Tag Archives: General Motors

Motoring for the masses

A long-term look at Chevy’s global compact


Sadly, the Eco doesn't come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

Sadly, the Eco doesn’t come with fog lights, unlike higher-end Cruze models.

It’s been four years since Chevrolet began erasing the sins of the past with the help of its compact Cruze sedan.

In the fall of 2010, a freshly bailed out GM sprung a new model into the marketplace designed to compete, rather than just show up for participation marks. The Cruze rolled out with a splashy advertising campaign crafted by nervous executives and their secretly terrified underlings, designed to make people forget about the blandmobile that preceded it (and the one that came before that).

Offered strictly as a four-door sedan positioned on the large side of the compact spectrum, the Cruze was engineered to be everything the Cobalt and Cavalier weren’t. More rigidity, more spaciousness, more technology and more miles to the gallon was needed to wage war with the perennially popular Civic and Corolla, as well as lower volume offerings like the Focus, Sentra and Jetta.

Unlike the Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac G5 twins (as well as the Cavalier/Sunfire that came before them), the Cruze was truly a global car, manufactured in four continents and sold in five. Only in Australia was the Chevrolet nameplate shoved aside to make way for a regional GM division name – in this case, the Holden Cruze.

With a ho-hum yet competitive 1.8-litre four-banger serving as a base North American engine, the Cruze raised eyebrows by offering only 6-speed transmissions (both manual and automatic) – a game-changer for the compact field. GM took a risk by offering, as an uplevel powerplant, an engine smaller than that of its base model – a 1.4-litre turbo making the same horsepower (138), but with more torque (148 ft-lbs versus 125).

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

Lightweight 17-inch alloy wheels set the Eco apart from lesser (and greater) trim levels.

The cheap gas of the 1990s and 2000’s was by then no more, thanks to the oil spike of mid-2010, but memories of the big engine displacements it fostered were still fresh. A volume engine in a roughly 3,100-pound car that displaced less that a litre-and-a-half was a foreign concept for GM, and America as a whole.

The public would no doubt question it. Would it pull its own weight? Would a driver used to brawny V-6’s be able to tolerate this motorcycle-worthy 1,364cc mill? Was the car as a whole a flimsy piece of junk?

The passage of time told the story. The Cruze sold well as gas prices remained elevated for years amid a struggling economy, while the automotive industry quickly moved in the direction of smaller displacement turbos and transmissions with economy gearing aimed at wringing more MPG’s out of their lineup.

Horsepower sells, but so does gas mileage when money’s in short supply.

First contact

In November of 2011, a younger (but no more idealistic) version of myself wanted to drive one of those new sedans. Not surprisingly, I ended up with a volume LT model as a tester, equipped with the 1.4-litre turbo and automatic.

My review was published in a now-defunct chain of Ottawa-area weekly newspapers.

Going into the Cruze, I recalled driving a base Chevy Cobalt rental in the Rocky Mountains the year before. While the 2.2-litre engine made decent power, its antiquated 4-speed automatic put the ‘S’ in slushbox and made mountainous driving an irritating chore.

The 6-speed in the Cruze didn’t need the accelerator to be floored in order to necessitate a downshift, and the tiny engine pulled with surprising ease. As well, the interior of the Cruze put the never-ending soft-touch plastic of the Cobalt to shame, thanks to its two-tone fabric inserts in the doors and dash.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

Red fabric inserts in the dash and doors contrasts nicely with the black interior.

A tilt/telescopic steering wheel and a 6-way driver’s seat (that travels an incredibly long way rearward) made it easy to get comfortable behind the wheel, even with my 6’4″ frame.

The driving dynamics of the Cruze, from steering to braking and cornering, were substantially improved over the Cobalt. While I didn’t mention it at the time, the design of the Cruze, though cautious, was reasonably attractive and promised a long shelf life.

With the Cruze only just out of the gate at the time, and with GM compacts steeped in negative stigma, I pretty much declared the new model a winner in terms of value and content.

As it turns out, a lot of people chose to hand their money to GM in return for a Cruze. The 3 millionth Cruze rolled off assembly lines in Ohio in August of 2014.

Of those sedans that rolled out of Lordstown over the past four years, one was mine.

2011 Chevy Cruze Eco

The Cruze Eco was Chevy’s ‘Wow – look at those numbers!’ model.

With a triple overdrive 6-speed manual mated to the 1.4-litre engine, in addition to significant weight savings, aerodynamic improvements (including grille shutters that close above 20 km/h), and low rolling resistance tires, the Eco was designed to deliver head-turning mileage numbers.

The high-mileage model was a phenomenon that soon became common place for domestic auto manufacturers. Ford and Dodge soon had theirs in the form of the Fiesta SFE and Dart Aero, respectively.

Don't think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen...

Don’t think for a second that dropping a gear is going to make something happen…

The highway mileage figure for these cars is great for use in advertisements – you’ll see them preceded by the words ‘up to’.

The Cruze Eco, which seemed to only be sold in the colour red, subtly improved on the appearance of the base LS and volume LT models with chrome-plated 17-inch alloy wheels and a low-profile rear lip spoiler.

Inside, the two-tone upholstery (black and red seems popular!) is complemented by a similar motif on the doors and dashboard. There, the somewhat cheap-looking black plastic is broken up by fabric mesh inserts that are pleasing to the eye and seem durable enough.

The centre stack and console is trimmed in bright silver plastic that won’t fool anyone into thinking it’s aluminum, but makes for a brighter, more engaging interior nonetheless.

With the Cruze now an established presence, deals can easily be found on used and off-lease models. The Eco no longer carries a price premium after three years (it seems), making it a good deal for mileage-conscious shoppers.

Hence why I got into one.

The Drive

I’ve mentioned the comfortable driving position and handling characteristics of the Cruze already (Hey, how ’bout that turning radius?!), so we don’t need to venture into that. For a compact car, backseat space is acceptable, and a 15 cubic foot trunk puts it near the top of its class in terms of cargo volume.

As a past owner of several GM sedans, going back to the early ’90s, I was happy to see that the horrific 1st generation anti-lock braking system had been tossed on the trash heap of history. A ’93 Chevy Corsica and 2003 Pontiac Grand Am came equipped with them, and I loathed every second I spent trying to come to a full and complete stop.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

On a 163 km journey from Killaloe, ON to downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed an average of 66.5 mpg (Imp.), or 4.2 L/100km.

The anti-lock system on the Cruze, which featured rear drums for weight savings, stops far faster and with far less pedal pulsation that the older GMs. On ice and snow the difference is even more noticeable – slick conditions confused those earlier brakes, and both cars had a tendency to give up on slowing down if the surface was slick, even with the brake pedal to the floor).

Traction control keeps the Cruze planted while cornering (at reasonable speeds) on snow and gravel, and can be shut off in order to slog through the deeper drifts.

At low to moderate speeds, the Cruze’s steering is just what you want it to be. Precise and power assisted at low speeds, the steering firms up nicely as speed rises.

On the highway, travelling on straight stretches, I take issue with the need to perform minor, ongoing steering corrections, due to an otherwise firm wheel that offers a little bit of play – play that translates into unwelcome trajectory changes. With your hands off the wheel, the car doesn’t wander, but with a two-hand grip, you’ll find yourself constantly making subtle corrections.

Most of the time these actions are subconscious, but it’s still an issue that should be addressed in the second-generation Cruze.

The Cruze's design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The Cruze’s design fared well, but will be updated significantly for the 2016 model year.

The triple overdrive gear set on the Eco’s 6-speed manual can take most of the credit for the model’s great highway fuel economy, but it does make around-town driving a little tricky. Don’t think that dropping a gear in any situation (even on the highway) is going to make an appreciable difference in acceleration.

Given the loftiness of those top three gears, dropping two ratios is almost always required to perform your average ‘manoeuvre’. The mileage that comes from that gearbox and all the other fuel-saving gizmos is appreciated, though, especially when you see the price at the pumps.

GM lists the Cruze Eco’s highway fuel economy at 4.6 L/100km, or 61 MPG (Imp.), which is 11 MPG more than the least efficient Cruze model.

On a 163-kilometre drive from the rural Valley town of Killaloe to my driveway in downtown Ottawa, the Cruze Eco managed to average 66.5 MPG, or 4.25 L/100km. The trip was made on secondary highways and a four-lane highway, and I kept to the speed limit (but didn’t drop below).

Driving normally, highway jaunts usually return mileage in the 57-58 MPG range.

The Cruze was a big step up in late 2010 and it’s still a capable, competitive vehicle. I’ll be interested to see the specs on the second generation model, which comes out next year as a 1016 model.

Shakedown Cruze

The next-generation Cruze will aim for significantly improved fuel economy.

The next-generation Cruze will aim for significantly improved fuel economy.

Chevy Cruze buyers can expect more choice starting with the second-generation 2016 model.

The GM Authority blog dished out almost all that can be said of the future Cruze last week, revealing that the new car will come with new Ecotec engines (note: pural), less weight, and an optional 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that could be standard on high end models.

A partnership between GM and a Chinese company is behind the creation of this new transmission. The 6-speed automatic and manual will continue to be offered in the Cruze line.

All of these changes to the popular Chevy compact are designed to make the vehicle more competitive, as well as more fuel efficient. Sources are saying mileage gains will be 14 – 21% higher than the first generation Cruze.

That kind of a bump is considerable, given that the original model wasn’t exactly known as a gas guzzler.

Chevy marked a milestone in August, as the 3 millionth Cruze rolled off the GM assembly line in Lordstown, Ohio. When it was introduced in late 2010 as a 2011 model, the Cruze was a significant departure from the bland-as-dry-toast Cobalt that preceded it (not to mention the Cavalier…). Rather than being an also-ran whose only appeal lay in a low starting price, the Cruze offered competitive equipment and technology.

At the time, having a diminutive turbo engine of less than a litre-and-a-half displacement as the volume powerplant seemed daring, but the industry has clearly moved in that direction since then. It helped that summer, 2010 marked a spike in gas prices that continues to this day.

The 2016 Cruze will launch sometime in late 2015.



“I am not a number!”

Patrick McGoohan, in The Prisoner (1967-68).

Patrick McGoohan, in The Prisoner (1967-68).

Every now and then, a group of us gets to talking about car commercials, and I get yet another chance to mention my favourite vehicle ad of all time.

No, not Lee Iacocca’s “If you can find a better car, buy it” Chrysler commercial from 1982 (though that is a classic, and pure marketing genious). I’m talking print ads.

TV commercials can be entertaining, but print ads can be everything their motion picture brethren are, too – visually arresting, thought provoking, emotionally stimulating – everything that a good commercial needs to sell you a product you don’t really need (but really, really want).

Long ago, at the dawn of the 21st century, I wrote a paper for a university advertising course I had enrolled in as a fun elective. We had just finished studying the eras of modern advertising – examining print ads from the Victorian era to the 1990s and learning the key themes that dominated each era.

I choose to focus my paper on – what else? – the world of automotive advertising, something that had always fascinated me.

Though it embraced counter-culture identity, Chrysler's hippie-era ads still equate belonging to a group with happiness, satisfaction and status.

Though it embraced counter-culture identity, Chrysler’s hippie-era ads still equate belonging to a group with happiness, satisfaction and status.

Focusing on the latter half of the 20th century, I worked through the counter-culture era (a period exploited by the Chrysler division, with its ‘Dodge Material’ and ‘Scat Pack’ ads), before moving on to the ‘Value Era’ of oil crisis/recession-plagued America in the mid ’70s to early ’80s (“$17 less than Caprice!”).

Rather than focusing on lifestyles, the Value Era emphasized respect for pocketbooks and bank accounts. Clearly, not the sexy, titillating stuff that had proceeded it.

A very annoying era followed these, one that seemed to define the 1990s. If you wanted to sell a car, dishwasher, or anything else in the ’90s, you had to make the buyer aware that they’d be joining a community.

Yes, the buyer would now be part of a quasi-commune populated by like-minded, like-interested people. “You’re really not alone when you buy this product, see? There are others like you.”

Depending on your world view, it was either a comforting, cosy sentiment, or an individual-destroying collectivist nightmare. And no car company adopted this strategy more than plastic-clad GM division Saturn.

Describing itself as “A different kind of company” (um, what?), Saturn’s commercials were festooned with members of the Saturn-buying community. Their print ads were part classic sales pitch, part family reunion newsletter.

A memorable 1996 episode of the sitcom Ellen poked fun at the Saturn ad campaign, depicting the title character’s friend purchasing a new ‘Rapture’, only to find herself an unwilling member of a creepy cult-like collective. After overbearing, stalker-like requests to join baseball teams and attend picnics, Ellen is forced to ‘rescue’ her friend, eventually breaking her lease agreement by holding a Rapture sedan hostage with a cigarette lighter.

"It's okay - you can embrace your individuality now." (image: Jaguar)

“It’s okay – you can embrace your individuality now.” (image: Jaguar)

I wrote my term paper towards the end of this cloying era, or maybe at the very beginning of a new one. At the time, one memorable ad stood out – one that spoke to me personally while shattering the message spread by the likes of Saturn.

The ad, which appeared around 1999 (give or take a year) was for the Jaguar XK8 convertible – a beautiful car whether coupe or drop top. Pictured in the ad was a man driving solo (and fast) down a twisty, shade-dappled highway, with the message “Live vicariously through yourself”.

Who doesn’t want to be the guy piloting that Jag? I mean, really?

That sort of appeal is easy to understand, after all, all car ads want you to picture yourself in the driver’s seat. However, the message being telegraphed by Jaguar was decidedly different from that of the community-minded Saturn.

Live vicariously… through yourself.

Some could see this message as being indulgent, selfish and consumerist. A hedonist celebration of capitalism’s ill-gotten gains. I, on the other hand, see it as a big middle finger to the concept of collectivism – a celebration of the individual. A message that it’s okay to go your own way and enjoy life on your own terms.

Oh! Oh! Pick me! (image: Jaguar)

Oh! Oh! Pick me! (image: Jaguar)

That one can still exist and participate within a society without having to adopt all of its norms and expectations.

That this ad originated from the country that brought us the Libertarian-themed 1960s TV show The Prisoner maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise.

(See show intro and highlights,  including McGoohan’s bitchin’ Lotus Seven, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tra3Zi5ZWa0)

Another ad for the XK8 carried the theme along with a similar, if somewhat confusing, message.

The turn of the century now seems a lifetime away, and I couldn’t begin to describe the era of advertising we now find ourselves in. Like most normal people, I try to avoid exposure to commercials as much as humanly possible.

Still, by thumbing its nose at the establishment and prevailing attitudes, Jaguar cranked out a real gem of an ad all those years ago. By reacting – and rebelling – against the norm, Jaguar created a new counter-culture.

A counter-culture of one.




Volt 2.0

Next-generation Chevy Volt to debut in January

On sale since mid-2011, a total of 3,394 Volts have found buyers in Canada (as of the end of July, 2014).

On sale since mid-2011, a total of 3,394 Volts have found buyers in Canada (as of the end of July, 2014).

A car that’s still something of a mystery to many is getting a makeover.

General Motors announced on Aug. 7 that the 2nd-generation Chevrolet Volt will debut in January at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The press release – imported straight outta Acme, Michigan – gives little to no details on what changes can be expected with the new Volt, which will go on sale later in 2015 as a 2016 model. Besides a teaser mage of the new Volt’s rear trunklid, there’s no information on range, performance, weight, underpinnings – any of that juicy stuff.

There is, however, much gushing over the current Volt, complete with facts and figures garnered from customer feedback surveys.

“Volt owners are driving more than 63 percent of their overall miles in electric vehicle mode, collectively logging more than 500 million gas-free miles since the Volt’s retail debut in 201o.”

Boy howdy! Those Volt owners sure do like to maximize their use of that battery – it’s almost as if they purchased the vehicle for that specific reason!

Joking aside, the Volt remains a unique and interesting vehicle, albeit one that’s in desperate need of a style injection.  If the teaser image is anything to go by, the public can expect more eye appeal when the wraps come off in Detroit.

The 2016 Chevy Volt is rumoured to be less awkward-looking than the current model.

The 2016 Chevy Volt is rumoured to be less awkward-looking than the current model.

The speculation amongst auto writers is that the new Volt will see a reduction in price (much needed to keep it competitive), an increase in EV range (above the current 38 miles/61 kilometres), and more interior space thanks a reduced battery size. The current 1.4-litre, 4-cylinder generator range extender will likely be ditched in favour of a more fuel-efficient 3-cylinder.

Price has always been a point of contention with the Volt, with many claiming that the vehicle’s higher cost puts sustainability out of reach for most car buyers, limiting possible sales.  There’s certainly truth to this, but, in its defence, the amount of technology packed into the vehicle is significant and prices have come down since the Volt first entered the marketplace.

First retailing for $41,000 in 2010, the Volt’s MRSP is now $34,170 (U.S. market, 2015 model), and that’s before a potential federal tax credit (provincial in Canada) is factored in. Any further reduction in price – plus additional range – will only serve to make the Volt a more competitive vehicle.

Clearly, GM is banking on bigger sales numbers from this improved Volt.

Back in 2011, I test drove a Volt the first week they showed up on dealer’s lots. During a 43-kilometre all-electric urban jaunt, the car impressed with its interior comfort, ride quality and drivetrain smoothness.

Given the Volt’s price at the time, I wrote in my published review:

“This isn’t an electric car for the masses … but it is proof that a quality electric car that drives and feels like a regular luxury car is possible from a mass-market automaker.”

With a lower price (is sub-$30K possible?), Chevrolet will have positioned the 2016 Volt closer to that ideal.



Orient express

Big in China.

Big in China.

While General Motors executives might be suffering through some sleepless nights thanks to the ongoing ignition switch/recall fiasco, the news these days isn’t all bad.

Bloomberg News is reporting skyrocketing GM sales in that exotic and lucrative market that all automakers lust over – China.

Yes, the eastern superpower is hungry for vehicles – especially high end vehicles with foreign cache, of which GM is only too happy to provide. Total GM vehicle sales are up 9.1% this June, year over year.

(See article here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-07-07/gm-china-sales-rise-9-1-in-june-on-buicks-cadillacs.html)

It’s been reported for some time that Chinese car buyers fancy the Buick brand, and sales of those models certainly make up a fair share of the growing volume, but it’s Cadillac that’s now seeing the biggest sales bump.

Sales of Cadillacs rose 46% year over year in June, with the first half of 2014 showing a 72% overall increase. In contrast, Buick sales in June were 14% higher than in 2013. GM expects even greater sales in the second half of this year, and plans to do everything possible to ensure the trend continues.

Much cash is slated for spending in the coming years to boost production for the Chinese market.

Clearly, China is quite enamoured with the 111-year-old luxury brand, despite being far removed from much of Cadillac’s storied history. Clearly, they’re playing catch-up, though no word if there’s an online demand for imports of these:

Grab the technicolour dreamcoat - your ride just pulled up.

Grab the technicolour dreamcoat – your ride just pulled up.


Lost and found

Here’s a little bit of heartwarming automotive news for all to enjoy.

George Talley, 71, of Detroit was recently reunited with his 1979 Chevrolet Corvette, which was stolen from outside his Jefferson Avenue apartment building in 1981. The car, discovered in Mississippi, was returned to the ex-GM worker thanks to some helpful General Motors executives, who made sure cameras were rolling when Mr. Talley fired up his long-lost steed.

As the Detroit Free Press stated,  the (opportunistic?) feel-good moment comes at a stressful time for GM, which is now operating at DEFCON 5 due to the faulty ignition/bazillion vehicle recall crisis currently gripping the company.

Cynicism comes easy in times like these, but if we can shove that aside (plus public relations maneuvering) for just a second, there’s happiness to be felt in seeing a hard-working elderly man experience a moment of belated joy.

Watch as he tests the ‘Vette’s dodgy retractable headlamps and wipers, and retrieves a cassette tape from the deck.


The last dinosaur?

"Thar she blows!"

“Thar she blows!”

In a previous post, the topic of full-size front-wheel-drive American vehicles was given a thorough look-see.

Hot stuff, I know.

In the post, I stated I felt the Buick Lucerne (2006-2011) represented the end point of a lineage of General Motors vehicles that began with the introduction of the C-Body platform in 1985. On this platform rested the downsized, front-drive Olds 98, Cadillac de Ville and Fleetwood, and the Buick Electra.

The following year, the H-Body platform added the front-drive Olds 88,Buick LeSabre and Pontiac Bonneville to the lineup. And, of course, the rest is history.

When the plush, full-size Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS were put out to pasture in 2011 (taking their front bench seats and 4-speed automatics with them), it seemed that the last heirs to the fortune had died.

The lineage was broken, yes, but was the spirit, too?

As Rod Serling would say if he were alive today, “Submitted for your analysis…the Cadillac XTS.”


A Chariot for the Geriatric?


It would seem that General Motors just couldn’t stomach the gaping hole the departed DTS left in its lineup, so it introduced the XTS in 2013. With the taught, import-fighting ATS and larger, business-like CTS adding fresh style and performance to the marque, GM must have realized it couldn’t alienate traditional buyers while trying to attract new ones.

The retiree community needed a traditional Caddy to drive to the early bird dinner at 4:30 p.m., and funeral homes needed livery cars for when the Last Supper has come and gone.

Though it contains modern underpinnings (a stretched Epsilon II platform), and an up-to-date drivetrain (GM’s direct-injected 3.6-litre V6 and 6-speed automatic), the XTS is clearly the spiritual successor to all those front-drive plushies that came before it.

The 3.6 makes admirable power – with 321 horsepower and 274 foot-pounds of torque on hand, an XTS driver will have no trouble getting to the pharmacy before it closes. With available all-wheel-drive, handling and all-weather capability gets a boost.

The available 410-horsepower twin-turbo V-Sport model just seems pointless, however, and I’d be curious to see who actually springs for this.

Style-wise, the XTS is something of an odd duck. The front end, viewed head-on, is inoffensive, contains adequate brightwork and clearly marks this car as a Cadillac.

Side-on, the front end appears stumpy, with the leading edge of front door nearly touching the wheel well. A long, flowing crease originating at the front fender carries on to the rear of the car, breaking up the expanse of sheet metal and giving the long sedan less of a slab-sided look.

The XTS’s side crease, flowing roofline and sharply raked C-pillar are not unattractive – at the very least, the package is inoffensive, which is the design goal of many an automaker when trying to woo traditional return buyers.

Like the abbreviated front end, the rear deck can also be seen as stumpy, despite the car’s otherwise large rear overhang. Though it’s hard to see when an XTS is scooting past, the rear taillights actually have a vestigial tail fin thing going on.

Don't cut yourself by accident...

Don’t cut yourself by accident…

Certainly, towering fins were once the hallmark of Caddy design, so this represents a nod to the marque’s storied past. As well, given the vehicle’s short rear deck, the tiny fins serve to carry the car’s presence just a little bit further aft.

Overall, it’s something of a strange vehicle, but it’s one Cadillac clearly felt needed to exist.

How long will the XTS soldier on in the Cadillac lineup? Who knows, but it will be interesting to see what the design department does when it comes time for a mid-cycle refresh or even a full re-design.