Chevy, Volkswagen Sedans Drive Like Ferrari! Just Kidding: Cars

2011 Chevrolet Cruze
The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze starts at around $16,000. Photographer: Mark Finkenstaedt/Chevrolet via Bloomberg

It’s below freezing outside and the air conditioner is inconveniently blowing at 64 degrees.

My knee is the problem. Or rather it’s the irksome temperature knob, located at the exact spot my knee rests on the center divider.

The Chevy Cruze is an all-new car, so it’s a simple yet fundamental error. Oh, General Motors, I was expecting better!

Two cars I tested recently, the Cruze and the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, are gunning for the same meaty section of the sedan market -- Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla territory.

Both start at around $16,000, with better-equipped models at $22,000. With those price points, these cars are like blue jeans. Everybody knows somebody who is hunting for a pair that fits just right, isn’t stratospherically expensive and doesn’t fall out of fashion as soon as they hit your hips.

The Cruze replaces the Cobalt, a compact shudder-box impossible to take seriously.

The new offering, on the other hand, is mostly a product of the “we’re making cars you actually want” ethos at GM. So it’s a shame about that knob.

Smarter engineering examples include the option of a tiny, peppy turbo engine which lends impressive gas mileage, and more standard air bags than a Scottish bagpipe quartet.

It’s also more spacious than competitors like the Toyota Corolla.

Style Deficit

My tester was the range-topping LTZ model, which comes with the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. With some $1,500 in options and the $720 destination charge, the sticker price was $24,260.

The base LT, with a non-turbo 1.8-liter motor, will likely be the volume seller and there’s also a lighter “eco” version that gets improved gas mileage.

Exterior styling? There isn’t much, even with an additional $695 sport appearance package with a rear spoiler and a revised fascia.

The Chevy has leather on its heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The side door panels and dash are partly covered by fabric, nicer to the touch than cold plastic. The $445 stereo upgrade results in a bumping little system. Overall okay, verging on good.

Rear egress is cramped thanks to small doors and a sloping roofline.

But it drives like a Ferrari!

No, not really. Like the rest of the segment, the Cruz is characterized by its general okayness. The suspension is smartly dialed-in, lending comfort on bad roads and a reasonable degree of handling.

Jetta Bet

But while the turbo on the motor comes on willingly from a standstill, its vitality wanes at higher speeds. The transmission is geared for gas savings, not fun.

If Chevy is hoping the Cruze will prove its small-car seriousness, VW is banking on the new Jetta and upcoming Passat to help hit sales goals of 1 million in the U.S. by 2018.

No wonder the 2011 Jetta prices start at several grand less than its predecessor. That may also be the reason many VW-heads accuse the car of being a shadow of its former self.

My test vehicle was a Jetta SEL, which has a 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine and plenty of pop (170 hp). With a $1,600 sport package and destination charge, the price came to $24,865.

The $16,000 base S has a 115-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with substantially less power than the outgoing model. A diesel variant is available from $23,000. (VW’s TDI clean-diesel models are generally excellent.)

Hands down, the Jetta is more fun to drive than the Cruze. Equipped with nimble suspension, the SEL thrusts itself into traffic, only occasionally overpowering the front wheels from a hard start.

Harsh Gears

Willing to pivot into turns, it handles predictably, with less front-end push than most front-wheel-drives. Steering is mild, though firm.

While a five-speed manual is available, my tester had the six-speed automatic costing an extra $1,100. Gear changes can feel harsh and abrupt. Nor can the Jetta’s 31 mpg on the highway match the Chevy. The manually-equipped four-cylinder version, at 34 mpg highway, does a little better but is far slower.

Too bad about the utterly drab exterior. A cowering hood creeps over the Jetta’s slotlike grill. Even my tester’s pretty blue paint wasn’t enough to sharpen the boring lines.

The interior is uncluttered, as if a Scandinavian designer had come along and ripped away embellishments. It took me only seconds to figure out the navigation, which uses knobs, buttons and a touch screen.

While VW plays up its German origin, only 20 percent of its parts come from the country. Final assembly and 40 percent of parts are from Mexico.

Bigger than the previous model, there’s plenty of rear legroom and the trunk is large enough to please a hoarder.

Many buyers will slip comfortably into either car -- ideal wear-every-day items. Just don’t expect to make a fashion statement.

The 2011 Chevy Cruze LTZ and 2011 Jetta SEL at a Glance

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 138 hp;

2.5-liter five-cylinder with 170 hp.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic; five-speed manual or

six-speed auto.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds; 8.5.

Gas mileage per gallon: 24 city, 36 highway; 24, 31.

Price as tested: $24,260; $24,865.

Best feature: Generally decent interior and many safety

items; sporty, solid drive.

Worst feature: Boring exteriors.

Target buyer: Anyone tired of their Corolla or Civic.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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