Holden has good reason to be feeling relieved at the moment. While big cars largely remain out of favour, new car buyers are queuing for smaller, more fuel-efficient offerings. And that's where Holden's future now sits.
The big five sellers in the small market last month were all well entrenched: the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Mitsubishi's Lancer and Hyundai's i30. The fifth was Holden's Cruze which comfortably outsold Ford's Focus. Holden has now sold more than 4800 of them in less than three months.
It's a remarkable achievement from Holden because the newcomer has a lot of ground to cover to woo buyers away from its rivals. Importantly, this model has to be a winner for Holden as it fills the gap left by the Vectra and will probably endanger the future of Epica as well.
The Cruze is crusin' because it ticks most of the right boxes: the sedan-only styling has a familiarity with the Commodore, it comes with a five-star safety rating, it is well packaged for the money and in diesel form at least, is reasonably economical.
The fact that it, like Holden's Barina, Epica and Captiva, comes from General Motors subsidiary, formally Daewoo, in South Korea, has not dampened enthusiasm for the car either. And nor should it.
The Cruze shows a level of quality and driving experience which shows that the Koreans are kicking key goals. The goal for Holden is to now match that level of build quality when production of the Cruze switches to the company's Elizabeth plant in South Australia next year. That will see the Cruze range being expanded with a hatch, maybe wagon as well, and certainly the introduction of an LPG variant. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In the market now is the ‘introductory’ model from Korea.
Drivetrains and pricing
You get a choice of 1.8-litre petrol or 2-litre diesel, a five-speed manual or six-speed auto and two equipment levels. Prices start at $20,990 and stretch to $25,990, plus on-road costs, which makes it cheaper than its rivals.
On the safety front the Cruze comes with six air bags, anti-skid brakes, traction and stability control as standard fare. Add a spacious cabin and boot, well designed and easy to read instrument panel, leather upholstery, air conditioning, power windows, six-speaker audio system, height adjustable driver's seat, steering wheel mounted controls, cruise control, alloy wheels, fog lamps, heated front seats and park distance control and a trip computer and you get the picture.
The Cruze has much going for it and I really wanted to love it. I ended up liking it instead, and that's a shame. And it’s all to do with the marriage of the petrol and engine and the automatic gearbox. It appears they pay lip service to each other and don't communicate as they should. Which is why if you are looking at the Cruze — and it’s well worth considering - my tip is go for a manual transmission or the turbo diesel. That's a much better car to drive.
The baby Holden appears to be well put together and the ride reflects it. There's none of the harshness nor the crude, wallowing ride we have seen in previous models out of Korea so Holden's engineers have done a good job in setting this car up for our conditions.
There's some harshness on broken surfaces and the suspension, in the CDX-spec test car at least, can be noisy, almost if lacking isolation from the cabin. Overall the Cruze is very liveable apart from some hard plastics in the cabin, shapeless rear seat and lack of a driver's foot rest.
But for the money the Cruze is a real bargain. It’s a solid, well built entry into the small car market but performance is handicapped by the less than ideal match between the petrol engine, despite developing 104kW, and the six-speed sequential auto gearbox. You need plenty of revs to get moving at low speeds then the engine becomes harsh. The Cruze can be caught out, especially on moderate slopes as it tries to work out which gear is best.