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Car reviews - Holden - Cruze - CDX sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Disarming value, top-shelf safety, superbly designed and presented interior, cabin space, family-sized boot, sweet handling, decent dynamics, six-speed auto availability, Holden dealer back-up
Room for improvement
1.8 petrol engine’s performance and economy shortfall, heavy, CDX’s firm ride, no hatch (yet), steering could use a little more weight and feel, derivative styling, should come with a five-year warranty to match other ‘value’ rivals such as Hyundai and Mitsubishi

18 Jun 2009

VIVA, Astra, Nova, Gemini, and Torana – a string of badges have graced the posterior of Holden small cars since the first appeared during the legendary EH model’s reign more than 45 years ago.

Oddly, Viva is the oldest as well as the most recently superseded name, and on both occasions (1964 to 1967 as a Vauxhall, and from 2005 until now as the reconstituted Daewoo Lacetti/Nubira) it came to represent pure and unadulterated mediocrity.

Mercifully, like the car, the name has now been banished from Australia. And good riddance we say. But we’re less happy about seeing the German Astra vanish, the victim of unfavourable exchange rates, it would seem.

In their place then comes Cruze, another blast-from-the-past moniker, last employed on a Suzuki Ignis-based and built Holden light car/SUV crossover. Sold in Australia from 2002 to 2006, the earlier Cruze has somehow been erased from public consciousness, like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

Interestingly, Holden’s Cruze is a proper GM small car, since it is built on the German Opel-designed Delta II front-wheel drive architecture that actually replaces the dear old AH Astra.

Keener ‘General’ aficionados will realise the Cruze is the first Holden small car since the TX Gemini of 1975 to be both engineered by Opel and earmarked for manufacture in Australia.

However, that won’t happen until late in 2010, so for now we get our cars from South Korea. And an Australian-designed and built hatch version will join the Cruze at that time as well.

Dimensionally, the sedan is no Tom Cruise, measuring almost 4.6 metres long, 1.8m wide and 1.48m tall, and ensconces a considerable 2685mm wheelbase. This puts the Cruze on par with the mid-sized Holden Vectra of a decade ago.

Or, in other words, this ‘small car’ is actually longer and larger than the EH, considered back then as a large family car. So you can understand why Holden is banking on plenty of private sales.

Few folk will argue that the Cruze’s profile is its most flattering angle, espousing a VW-style turret curvature while boasting the sort of crisp surfacing for which Audi is renowned.

Too bad about that awkward proboscis then – more porcine than Penelope Cruz-pretty – but at least it is original: the tail-lights are shameless Honda Civic sedan rip-offs, even when they are turned upside down as they seem to have been here.

Well, it leaves us with little doubt as to what sort of market GM is aiming for, anyhow.

Thankfully the Cruze’s interior is an absolute and original first-class effort. If showroom appeal is all that is needed for a sale, then Holden has an absolutely massive success on its hands.

Open the solid feeling door – and please admire the details such as the tight shutlines, triple-layered door seals, felt window inserts, extensive use of dampening material, and single-unit upper body structure and frame, implores Holden boss and Cruze development chief Mark Reuss – and memories of the shabby old Viva vanish faster than that car’s dismal resale value.

There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about the dashboard’s design, but what does stand out is how attractive, functional and well made it is.

Recessed inside a chrome-trimmed binnacle is a set of instruments that are both smartly scripted (in cool Speed Racer-style font) and incredibly easy to read. They enclose a duo of dials (fuel and temperature) as well as an LED display for the odometer and trip computer readouts. They’re all illuminated in a cool jade green.

The centre console acts as a focal point, pointing downwards in a V formation, containing a usefully large and effective pair of air vents on either side of an excellent audio and vehicle-settings interface that is topped by another, larger LED display screen for these functions.

Similar but simpler than, say, BMW’s i-Drive menu, it allows the operator to change a range of car-related items, from the clock to altering the auto-lights on/off time out.

As with all the switches and controls on the dash and steering wheel, each is clearly marked, large enough to use without being an eyes-off-the-road distraction, and tactile in feel. The finish here is just fantastic.

Holden has stylised the lower console area to encapsulate the gear lever area as well as the heater/air-con controls, and again there is no need to study the owner’s manual to ascertain how any of these items work. And it all looks brilliantly cohesive.

Standout items include lane-change indicators, a ‘FAV’ favourites facility for your desired AM and FM radio stations to be included within the same set of buttons, a size-adjustable front cupholder, an intelligent mixture of trims and textures that – except for the hard and scratchy lower door and handbrake areas – feel impressively expensive, and a VW-esque style headlining presentation.

Topping off the driver’s environment is a handsome three-spoke steering wheel that tilts and telescopes, ample storage areas and a pair of front bucket seats that rate for both comfort and support. We challenge anybody not to find the ideal driving position.

Regrets? The Cruze’s cabin does raise a few. Downsides run to an AWOL left footrest, a stubborn seat-height adjuster, vision-impeding pillars all round (an unfortunate modern car malady, it must be said), and leather that looks and feels more like cheap vinyl.

Entry into the rear is hindered by that arcing roof line, requiring a bit more ducking and weaving than in some other rival sedans, while said ceiling blights headroom for taller bods seated out back.

The centre rear pew is no paradise if you are larger than Cruz Beckham, and rear vents would be nice, as it can get stuffy inside. We steamed up the windows without even thinking a lustful thought.

Another rear-seat complaint is that there is considerable road-noise intrusion back there. It’s not as bad as a Mazda3’s, mind, but it is an ever-present drone that back passengers must endure.

But there is class-competitive leg, knee and shoulder space for outboard occupants, door and front seatback map pockets, overhead grab handles, and a wide centre armrest with cupholders to aid your stay in the Holden’s hind quarters. Better still, the back windows fall completely away. Hooray!

Offering 400 litres, the boot is usefully large and adequately deep despite the existence of a full-sized (steel) spare wheel below a pitifully flimsy floor. It’s also easy to load and unload thanks to a low lip and large aperture, and the 60/40 split fold seats lay flush with the boot floor for the benefit of longer items, but we feel the presentation here singularly betrays the Cruze’s cheap-car origins.

Never mind. Just remind yourself this Holden has a state-of-the-art small-car cabin environment. Great work GM. As we said at the launch: if you did not know that the Cruze was South Korean-made, you would just assume it hails from Europe – and the boot from Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Our test car was the $23,990 CDX 1.8 automatic, but we feel that the same is true of the cheapest Cruze, the $20,990 CD. Indeed, the latter’s sassy cloth trim inserts, boldly emblazoned on the dash and doors, is downright special. We prefer it to the CDX’s ho-hum leather.

Now if all this doesn’t dazzle the value-seeking small car buyer, then cop this lot.

The CD includes six airbags, stability control, anti-lock brakes, Electronic Brake-force Distribution, traction control, collapsible pedals (all helping the Holden achieve an ANCAP five-star crash-test safety rating, FYI), cruise control, steering-wheel mounted audio controls, air-conditioning, power windows, remote central locking, auto-on headlights, six-speaker CD/MP3 audio, a trip computer, heated exterior mirrors, body coloured exterior trim, and 16-inch wheels. The hubcaps don’t look bad either

Do the sums and no rival can comply for the money. For instance, the fine Mazda3 needs to be the $24,990 Maxx to match the Cruze CD. This Holden heaves with the kit others charge extra for.

Another $3000 scores you the CDX’s leather trim, heated front seats, necessary rear park assist, 17-inch alloys, and front fog lights. Frankly, we say stick with the cheaper version.

In any case, all Cruzes also come with a one-turn starter key, segueing us nicely into how this car feels on the road.

In a nutshell? Slick and competent, but the petrol-powered Cruze is no small-car segment Top Gun to drive.

Our biggest issue concerns the ageing GM Family 1 engine beating behind that snub snout.

The familiar but revised 1.8-litre twin-cam 16-valve unit that has powered Daewoos and Holdens for aeons now features continuously variable valve timing that employs a compact hydraulic vane type phaser “to flatten out the torque curve”, according to Holden.

Power and torque outputs are 104kW at 6200rpm and 176Nm at 3800rpm respectively. Seems all right.

But even though 90 per cent of torque occurs between 2200rpm and 6200rpm, this engine needs to be wound out to perform up to modern expectations – a corollary of its hefty 1415kg mass. That’s more than 150kg – or more than 10 per cent – more than the equivalent Mazda3 or Corolla.

The outcome is predictable. Tootling around town gently, there certainly seems enough performance on offer, with the six-speed automatic as tested – the only small sedan to offer one right now, by the way – always at the ready to kickdown when you need to speed up.

However, constant foot-to-the-floor stomping is required when joining fast flowing traffic, or even during ordinary overtaking scenarios.

And while the old 1.8L is quite keen to rev, it starts to sound harsh at around 6000rpm, and there isn’t much actual increase in oomph anyway, just plenty of noise.

Annoyingly, the auto seems to be forever down-changing and then changing up again – often jerkily – as it searches for that elusive right ratio.

Sixth (top) gear is locked out until you are cruising along at freeway/highway speeds, and it is only then that you’re humming along quietly. But the fact is there simply isn’t enough power in reserve should you need to execute a quick passing manoeuvre, especially as flooring the throttle simply obliterates the peace.

Load the Cruze with people and luggage and the whole performance picture wilts like a dying magnolia.

While on the subject of open road driving, we also noticed that the cruise control is too susceptible to even gentle inclines, gaining speed too rapidly. Its operation is quick and easy though.

Unsurprisingly, exercising a heavy right foot means that a price is paid at the petrol pumps. Forget the 7.5L/100km Holden quotes. We could not get this car’s fuel consumption below 11.1L/100km, in a mix of urban and freeway driving.

But, Holden fans, don’t despair. A solution is at hand right now.

We suggest you forget the petrol and choose the $3000 Diesel option instead.

It packs a considerable 110kW/320Nm 2.0-litre turbo-diesel that is capable of delivering 6.8L/100km in six-speed auto guise. With power and economy to spare, the Diesel overcomes the Cruze’s biggest flaw. Sorted.

Utterly conventional describes the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension arrangement, but this does not mean that the Cruze is not a keen handler.

Backed up by responsive and well-weighted powered steering system, the Holden tackles turns with eagerness and finesse, aided by plenty of grip from the 17-inch 215/50 R17 rubber.

Find a series of interesting corners, and the Cruze will happily carve right through them, impressing with its controllable, flat and predictable attitude.

However, turn the wick up a little more, and the Holden’s steering seems a little too light for the job, and a tad nervous to boot, when zig zagging through a bunch of bends. It is here, at the higher end of the dynamic spectrum, where the Cruze’s sturdy torsion beam rear end lags behind the best of the multi-link independent brigade.

Furthermore, the ride, though quiet, can be quite abrupt over certain, bumpy surfaces, as if the springs are reaching the end of their compression too early. Smaller road irregularities are dealt with no problem, but bigger ones are all too easily transmitted through to the car’s occupants.

We’ve also driven the standard CD 16-inch 205/60 R16 tyred versions and we believe this delivers a better ride/roadholding compromise, since the underlying firmness that permeates the Cruze’s suspension absorbency is markedly reduced. This is another reason to buy the base model Cruze and lash out on the diesel instead.

Our CDX braked without any cause for concern, stopping quickly and cleanly even after repeated tests. Holden’s engineers seem to have succeeded in making this car’s driving experience feel measured and whole.

But the Cruze, like the rather wooden-feeling Astra before it, lacks the overall dynamic polish of the small car segment’s leading drives, the Mazda3, Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.

The thing is, though, the Cruze’s price tag does not come within a cooee of this sort of competition when you factor in feature for feature. Basically, you’re paying at least 10 per cent more than some, and even the costlier CD Diesel version often manages to undercut several petrol rivals.

During our time with the Cruze we imagined the perfect small sedan would possess its interior, Mitsubishi Lancer styling, Focus dynamics, Civic economy, Mazda3 performance, Corolla reliability, and the Hyundai Elantra’s warranty (which Holden should investigate).

But while the Cruze petrol automatic’s performance shortfall compared to its competition undermines it for all but the least demanding motorists, scoring only a midfield placement as a result, the gutsy Diesel steps up as a very real value, economy, safety, and comfort proposition in the Australian small car segment.

We could not ever recommend the old Viva, and only the Torana sixes and later V8s live up to this car’s growing cult status, but the Cruze deserves to sit alongside the Astra, Nova and Gemini in Holden’s cavalcade of competent small car contenders.

GM is right back in small sedan contention. Just ensure the badge on the back also says ‘Diesel.’

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