Chevy Cruze: Loaded With Expectations

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Chevrolet Volt. That plug-in hybrid has been promoted for years as a sign that General Motors can still innovate, despite going through bankruptcy.  But as much as that car is trying to change GM’s image, there’s another car entering showrooms right now that could prove much more important for the company and our region. Dan Bobkoff of our Changing Gears team takes a look at the importance of the Chevy Cruze and whether it stands a chance.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze RS
Photo: GM

The new Chevrolet Cruze is a small car with a coupe-like design, a classy interior and lots of airbags.

It’s also fully loaded with high expectations. For GM, Cruze must be a white knight.

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“I think it goes without saying that Cruze is probably the most important passenger car that both Chevrolet and GM have ever done,” said Margaret Brooks, head of marketing for Chevy’s small cars.

That’s because GM is aiming for a big target: basic transportation that sells in big numbers.

The Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic have dominated this market for years.

GM won’t disclose its sales goals, but it would likely be happy if it matches the 200,000 to 300,000 cars its competitors sell.

That’s crucial for Lordstown, Ohio, where the Cruze is built. It’s a small community on the Ohio Turnpike as you near Pennsylvania. As you drive by, you can’t miss the big Cruze banner hanging out front the plant.

In past decades, Lordstown was known for quality problems and labor strife.
It’s turned around in recent years, and survived GM’s bankruptcy.

If the Cruze succeeds, as Brooks thinks it will, Lordstown wins too.

“We made the decision to put a third shift of production in place earlier this year even before we sold the first vehicle,” she said.

Gearing up for the Cruze, GM put more than 1000 workers back on the job there.

And, the car means more business for the Ohio companies that supply parts.

But all this is assuming the Cruze will do well. Jeremy Anwyl heads the consumer car site and he says GM has a lot of work to do to convince customers it can build a good compact.

“Small cars being built by Detroit were just not competitive,” he said. “And, I think what the Cruze represents  for Chevrolet in particular, but also for the US auto industry is, yeah, maybe Detroit can build competitive small cars.”

Many think the Cruze could be make or break for the company as it tries to shed its “Government Motors” image.

Taxpayers still own 61%.

As the new, leaner GM prepares an Initial Public stock offering later this year, the company says it faces a lot of risk. It needs sales volume. It needs customers to think more highly of its products. And, it needs good new cars coming to market.

The Cruze is supposed to be the first step for all three. So, how does it drive?

I asked Eric Tingwall of Automobile Magazine to take me for a spin. He comes out of a turn and leans on the gas pedal.

“When we’re test driving cars, you kind of have a mental checklist,” he said while behind the wheel.

We’re driving around a park near GM’s headquarters in Detroit. Chevy officials are sitting quietly in the backseat.

For a car that starts at about 17 grand, Tingwall is impressed—especially by the interior with its faux metallic and glossy black trim.

“If you look at the quality and the style here, you won’t find anything like that in the Toyota Corrolla or Honda Civic,” Tingwall said.

But to get people into its showrooms, Chevy has to overcome a starting price about a grand higher than its competition and its customers’ past experiences with the brand.

“I’ll probably never buy another Chevy,” said Megan Robison, as she waited while her Honda Civic was serviced near Cleveland.

“I had a Cavalier  and I just wanted something more reliable.”

Even Margaret Brooks of Chevrolet admits its previous small cars like the Cavalier and Cobalt were not the best.

“Certainly if we look back the last couple years—decades really—we kind of lost our way a bit with Chevy,” Brooks said.

Tingwall of Automobile Magazine says Chevrolet can easily move 100,000 cars just by competing on price.

“The difference between a great vehicle and an acceptable vehicle is going to be another 100,000 vehicles.”

And in the next year or so, Honda, Ford, and Toyota will all be replacing their compacts with new models.

So, saving GM could be a tall order for one little car called Cruze.

Update: On Monday, examined the early reaction of automotive journalists to the performance of the Chevrolet Volt. Said Jalopnik: “The Chevy Volt has been hailed as General Motors’ electric savior. Now, as GM officially rolls out the Volt this week for public consumption, we’re told the much-touted fuel economy was misstated and GM ‘lied’ about the car being all-electric.”

You can read Jalopnik’s story here.

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