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Chevy Cruze: A Big, Small Car

What it is: The Chevy Cruze is an attractive compact car from an automaker that forgot how to build such vehicles for a while.

Starts at $16,720; Mileage ranges from 25 miles per gallon in the city to 42 miles per gallon on the highway.

What’s worth knowing: General Motors had a lot of problems prior to its 2009 bankruptcy filing, and a pitiful lineup of small cars was one of them. The huge automaker belatedly got religion in 2008, when gas prices spiked and buyers bolted from the SUVs and larger vehicles that GM put most of its genuine effort into. Since then, GM has revitalized its small-car lineup, with the Cruze emerging as a worthy competitor to the best compacts from Toyota and Honda.

Who it’s for : With a comfortable ride and a decent-sized rear seat, the Cruze is an all-purpose family-mobile that’s thrifty enough to serve as a commuter car and versatile enough to be the main ride for a small family.

What’s good : While not flashy, the Cruze’s cabin is attractive and well designed, with straightforward controls and a strong set of basic features. Bluetooth, a USB audio jack and a leather steering wheel, for example, are standard on most models. Handling is enjoyable and the turbocharged four-cylinder engine on most models is surprisingly peppy. Gas mileage is terrific. In the upscale Eco model, I averaged 45 MPG on a long highway trip—better than many hybrids.

What’s bad : The starting price is deceiving, because few buyers will be interested in the entry model, which lacks basics such as air conditioning and cruise control. The next trim line starts at about $18,500. Most base models include a six-speed manual transmission, which is smooth and fun to shift, but since the majority of drivers prefer an automatic transmission, they’ll have to pony up an extra $1,000.

How it stacks up: For driveability and features, the Cruze ranks as one of the top compacts on the market. And the Eco model offers gas mileage that’s at the top of the class. Other compacts, such as the Hyundia Elantra or Volkswagen Golf, may strike buyers as more stylish. The Mazda3 is sportier. And old standbys such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic still carry those automakers’ strong reputation for reliability.

What to do if you want one : There are subtle but important size distinctions among compacts, so test the rear seat and cargo space by strapping yourself in, installing a child’s car seat or stowing a stroller or suitcase in the trunk, to make sure there’s enough space to meet your needs. When doing test-drives, check out competing models that are one size smaller and one size larger. And negotiate hard with the dealer; GM still tends to offer generous incentives. Rick Newman is the Chief Business Correspondent for U.S. News & World Report and a longtime car buff. He reviews automobiles here on a regular basis, as well as writing about all things vehicular.

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