In the mass-market MPG race, Chevy's Cruze is the one to watch and wait for.
While the Chevrolet Volt has been stealing headlines (mine included) with its environmentalist cache and its electron-wily ways, the replacement for the Cobalt is shaping up to be the fuel miser for the masses.
Yesterday evening, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would qualify the Volt for a $7500 tax rebate. Toyota is not at all pleased with being left out in the cold; they've redoubled their lobbying efforts to get the bill amended before a vote in the Senate.
While the exact size of the rebate remains unknown, the current speculation pins the Volt's sales price at $35,000 or so, a large chunk of change for the average family. Hence why the 2011 Cruze — Chevrolet's successor to the maligned Cobalt — will go on to be GM's mass-market fuel sipper and the company's likely savior.
But not before a whirlwind tour in Europe.
When sales begin next March, the Cruze will be offered with three engine choices: a naturally aspirated 1.6 liter inline four good for 112-horsepower, a 140-horsepower, 1.8-liter turbocharged four or a 2.0-liter turbodiesel four producing 150 horsepower and 320 Nm of torque. Five speed manuals will come standard on all Cruze models. The Cruze will also be the first compact car to offer GM's new six-speed automatic transmission as an option.
While official EPA figures aren't available yet, the 1.6 liter four is projected to return about 45 miles per US gallon of gasoline. Judging by the contemporary Opel diesel lineup, the 2.0 liter diesel Cruze will likely get up to 50 mpg per US gallon.
These are impressive figures, considering that the current Cobalt eeks out 34 miles per gallon and only when tarted up in XFE trim with a miserly ECU tune and low-rolling resistance tires.
But despite the new car's technological bona-fides, the Cruze faces stiff competition simply overcoming the precedent set by the mediocre Cobalt sedan.
"Our goal in designing Cruze was to be bold, not evolutionary," said Taewan Kim, chief designer on the Cruze. "We wanted to take a big step forward, making a strong design statement for Chevrolet products around the world."
Kim clearly broke with the Cobalt and Cavalier mold, giving the Cruze an arching roof-line and steeply raked windshield that together seem more Teutonic than its bulbous predecessors. At the front, the Cruze employs one of the better uses of Chevrolet's global dual-panel grille layout — a trend your author still despises. Large headlamp housings frame the signature grille, wrapping around the front corners giving the Cruze an aggressive countenance that again seems more Germanic than Yankee.
Then why the long wait?
After decades of floundering in the compact car market, it seems like General Motors is finally beginning to understand how to use it's engineering muscle effectively. But the next step is to get the product planners on board. The Saturn Astra is the first US compact car to build on GM's strong European offerings; as gas prices rose, the Astra became a viable competitor. The Cruze seem set to solidify those gains.
Which begs the question why American buyers must wait until 2011. When viewed with the same cynicism as the Cruze's predecessors, the pre-sale braggadocio is merely a shot across the bow of Chevrolet's Japanese and Korean competitors, giving them nearly three years advance notice to counter the Cruze's strengths.
Mr. Wagoner, if you're reading this... stop talking and start selling.
After all, the purpose of building a competitive car is to sell it, rather than gaze at it longingly from afar.