Tag Archives: GM

Britain sends an Envoy

1961 Envoy F-Series, spotted in Gatineau (Hull Sector), Quebec.

1961 Envoy F-Series, spotted in Gatineau (Hull Sector), Quebec.

When was the last time you saw someone driving an Envoy?

And no, I’m not talking about that innocuous SUV of the pre-bankruptcy GM era.

Canada’s mid-century love affair with cheap British imports is a well-known phenomenon, and this rare rolling artifact is another piece of that story.

The Vauxhall Victor F-Series was one of Britain’s most popular exports, with hundreds of thousands snapped up by cost-conscious buyers around the globe.

The model debuted in 1957 with distinctly American styling, but tell-tale British size. Powered by a 1.5-litre four-cylinder making 55 horsepower, the model wasn’t particularly fast, but by all accounts it was durable and reliable.

A three-speed column-mounted manual transmission put the power to the rear wheels.

The 'Longer, lower, wider' mantra of the 1950s doesn't seem to apply to the Envoy.

The ‘longer, lower, wider’ mantra of the 1950s doesn’t seem to apply to the Envoy.

In North America, Vauxhall Victors were sold through GM dealerships – Pontiac and Buick ones, to be exact – alongside their massive American brethren.

That left the other half of the GM stable (minus Cadillac) without a cheap import to sell.

Enter the Envoy.

Sold at Chevrolet and Oldsmobile dealers in Canada starting in 1959, the Envoy F-Series was a Vauxhall Victor with different options and better trim. Nowhere on the body is it mentioned that the vehicle is entirely a Vauxhall.

1960 Envoy ad. Notice the lack of colour on the car they call 'colourful'.

1960 Envoy ad. Notice the lack of colour on the car they call ‘colourful’.

Two-tone paint and interior fabrics showed that Britain was easing out of its postwar slump, and was now able to appreciate (and offer) nicer things.

Note: the aftermarket rims and mirror dice on this pristine example did not come from 1959. Not even close.

The Envoy, like the Victor, lasted in the Canadian market until 1970. The first generation, with its 1950s proportions, lasted until 1961, before Vauxhall adopted a modern, Ford Falcon-esque styling treatment.

This example wore vintage 1961 Quebec plates, marking it was the last year of the first generation, and a badge showing its sale at a Farnham, Quebec Chev-Olds dealer.

Once commonplace, these imports are now a distant memory for older Canadians. Though imports of Vauxhalls died off, overseas GM subsidiaries (Europe’s Vauxhall and Opel, Australia’s Holden) now share hardware and designs with many of their American counterparts.

Are those 13-inchers?

Are those 13-inchers?

Camaro, volume 6

2016 Chevrolet Camaro (Image: General Motors)

2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS (Image: General Motors)

Last week’s launch of the 6th Generation Chevrolet Camaro was the biggest thing to hit Detroit since Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

For everyone who traditionally passes over the fabled (and sometimes maligned) muscle car, the newest version is something to take notice of.

To better do battle with its closest competitor – the Ford Mustang – and to ditch its lingering reputation as a gas-guzzling lead sled, the 2016 Camaro has shed weight, length and undergone a careful restyle.

Underpinned by the taught Cadillac ATS platform, the Camaro will offer its first 4-cylinder engine in over three decades.

Unlike the rough and tepid ‘Iron Duke’ 2.5-litre that graced Camaros between 1982 and 1984, the 2016 Camaro’s smallest motor is a turbocharged 2.0-litremaking a very respectable 275 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque.

To put that into perspective, the new four makes 185 more horsepower than the dismal Iron Duke. Ain’t technology grand?

When Chevy first introduced a 4-cylinder Camaro in 1982, it 'boasted' 90 horsepower.

When Chevy first introduced a 4-cylinder Camaro in 1982, it ‘boasted’ 90 horsepower.

Filling out the range of engines are a direct-injection 3.6-litre V6 making 335 hp and a 6.2-litre V8 making 455 hp. All three engines can be paired with GM’s new 8-speed automatic, though a 6-speed manual remains available.

Chevy put Camaro #6 on a diet before taking off the wraps, shaving off over 200 pounds to make the vehicle sportier and more fuel efficient. A 1.5-inch shorter wheelbase and 2-inch shorter body helps those attributes even more.

GM estimates that the 2.0-litre version will make over 30 miles per gallon (U.S.) on the highway.

From a distance, the profile of the new Camaro seems pretty much like the old one, but up close the differences are legion. Every element of the design looks better than what came before.

According to GM, “only two parts carry over from the fifth-generation Camaro to the new Gen Six: the rear bowtie emblem and the SS badge.”

Refinement seemed to be the name of the game when it came time to sculpt this Camaro. There was clearly a need to make people who would never stop to look at (or consider buying) a Camaro suddenly stop and take notice of it.

2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS (Image: General Motors)

2016 Chevrolet Camaro RS (Image: General Motors)

A close friend of the author, whose heart belongs solely to the Dodge Challenger, responded with a “wow” upon seeing images of the 2016 Camaro.

In its coverage, Forbes magazine declared that the muscle car had become “a different animal” in the wake of the launch, what the new model’s nod to both tradition and modern advancements in efficiency.

After it goes on sale later this year, it would be shocking to not see sales figures rise for the Camaro. No doubt Ford is casting a wary glance in its direction, and Dodge too, for that matter.


The dark knight

The full-size Chevrolet Impala will gain some attitude this summer with the addition of a Midnight Edition package (Image: General Motors)

The full-size Chevrolet Impala will gain some attitude this summer with the addition of a Midnight Edition package (Image: General Motors)

If everyday Impalas aren’t enough to lure you into a Chevy dealership, GM’s planning on adding extra bait to the line.

This summer, a Midnight Edition of the full-size sedan will appear on dealers lots (under the cover of darkness, no doubt), offering shimmering Jet Black paint and blacked out 19-inch wheels, grille, and Chevy bow ties both front and back.

The sinister sedan also receives sport pedals and a low-profile deck lid spoiler.

If big and black is your style, the Midnight Edition package can be added to all Impalas, minus the base LS trim level. That means the sensibly spacious four-cylinder Impala of your dreams doesn’t have to be so… unintimidating.

Available in all trim levels except the base LS, the new package is clearly designed to lure in new buyers. Will it succeed?

The Midnight Edition package targets all trim levels except the base LS. Will it boost slagging sales? (Image: General Motors)

Midnight Edition Impalas will retail as 2016 models, though GM says a small number of 2015 four-banger versions will find their way off the line.

Reading between the lines, Chevrolet is obviously brainstorming ways to get more buyers into a new Impala, which has been falling steadily in sales since the model’s  lofty peak in the mid-2000s.

Fleet sales accounted for a large number of those earlier sales, but even with a consumer-oriented redesign for 2014 (a quite attractive one, in my opinion), sales are a fraction of what they were a decade ago.

In the U.S., 140,280 Impalas were sold in 2014, down from over 311,000 in 2007. In Canada, just 3,406 Impalas rolled off dealers lots in 2014, compared to over 21,000 in 2006.

Chevy is clearly hoping new buyers will follow this tricked-out Impala into the dark, before the model fades to black.




Reclaiming the mojo

The 2016Malibu appears ready to make up lost ground (Image: General Motors)

The 2016 Malibu appears ready to make up lost ground (Image: General Motors)

Having seen 37 years of American history pass through its rear-view mirror, you’d think Chevrolet’s experienced Malibu would find luring new buyers to be a breeze.

But the most recent generation of the bread-and-butter sedan failed to dominate the midsize market, and struggled to arrest declining sales amid strong competition from the likes of Fusion, Sonata, Camry, and Accord.

Well, Chevy clearly doesn’t like the idea of the Malibu becoming an overlooked wallflower at the school dance. Their response to the problem is the 2016 Malibu, which will arrive – dressed to impress – in the fourth quarter of this year.

Bigger, roomier, and more efficient, the 2016 Malibu promises to remedy the criticisms levelled against its predecessor – mainly, that legroom was lacking, the styling too lacklustre, and the mild hybrid too mild.

The best view of the 2016 Malibu, IMHO. Can you tell it's longer? (Image: General Motors)

The best view of the 2016 Malibu, IMHO. Can you tell it’s longer? (Image: General Motors)

As the photos here show, the new Malibu has borrowed some duds from the Impala’s closet. Elements of the design language of its bigger stable mate can be seen in its creased, flowing flanks – especially towards the rear.

With a wheelbase nearly four inches longer, the 2016 ‘Bu will allow occupants to stretch their legs a little.

A new 1.5-litre turbo four-cylinder will make 160 horsepower and 184 foot-pounds of torque, and is supposedly good for about 37 mpg (U.S.) highway, or 6.4 litres/100 km. Optional is GM’s well-known turbo 2.0-litre four, making 250 hp.

Helping the newly lengthened Malibu roll along efficiently are grille shutters, a nearly 300 pound weight loss, and (in 2.0-litre guise) a new 8-speed automatic transmission.

To wring maximum efficiency out of the Malibu, buyers can opt for a ‘heavy hybrid’ version that uses a modified version of the new Chevy Volt’s drivetrain and can travel up to 88 km/h in EV mode.

A 1.8-litre direct injection engine and two electric motors return an estimated 48 mpg (U.S.) in the city and 45 mpg on the highway, for a combined rating of 47 mpg (5.0 litres/100km).

Some angles have the front end appearing awkward; head-on, it's not so pronounced (Image: General Motors)

Some angles have the front end appearing awkward; head-on, it’s not so pronounced (Image: General Motors)

Numbers like these, coupled with a new skin, should help the Malibu do battle with its competitors.

On a personal note, I can’t give the design an A+, though it is a definite improvement.

The 2016 Malibu does a good job in keeping visual interest (and I do find its design muse, the Impala, to be attractive), but the front end seems awkward to me – too many diverging angles, and a catfish mouth.

Viewed side-on or from the rear, well, different story.


A whole new ‘Bu

The 2013-2015 Chevrolet Malibu ('15 seen here) will be a distant memory once the new model arrives, hints GM (Image: General Motors)

The 2013-2015 Chevrolet Malibu (’15 seen here) will be a distant memory once the new model arrives, hints GM (Image: General Motors)

2016 Malibu to repent for sins of the past

It’s no question that the current generation Chevrolet Malibu has been something of a failure to launch, posting declining sales figures even as a car-hungry public mobs dealerships in search of new rides.

Even with a name as recognizable as they come, Chevrolet hasn’t seen the same success with the Malibu that almost every other mass-produced midsize on the market has as of late. Sales of the Malibu have dropped since its 2013 model year introduction, despite an emergency styling refresh for 2014.

This is something of a fluke for a model that is normally quite consistent in sales, and it seems to have jarred the folks over at General Motors.

Heading towards the April 1 unveiling of the all-new 2016 Malibu at the New York Auto Show, GM appears ready to try and win back lost ground with their bread-and-butter midsize, even going as far as releasing a teaser video featuring a camouflaged test vehicle undergoing a torture test.




It’s hard to see under all the wrappings, but GM states the new ‘Bu will be based on all-new architecture, feature four extra inches of wheelbase (translating into better rear legroom and interior volume), and tempt buyers with a sleeker roofline and profile.

About 300 pounds lighter than the current model, the slimmed-down 2016 Malibu promises to make mileage gains from its 2.0 and 2.5-litre four-bangers.

All of these changes are in response to criticisms of the 2013-2015 model, which was either too cramped, too heavy, too bland or too thirsty, depending on who wrote the review.

A wheelbase stretch should give the 2016 Malibu a sleeker profile than present (Image: General Motors)

A wheelbase stretch should give the 2016 Malibu a sleeker profile than present (Image: General Motors)

To show prospective customers that the Ninth Generation Malibu will be Like a Rock as well as Tried, Tested and True, Chevy claims that 43 years of data collected from their car’s onboard spy modules went into the development of the new sedan.

This information, sourced from the Nixon era onwards, supposedly helps Chevy determine how to plan for – and prevent – vehicle wear.

Will the new Malibu wear on people’s patience, or return the model name to prominence? We’ll find out once it goes on sale in the fall of this year.





After the gold rush

With dropping oil prices and an economy on the upswing, why not buy that new Mustang? (Image: Ford Motor Company)

With dropping oil prices and an economy on the upswing, why not buy that new Mustang? (Image: Ford Motor Company)

End-of-year sales figures are in, and it seems the people who didn’t buy a new car this year could all fit on a short-wheelbase bus.

2014 turned out to be a boffo year for the automotive industry, and for American manufacturers, too – automakers who just a half-decade ago were questioning whether they’d survive to see the 2010’s.

In Canada, overall sales were up 6% over last year’s totals, and rose an astonishing 16% in December. In the United States, sales also rose 6% in 2014, and 11% in the month of December.

In Canada, the top three companies turned out to be the Big Three, with Ford Motor Company on top with 15.8% of the market, while Fiat-Chrysler took 15.7% and General Motors snagging 13.5%.

In the U.S. of A, GM was on top of the corporate sales ladder with 17.8% of the year’s market share, followed by Ford (14.9%) and Toyota Motor Corporation (14.4%).

Buick made impressive sales gains in Canada in 2014, selling 31% more than the year before (Image: General Motors)

Buick made impressive sales gains in Canada in 2014, selling 31% more than the year before (Image: General Motors)

In terms of brands, Canadians were most partial to Ford, which saw sales rise by 39.5% for December (compared to Dec. ’13) and 2.7% for the year. Honda and Toyota took 2nd and 3rd place, with Chevrolet and RAM rounding out the top five.

South of the border, Americans also found themselves drawn to Ford the most (thought the annual tally dipped by 1.1% over last year), followed by Chevrolet, Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

Other automakers also had strong showings this December compared to last. Buick saw Canadian sales rose 64.9%, finishing the year 31% higher than 2013. Chrysler sales shot up 86.9% in the Christmas month, though overall sales were down slightly (2.9%) for the year.

Even the Lincoln brand, which seemed (until recently) to be as endangered as GM and Chrysler were in 2008, saw positive sales gains. In Canada, the luxury brand saw a 61.4% boost in December, finishing the year 17.3% higher than last. In the U.S., Lincoln saw December sales rise 21.4% over 2013, with an annual total 15.6% higher.

Interest is being rekindled in that storied brand, it would seem.

Scion sales slid sharply in 2014 in both American and Canadian markets (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

Scion sales slid sharply in 2014 in both American and Canadian markets (Image: Toyota Motor Corporation)

In a game with winners and losers, there always has to be a downside – even with buyers running to dealerships en masse, cash in hand. This past month – and this past year – the loser was Scion, the Toyota offshoot that appears to be headed the same direction as the Lusitania.

With December sales down 30.7% in Canada and 11.7% in the U.S., drastic action will be needed to reverse this trend and keep the brand afloat. The annual sales loss for Scion works out to a drop of 20.4% in Canada and 15.1% in the U.S.


A sporty, 5-door hatch scheduled to be released in 2015 might change things, but I’d say more models are needed to bring the brand back to visibility.

Crystal ball types are predicting that it will be difficult for the industry to maintain this level of sales next year, which isn’t all that surprising. At some point, the amount of new cars already bought, and the amount of people who can’t afford them, will conspire to reach a sales plateau.

My not-too-brilliant prediction: with oil prices plunging, expect growth in the truck and SUV categories this coming year.





Iron chic

1972 Buick LeSabre Custom, spotted in Edmonton, Alberta.

1972 Buick LeSabre Custom, spotted in Edmonton, Alberta.

Low interest rates have been kind to Canadian car buyers, but they’ve served to slowly eliminate a once-common automotive entity – the beater.

You know, the rust-and-primer coated barge that just needs to make it through one more winter until its owner’s fortunes turn around? An increasingly rare presence in this day and age, and high gas prices and emissions regulations haven’t helped, either.

When so many road-going classics are now of the waxed weekly, Sunday drive variety, you really start to take notice of the beaters – especially the legitimately classic ones.

On a hot, dry day in July, this rusting land yacht beckoned to me from the side of Gateway Boulevard in south-end Edmonton, Alberta. A 1972 Buick Lesabre Custom, this rig truly fit the definition of ‘beater’.

Rusting everywhere along the lower body panels, and with a sun-faded vinyl top, this Brougham Era tank used to be a lot more commonplace. Yet, even with its rust and faded paint, its chrome still sparkled and the overall car still exuded a feeling of solidity, like a grizzled rancher who has no plans of retiring.

The LeSabre had beefier bumpers for '72, in anticipation of federal 5-mph crash regulations coming down the pipe.

The LeSabre had beefier bumpers for ’72, in anticipation of federal 5-mph crash regulations coming down the pipe.

Clearly, this beast had been through many a winter, and the only reason there’s any body left is because Alberta doesn’t salt its roads.

The LeSabre was one of those ubiquitous ’70s full-sizers that, like the Caprice and LTD, seemed to make up a good part of the American landscape during its reign.

The LeSabre, slated above the Century in the Buick lineup but below the Electra 225, ran with few changes from ’71 to ’76, before downsizing shed both length and weight. Under the hood of this version was the trusty 350 c.i.d. V-8, now with Nixon-era EPA-mandated emissions controls.

A 455 c.i.d. V-8 was optional, with a badge on the front fender broadcasting your engine choice to the world. The only transmission available was the 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic that propelled GMs from the 60s to the 90s.

The ’72s featured beefier bumpers than the previous year, an acknowledgement of the federally-mandated 5 mph bumper requirement that came into effect the following year. The ’73 bumpers weren’t nearly as graceful and form-fitting as those on the ’72.

The Electra 225 Limited was the top-end model for '72, with the LeSabre slotting beneath it.

The Electra 225 Limited was the top-end model for ’72, with the LeSabre slotting beneath it.

Times were changing in the American auto industry. Besides smog controls, Nanny State features like ‘fasten seatbelt’ lights and door ajar chimes entered Buick equipment lists in ’72. This was also the last year for full-size Buick ragtops.

The OPEC oil embargo the following year would bring a whole new world of hurt to the industry, one that nearly killed a member of the Big Three by the end of the decade.

Still, seeing this relic 42 years after it rolled of the assembly line is a reminder of how far the industry has come since that turbulent decade. And, we can’t forget that GM, and Buick, lives on today.

My kingdom for a Ute

1978-79 Chevrolet El Camino, spotted in Hull, Quebec.

1978-79 Chevrolet El Camino, spotted in Hull, Quebec.

Of all the extinct American cars I’d like to see resurrected, the Chevrolet El Camino tops the list (the Lincoln Continental, ideally with suicide doors, is a close second).

It’s been 27 years since the last El Caminos rolled off U.S. assembly lines, bringing an end to the car-pickup era. Despite having been produced since 1959 (with a gap between ’60 and ’64), by the end of its life the midsize sedan-turned-pickup had gained a somewhat undeserved stigma as the ride du jour of hillbillies and moonshiners.

Designed to compete with the Ford Ranchero (introduced in 1957), the El Camino was initially based off the full-size Impala for ’59-60, before switching to the mid-size Chevelle platform from ’64 onwards. From 1978 to 1987, a slightly lengthened Malibu platform was put to work underpinning the fifth and last generation of El Camino. Despite being associated with the U.S. (especially the Southern U.S.), the car-pickup – aka the coupé utility, aka the ‘ute’ – was an invention and treasured automotive oddity of Her Majesty’s Commonwealth of Australia.

First marketed by Ford of Australia in 1934, the new body style was created in response to a 1932 letter from a lady who asked if they could build her a vehicle that could drive her to church on Sunday, while still being able to haul livestock on Monday.

2010-2011 Holden Ute. Since the mid-1930s, GM's Australian division has been cranking out Utes without stopping (image: OSX/Wikimedia Commons)

2010-2011 Holden Ute. Since the mid-1930s, GM’s Australian division has been cranking out Utes without stopping (image: OSX/Wikimedia Commons)

The need to compete with this strange new vehicle hybrid led General Motors subsidiary Holden to bring a ute to market the following year. The Holden Ute is still in existence, and speculation has been neverending about a Chevrolet-badged version coming to our shores.*

(* Note: while I love the idea of a returning El Camino – something that probably won’t happen for years, if ever – I despise the Holden Ute’s roofline. That pinched effect where the door frame and C-pillar meet turns me off. Having the door integrated into a solid sail panel, like on El Caminos of the 60s and 70s, would eliminate this effect, and I could go back to loving it completely.)

American or Australian, the intent of the ute was to offer buyers a comfortable, car-like ride with a side of utility, made affordable by using as many existing parts as possible. And that’s the way things stayed for the El Camino (and its twin, the GMC Sprint/Caballero), though the muscle car era saw the Chevelle-based El Camino adopt the same hot powerplants and paint as its stablemate.

The El Camino Royal Knight. Just like a Trans Am. Only based on a Malibu. With a pickup bed.

The El Camino Royal Knight. Just like a Trans Am. Only based on a Malibu. With a pickup bed.

The fifth and final generation of El Camino saw the ute slimmed down (as was the style in the late ’70s), now based on the midsize Malibu platform. The wheelbase gained an inch over the Malibu, but otherwise, the tradition of make do with what you have carried on. The front end of the ’78-’87 El Camino was pure Malibu.

The long doors were borrowed from the Monte Carlo coupe, while the rear tailgate was sourced from the Malibu wagon. Under the hood, the El Camino reflected the lean times it found itself in. For ’78, the base engine was a 200-cubic-inch inline six making a paltry 95 horsepower. The upgrade was the respectable and long-lived 305 cid V-8, making 145 horsepower.

A ballsy 350 c.i.d. small-block V-8 topped the range, and was the engine of choice if you were the type who longed for an eagle painted on your hood.

Three and four-speed manual transmissions came standard in lower trim levels, though most buyers opted to let the ubiquitous 3-speed Turbo-Hydramatic do the shifting for them. In ’79, the El Camino saw the stopgap 267 c.i.d. V-8 join the engine lineup, while in 1980 the base engine was dropped in favour of a 229 c.i.d. V-6 making 115 horsepower. The 350 option was also dropped that year.

The 1981 model is my favourite from this generation, mainly because Chevy ditched the egg-crate grill and went with horizontal chrome bars. Desperate to please the EPA and meet their stringent emissions requirements, GM joined most other automakers that year in adding a lockup torque convertor to their 3-speed automatic in an effort to boost highway mileage.

The following year, 1982, saw the El Camino adopt the quad-headlights and blunt front end of the refreshed Malibu, a style it would carry to its demise. GM’s notorious 350 c.i.d. diesel  was offered from ’82-’84, while the 267 was dropped.

The ad says 'Chevy Trucks', but the El Camino was all car underneath.

The ad says ‘Chevy Trucks’, but the El Camino was all car underneath.

Despite strong initial sales of the fifth generation El Camino, buyers drifted away and the model withered on the GM vine through most of the 1980s.

As the top photo shows, this model of El Camino (especially the pre-1982s) had some style to work with, and made the best of a two-tone paint job. Despite the stigma that grew mostly after the car ceased production, a lower-end El Camino with a V-6 and three-person bench dished out a fair bit of practicality and would have been useful in a number of situations.

And wasn’t this the original intent of the body style all those years ago in Australia?

Whether or not the El Camino rises from the ashes in North America is a question for gamblers. I figure if there was real demand for the vehicle, it would have happened by now.

Maybe the body style is too polarizing for modern sensibilities (mention the El Camino at a party and you’ll quickly see it’s either ridiculed or revered), or, maybe there are just too many new vehicles today that already have room to haul our stuff.

I’d still like to see it come back one day. And not solely as a limited-edition performance car, either – that would be GM thumbing its nose at history and the intention of the model.

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.