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Chevrolet's long-awaited compact sedan is finally headed to North America. Let's see if it lives up to the hype.

After a build up of epic proportions, Chevrolet has finally introduced its new Cruze to North American markets. Available since late 2008 in over 60 different countries outside of General Motors' home market, is the Cruze again a case of being too late to market, or is it the right car for the right time?

We traveled to the Washington, D.C., area to sample the uniquely North American-specification Chevrolet Cruze.

Like other compact sedans, the Cruze is a front drive five-seater that fits in squarely where the Cobalt left off. Think of the Cruze as a tighter and tougher version of the car that it replaced - and then some. Think of all the good features of the Cobalt.

(One Mississippi, two Mississippi, okay, time's up.)

Now add all the good features found in the Chevrolet Malibu, turn on the Cuisinart, and let "?er rip. There you have it.

Have it your way

The 2011 Cruze will be available in five flavors, at least initially. Using Chevrolet's standard but excessively complex naming convention, it starts with a base, manual transmission model and grows from there.

Witness:

Cruze LS, with a 1.8-liter four-cyinder and six-speed manual transmission: $16,995.

Cruze LT, with a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission: $18,895.

Cruze 2LT, with that 1.4 and six-speed slushbox, as well as power seats and more luxury features: $21,395.

Cruze Eco, take a Cruze LT and, add in a six-speed stick and an aerodynamics package for an estimated 40 mpg on the highway: $18,895.

Cruze LTZ, the full luxe treatment based on the 2LT: $22,695.

In addition, a $695 RS package is available for LT and LTZ models, which adds front fascia enhancements, fog lamps, rear spoiler and more. Call these LT RS and LTZ RS.

Are you totally confused yet?

It could be a contender

In the compact segment that's home to the Cruze, it has some pretty stout competition. These include the Toyota Corolla and the gold standard of the segment (at least as far as buyers are concerned), the Honda Civic, Ford's upcoming 2012 Focus, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Mazda3 and Volkswagen Jetta. So the General had better have some game.

Most buyers' first impression will center around the Cruze's two-stage Chevrolet grille with the famous gold bowtie bar in between. So far, so good. But from there it gets even more interesting: From the A-pillars back, the Cruze takes on an appearance that is Teutonic more than anything else. With an arched greenhouse that lends an Audi-like look, to a side-strake that reminds us of a BMW 5-Series, can these be bad things? A long upper line over the greenhouse actually makes the Cruze appear larger than it really is. From the inside, we thought for a moment, that it was almost as large as the new Buick Regal. In actuality, it is slightly smaller.

But the real kicker, according to Michael Simcoe, Executive Director of Design for Chevrolet, is the design for the Cruze has a lot of soul, er Seoul, having been penned in the GM Korean design studios. Engineered in Europe. Drawn in Asia. Sold in the United States. Ford tried this compact world car effort about a decade ago when it unleashed its first-generation Focus. It worked wonderfully - so well, in fact, that Dearborn figured Americans were content with basically the same car for the equivalent of several product cycles. Let's hope Chevrolet keeps things fresher.

Creature comforts

Using Chevrolet's now familiar twin pod interior styling, as introduced in the Malibu and now seen in, well, pretty much every GM product, the Cruze has a heightened sense of purpose over the car it replaces. Overall quality is now enhanced with high line materials and increased precision fit and finish. Soft-touch panels now occupy many parts of the cabin, including the dash and doors, and depending on color and material choices, match the fabric on the dash to that of the seat inserts. We liked the contrast that the red technical fabric offered to the predominantly black dashboard. It's not our favorite material, but it is certainly unique.

The center stack is home to an available hard drive-based navigation system, as well as audio and climate controls. Many options are available, and all cars are XM Satellite radio-equipped with complimentary three-month subscriptions. An available Pioneer 250-watt audio system is available that includes nine speakers for rockin'.

Driver seating in the high-lined LTZ model offers good support that was really evident once we tried the competitive offerings from other brands. After extended seat time throughout the D.C. metro area, we were able to withstand some of the longest rush hours known to man and still managed to get out feeling refreshed. We'll have to fully reserve judgment for an extended evaluation, but things look pretty darn good.

With a new interior comes a quiet interior that we were surprised to see in a compact-sized Chevrolet. Engineers have figured how to increase noise suppression by the innovative use of acoustic materials in the newly-styled headliners as well as foam that has been injected into cavities within the wall of the unibody, that expand while the paint finish is baking. The result is a quiet ride that is not usually expected within this segment. The Cruze has a premium feel throughout.

Motivation

Initially, the Chevy Cruze will be offered with two engine packages. The base 1.8-liter Ecotec is the loss leader for those wanting good fuel economy at the hand of a six-speed manual. The engine checks in with 136 horsepower and 123 lb-ft. of torque, which, unlike some competitors, appears on the lower reaches of the tachometer. In the case of the Cruze with 1.4-liter turbo, full torque appears as low as 1,850 rpm.

The 1.4-liter Ecotec turbo is clearly the engine of choice for most buyers and it will be mated almost exclusively to the automaker's six-speed Hydra-Matic 6T40 automatic transmission. The entire package, which clearly shows that sometimes less truly is more, produces 138-horsepower and 148 lb-ft. of torque on unleaded fuel. For those inclined to row their own boat, the Hydra-Matic can be used in manumatic mode. Or you can stick with the Cruze Eco, an mpg-focused model aimed at hypermiling types.

The suspension package in the Cruze is made up of a set of MacPherson struts hanging from the front of the unibody structure, coupled with tuned coil springs and a hollow stabilizer bar. A rack-mounted electric power steering system offers decent road feel with little lateral play.

The rear suspension setup is a multi-link (Z-link in Chevy-speak) set up with torsion beam on all models except the Eco manual version. Finally, the Cruze utilizes an all-speed traction control system with engine (torque) braking and brake intervention. We were surprised to find the Cruze is still standard with disc brakes in front and drums in the rear. Engineers were quick to point out that drums offer a savings on drag, which further enhances mileage ratings. They also cost less.

In our brief drives through the hills surrounding Washington, D.C., and through roads ranging from highways to patched-up backroads, we were really surprised at how well the new Chevrolet Cruze handled all different conditions. The interior redefines compact car quietness, with squeals of engine protest appearing only under the most extreme cases of acceleration. We are eager to spend more time with the car for a more extensive drive in the future.

As always seems to be the case, the General introduces the standard models first, for maximum market penetration. The RS is currently as sporty as this Cruzer gets, but with the past being prologue, can an SS variant be too far behind? The Cobalt SS was a stellar performer wrapped in a ho-hum body. Transport its driving dynamics into the good-looking Cruze and GM will undoubtedly find themselves with a winner.

In terms of impressions about standard Chevy Cruzes, we can't seem to use the word "surprised" enough.

Why you would buy it:

Because, as Chevrolet says, they are redefining the compact car.

Why you wouldn't:

You are waiting for the second coming of the Dodge Neon.

Leftlane's bottom line

Chevrolet division took their time bringing the Cruze to the U.S. market, a decision we don't necessarily like. GM says that the timing wasn't quite right, what with a faltering economy and other perfect storm attributes in Detroit and elsewhere. Maybe they really do have this timing thing down pat - whatever the case, the time for the Cruze is now.

Cruze is available in an anti-Honda dizzying array of configurations that promises to get even more complex once the performance crew gets under the hood. The Cruze is a terrific small car, but we sure hope GM knows that it can't be "all things to all people" any more with just four core brands, only one of which is aimed at Joe America.

2011 Chevrolt Cruze base price range, $16,995 to $22,695.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.