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Originally published Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 11:24 AM

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Chevy's Cruze a small car contender

Chevrolet's new small car, the 2011 Cruze, is a pleasantly styled, good-handling sedan with an inviting interior and impressive government crash test results.

For The Associated Press

Chevrolet's new small car, the 2011 Cruze, is a pleasantly styled, good-handling sedan with an inviting interior and impressive government crash test results.

The Cruze also comes as an uplevel fuel-sipper "eco" model with a noteworthy U.S. government fuel economy rating of 28 miles per gallon in city driving and 42 mpg on the highway.

But the Cruze has a starting retail price that's $1,565 higher than the car it replaces, the Chevy Cobalt. It's also priced higher than some competitors.

Specifically, a base 2011 Cruze with manual transmission and base, 136-horsepower four cylinder has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $17,275.

This compares with the $16,360 starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2011 Toyota Corolla with manual transmission and 132-horsepower four cylinder, and the $16,995 starting retail price for a 2012 Ford Focus sedan with manual transmission and 160-horsepower four cylinder.

The lowest starting retail price for a Cruze with automatic transmission is $18,200.

In contrast, a 2012 Focus sedan with automatic starts at $18,090, while a 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan with automatic and 148-horspower four cylinder starts at $17,830.

The Cruze eco model, with lighter-weight wheels, aerodynamic details and smaller gasoline tank, starts at $19,175 with manual transmission.

In the past, it was customary in the auto industry for fuel-thrifty models of small cars to be priced at the lower end, not higher than their base models.

But the Cruze joins the early-introduction 2012 Ford Focus in pricing the most fuel-efficient version higher. The Focus is available with a Special Fuel Economy package that costs an extra $945.

In lineage, the Cruze is a bit of an amalgam of small-car engineering from South Korea and Europe, where Chevrolet's parent company, General Motors Corp., has had operations. GM got into bankruptcy trouble in 2008, though, and a replacement small car for the Cobalt finally got to the States for the 2011 model year.

In fact, the Cruze is assembled - with Ecotec four cylinder imported from Austria and another 15 percent of parts coming from Mexico - at a factory in Lordstown, Ohio. Remember, U.S. taxpayers helped provide loans to GM as it sought to correct its financial situation the last couple of years.

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The test Cruze was the top-of-the-line LTZ model, and it had the uplevel, 1.4-liter, turbocharged Ecotec four cylinder that's expected to be in most Cruzes sold.

Torque peaks at 148 foot pounds at a low 1,850 rpm, and the engine, mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, moved the Cruze along in city traffic with good pep. But there was some lag if I quickly put down the accelerator for fast acceleration, and the engine could get noisy at high revs. Still, the overall, driving experience was sprightly and more than acceptable for an entry-level car.

The automatic doubled as a manumatic, so I manually shifted through forward gears when I wanted to tinker with upshifts. Manumatic means there's no clutch pedal for a driver to depress. But I found the driving was smoother and more satisfying if I just let the automatic operate on its own.

The Cruze was poised on twisty mountain roads and stuck doggedly to its line with minimal body motions. Steering, though, was a bit too light for my tastes.

Advertisements about the Cruze being tops in highway fuel mileage among non-hybrid cars at 42 mpg on the highway increased my expectations for mileage from my non-eco Cruze. Alas, I managed just under 26 mpg in combined city/highway driving. The LTZ test car carried a government rating of 24/36 mpg.

The front of the Cruze reminded me of the Volt, with Chevy's trademark horizontal bar across the grille. The optional fog lamps - part of a $695 RS package - added a nice, sporty touch. At the back, the Cruze styling is upscale and reminiscent of a Honda. But the tester drew no attention.

The Cruze interior was a pleasant surprise. Fit and finish was excellent, with every trim piece lined up perfectly, ceiling material looked as textured and proper as that on a Volkswagen, and blue-hued gauges were well-designed. The front passenger seat in the LTZ even had eight-way adjustment, albeit manual. But so many entry cars don't even think about the front-seat passenger needing to sit up high and adjust the seat cushion.

There's a full 43 inches of front-seat legroom in the Cruze, which is better than in many compact sedans. Front and rear shoulder room is a bit better than what's in many other small cars, too. And, while the rear seat offers seat belts for three, I wouldn't want to put more than two adults back there for any length of time.

Note that the rear seatbacks are split 60/40 and can be unlatched and put down to accommodate long items from the trunk.

The trunk, itself, is generous by small car standards. It has 15 cubic feet of space, which compares with 12.3 cubic feet in the Corolla and 13.2 cubic feet in the trunk of a 2012 Focus sedan. The Cruze trunk material isn't plush, but it's not the cheap, thin stuff found in earlier cars like the Cobalt.

Safety tests are a highlight of the Cruze. The car earned top five-out-of-five stars in federal government frontal and side crash tests for an overall five stars. This is better than the Corolla's three stars overall.

Note the government implemented tougher crash tests and rigorous star ratings starting with the 2011 model year.

Standard safety features on the Cruze include 10 air bags, electronic stability control and traction control.

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