40 split and leads into a fairly sizable boot. At 400 litres with the seats up, there?s plenty of room for whatever stuff you want to throw in there, and large objects like prams and golf clubs should fit in easily.
So it looks good, and it?s practical. Those two boxes have been checked, but what of the third, the driving experience?
Holden sent us on our merry way through some of Victoria?s most picturesque roads around the Mornington Peninsula, where we got the chance to experience a broad spread of models in the Cruze lineup.
We started off in a Cruze CDX petrol automatic, the equal most-expensive variant in the range at $25,990. Aside from that towering stalk of a gearlever, the CDX feels reasonably upmarket ? a sensation no doubt helped by the leather seats, leather-clad steering wheel, heated front seats and piano-black dash inserts.
Twist the key and the 1.8 litre Ecotec four-pot (the same motor that?s in the current Astra) fires up and settles into a quiet thrum. NVH suppression is pretty good, and, once we got up to speed, wind noise was nicely muted and engine noise wasn?t intrusive at all.
The automatic gearbox does take its time getting the Cruze moving though, and off-the-line performance is hardly brisk. The petrol engine doesn?t have quite enough cojones down in the bottom end of the rev scale to really make the Cruze hustle, but then again this isn?t meant to be a performance car.
Things improve markedly with the CD diesel manual though, with the bigger 2.0 litre turbocharged donk delivering 320Nm of torque (nearly twice as much as the petrol?s 176Nm) and 110kW of power (six kilowatts more than the petrol).
The manual gearbox as fitted to the diesel is a good unit. The ratios are spread reasonably wide, but that allows it to take advantage of the diesel?s torque and makes shifting a less frequent affair. The chunky gearknob also feels good and the shift throw is light, if a little notchy when hurried.
There are two downsides to the diesel however. Firstly, it costs more, with the diesel manual retailing for $23,990. Secondly, it?s noisier than the petrol, but only when accelerating under load.
You will save money at the pump though, with the CD diesel manual consuming 5.7 litres of the black stuff per 100km compared to the petrol manual?s 7.0 l/100km figure.
After experiencing the torquey delights of the diesel manual our next steed was a CDX petrol manual, which we were able to put to the test on some moderately twisty and bumpy roads.
Coming straight out of the diesel and into the petrol the smaller 1.8 litre felt positively limp-wristed by comparison; but the presence of a manual gearbox at least gave the ability to keep engine-speed high and in the meat of the 1.8?s powerband. It?s a sweet-sounding engine when given the beans and although you?re not going fast, the manual does offer some kind of sporting experience.
Unfortunately the brakes don?t. That doesn?t mean they won?t stop you in time (they will), but Australian-specification cars have had the brake hydraulics modified to be less grabby, with the end result being a pedal that needs to be pushed quite some distance during hard stops. Not my preference, but then again your average Cruze buyer probably won?t be driving one of these quite as hard as I did.
Suspension control on rough and undulating tarmac is superb, especially considering the Cruze forgoes the complex multi-link rear suspension layout favoured by most of its Japanese competitors. The ride is nicely compliant with damping force leaning slightly toward the ?firm? side of the spectrum, and it inspires confidence on choppy tarmac.
Turn-in is crisp and the steering rack?s ratio is ideal for both town and country. Cornering performance is also quite good for what is a relatively unsophisticated suspension set-up.
Lastly, we had a turn in a Cruze CD diesel automatic ? the fourth and final drivetrain configuration in the Cruze lineup. Handling, braking and steering were identical to the previous cars we drove (indeed, it was hard to pick out a handling advantage between the petrol and diesel models), but this time the automatic proved to be a much better transmission when combined with the diesel.
If you must have an automatic in your Cruze, make sure you get it with the diesel. The extra torque works well with the six-speed slushbox, and where the petrol auto was lethargic the diesel automatic simply gets up and goes.
Mind you, the diesel auto uses a little more fuel than the diesel manual, with the automatic consuming 6.8l/100km compared to the manual?s 5.6l/100km.
The difference between the automatic and manual versions of the petrol models is much closer, with the manual using 7.0l/100km and the auto drinking 7.5l/100km. The lesson here is to opt for the manual and pocket the savings.
At just $20,990 for the CD petrol manual the 2009 Cruze is a decent drive at a decent price, and although there are some shortcomings in terms of performance, Holden?s ?30-something? target market is unlikely to be bothered by them.
Neither will downsizing retirees, empty-nesters or first-car buyers with a little more cash to spend, all of whom will be drawn to the Cruze for its compelling list of standard kit, safety gear and solid packaging.
Its detractors, unaware of its global-car origins, might point to the Korean origins of the first cars to go on the sale here as being a negative, but that would be selling the Cruze short. The Cruze, if anything, is proof of Holden?s place in the GM pantheon; when production starts here next year, that fact will be underlined.
The Cruze we sampled is screwed together tight and build and material-quality is high. It is a long way apart ? dynamically and in overall appeal - from the underwhelming Epica; and while it may be inexpensive, it sure doesn?t feel like it.
Overall the Holden Cruze has made a great first impression. It?s an important car for GM, both here and globally and if Holden can keep the pricing sharp, there is no reason it won?t do well here. For that matter, it may also be one a few key models to drag GM globally back on the track to profitability.
We?ll be getting our hands on a tester to put through a proper road test soon. So stay tuned for a more in-depth appraisal of the 2009 Holden Cruze.
The Cruze goes on sale nationally in June, with retail pricing being as follows:
- Cruze CD 1.8 litre petrol manual $20,990
- Cruze CD 1.8 litre petrol automatic $22,990
- Cruze CD 2.0 litre diesel manual $23,990
- Cruze CD 2.0 litre diesel automatic $25,990
- Cruze CDX 1.8 litre petrol manual $23,990
- Cruze CDX 1.8 litre petrol automatic $25,990