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Car reviews - Holden - Cruze - 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Chunky looks, interior seat space, suburban abilities
Room for improvement
Tinny build quality, open road inadequacies

3 Oct 2002

HAS any car this small ever generated this amount of hate mail from the motoring media?

Some of the most respected motoring journalists in the country have dumped on the Cruze. Check out what the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian had to say, published in the "other opinions" section of this road test.

Both followed up the scorn with a 1.5 out of a possible five-star rating.

Media derision of the Cruze also ties in to a bigger issue - accusations that Holden is becoming arrogant as a result of its sales success in recent years, that it believes it can sell anything in big numbers.

Even a tarted-up Suzuki Ignis all-wheel drive with some mechanical and suspension revisions.

Fact is the first three months' sales of the Cruze have actually born that argument out. Holden wanted to sell 1450 between launching the car on July 1 and December 31. After three months 1331 had rolled out of dealers.

It is a sensational result when you consider its closest nominal competitors in this tiny-tot end of the 4WD market - the Daihatsu Terios and Suzuki Jimny - managed about 2700 sales between them in all of 2001.

Of course a three-month trend is no long-term indicator of success, just like a negative road test is no guarantee a car will flunk.

So what do we think? We think the Cruze is pretty average, no doubt about that. But we also can understand why it is selling so well.

For around $20,000 here is a car that looks pretty tough in a cute sort of way - inside and out - courtesy of a Holden-developed styling package, finally gaining the company a toehold into the off-roader boom with its mini-LandCruiser looks, higher seating position and better visibility.

At the same time it is so small it is great as a city runabout, just like any mini hatchback, which it essentially still is. Yet it is still packaged well enough to fit four full-grown adults.

Chuck in the perceived safety advantage of all-wheel drive, a reasonable standard of equipment including dual airbags, a CD player and remote central locking (ABS and metallic paint are the only options) and a Holden badge on the grille - and you can see why it has every chance of selling well.

But note, among all those advantages we have not talked about performance, dynamics or refinement.

That is where the Cruze falls down. The 1.5-litre 74kW/138Nm four-cylinder Suzuki engine which the Cruze gets over and above the Ignis is enthusiastic enough - without being a standout - when mated with the five-speed manual transmission, but is slowed appreciably by the four-speed auto, as is often the case with small-capacity engines.

But the manual gearbox has its own drawbacks, primarily being a sloppy, loose shift that draws comparisons with some of Hyundai's poorer efforts - and they are pretty poor!

Chassis performance has been the area most heavily addressed by Holden. That includes a 20mm wider track front and rear to fit a bigger 15-inch alloy wheel and tyre package, tuning changes to the dampers, the ride height boosted to 180mm to comply with Australia's lower 4WD import tarriffs, and recalibrated steering.

The upshot is a car that steers heavier and rides better than the Ignis, but still is no great shakes at either basic function. The raised ride height means it tends to lean more in corners than the donor car, which can be disconcerting. Put a family onboard and the suspension seems to give the game away, suggesting the car is under-damped.

That is not to say Holden's engineers have't succeeded in improving Cruze's behaviour compared to Ignis. They have. It is just that Ignis is a pretty ordinary base camp from which to launch your assault on Mount Chassis Dynamics.

The Cruze's viscous-coupled on-demand four-wheel drive system is the sort of technology used in the Honda CR-V and is intended only for light off-bitumen applications like gravel roads. Of course, it is also an ally when the roads are wet, but for the most part the Cruze is a benign front-wheel driver with quite good levels of grip followed up by classic understeer tendencies.

Do not be fooled by those faux bash plates front, rear and on both sides of Cruzes you see in photographs. They are purely decorative and - worse - they are actually accessories, along with a whole bunch of other bits and bobs that shine up the exterior and interior.

Which means despite Holden's claims that it has kept off-road driving in mind when developing this car, it has not seen fit to protect any of the rather fragile looking mechanical underpinnings.

Fragility is not limited to what is normally hidden either. There's a tinny, under-developed feel to the Cruze that is indicative of Suzuki vehicles. Just rap your knuckles on the dash, slam the rear doors or even check out the tiny hinges which attach them to the body and you will see what we mean.

It is a far cry from Holden's locally-built Commodore or Opel-sourced cars like the marvellous Astra and entirely solid Barina.

And while the interior is sparkled up a bit and given more character than the Ignis, it is still not entirely resolved in the role of being a car for those of a recreational or getaway sort of mind.

There's no luggage space to speak of with the rear seats in place, but then drop them down and while they fold flat they don't flip forward. The result is a hump right in the middle of your newly expanded luggage area. It is no help when trying to load something as unwieldy as a mountain bike.

Even the cupholders mounted at either end of a tray that runs under the dashboard show up the almost-but-not-quite execution. Commendably large they may be, but still not big enough to accommodate a sports drink bottle.

Obviously, the budget did not extend to changing an item that obscure, but the point is it personifies the Cruze. It's a nearly car, rather than the real thing.

Chances are Cruze will have its moments in the sun and then be forgotten - like the Holden Drover. Remember that? It was a Holden version of the Suzuki Sierra that sold for two years in the 1980s before quietly disappearing.

Holden has much bigger four-wheel drive fish to fry. Its own domestically developed range of utes, wagons and eventually passenger cars is coming, and it is also destined to play an important role for parent General Motors in developing a compact off-road wagon along the likes of the CR-V and Subaru Forester that will be sold internationally.

Look at the Cruze as a beginning point, a foothold, rather than the full explanation. It will sell to a certain market to which the packaging appeals far more than the mechanical execution - and will give Holden valuable experience in selling into this lifestyle market.

But it will not win any media "car of the year" awards, that's for sure.

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