Amid what promised to be a routine and unremarkable mid-life upgrade, Holden's Cruze finds itself with the weight of a nation on its slender shoulders - or at least a nation's auto manufacturing industry.
As Carsguide drove the updated versions through Tasmania on Monday and Tuesday, it became known that Holden had its worst month in seven years. For the first time, three Japanese brands forced it off the podium, three whose small cars are the strongest competitors for the only one made in Australia. Cruze, still the best-selling locally produced car, is the only riposte to the Mazda3, Toyota's Corolla and Nissan's reinvented and resurgent Pulsar.
Explore the 2013 Holden Cruze Range
Small cars such as these dominate the top 10 sellers. With tens of millions of our dollars underwriting it and public sentiment never more indifferent to Strayan made, the very validity of carmaking in this part of the planet focuses unblinkingly this week on the solid, honest little Cruze.
This time last year the Cruze didn't make Carsguide's comparison test of the top four small cars. If ever there was a moment to find form, it's now. The good news for buyers in this madly competitive market segment (try 252,000 sales last year) is at least one of the variants strikes a rich vein of form, all are markedly improved and all are priced to widen eyes.
Mind you don't slip in the blood. The Cruze's sticker has been sliced to the very marrow. The entry 1.8 Equipe starts at $500 less than the Corolla and Pulsar at a new low of $19,490 with a fresh auto transmission (as has the rest of the range) adding $2200.
Standard are 17-inch alloys, rear parking assist and MyLink multimedia system with Pandora dual keyed via 7-inch touchscreen. The other Equipes are automatics and come with a choice of the 1.8 petrol engine, 1.4 turbo petrol or the 2.0-litre turbo diesel.
The auto only CDX spec level adds leather and keyless ignition at $24,190 for the 1.8 and $28,190 for the diesel. Then it gets interesting as the models with the Opel-sourced 1.6 turbo petrol four kick in at only (you'll see why we say “only'') $22,490 for the SRi manual with $2200 more for the adroit new Gen II auto.
This is the sweet spot of the range, with much of the fruit mentioned above plus a belting power plant. From $26,490 the SRi-V adds CDX extras and 18-inch alloys. A bum note is sounded by the absence of sat-nav, a fixture on the previous SRi-V. A new system, being developed in conjunction with the VF Commodore, won't be online till mid-year, so you wait to buy or miss out.
Still it's generally a case of more stuff for less dough -- up to $4k less in some cases. A Golf TSI comparably equipped to an SRi-V specification could scarcely be got on road for less than $40K. And it's not fanciful to compare the two.
Not so much a mid-life facelift (the exterior look is all but the same as 2011 vintage) as a heart and lungs transplant. Holden's engineers were given almost two years and a clean slate to redevelop this well-meaning but generally mediocre car. What a job they've made of it.
The highlight is that new and exceptionally smart auto transmission (with a sport shift on the cars with the 1.6). Even the previously appalling 1.8 has benefited via the sharpened gearbox and massive engineering effort. Cars under the SRi run a basic rear suspension and are tuned for comfort, but in a way that transcends the old sluggard.
The SRi and above are essentially different cars, not hot hatches (or, more commonly, sedans) but smart, responsive and bloody clever devices that most obviously benefit in all aspects - transmission, suspension, damping - by the expertise of Holden's engineering team.
In addition to a more sophisticated Watts Link rear suspension, the singing 1.6s have a slightly lower ride height and sports calibration. The tyres, Bridgestones across the range, are right-hand-drive specific. No, it hadn't occurred to us either that such a thing might make a difference, but that's another measure of the company's willingness to make a generic General Motors world car a Holden.
Borrowed from bigger GM devices such as Cadillac's ATS and the VF Commodore, is the so-called Performance Mode Lift Foot (PMLF) which though a particularly ungainly acronym, works seamlessly in cornering by automatically grabbing a lower gear to improve exit speed.
There is not a car in this segment that rides or responds better to the particular challenges of a first-world country with third-world road surfaces. Though not a boy racer per se, the SRi inhabits that middle ground otherwise occupied only by the related Astra GTC, Mazda3 SP25 and Hyundai's Veloster turbo.
As general duties police get out of Commodores, I wonder if there's a better car than the Cruze for undercover work. Anonymity is its purview -- unless it's orange, one of the new hues. The flowery design philosophy is left to Mazda. Next to even the formerly staid Corolla, the Cruze might as well be wearing overalls to a ball.
I for one like it almost as much in its way as I like the Moray Callum-designed Focus. The hatch, especially with smokey 18-inch alloys filling its wheel arches, looks cool without deviating into backwards baseball cap territory.
Again to compare with, but not to denigrate the Focus, the Cruze's centre stack and instrumentation are simplicity itself. It's in the materials themselves - hard plastics abound, no soft touches to be found - that its econocar origins come to the fore. Attempts to tart up the cabin with hide upholstery are only so successful - the basic cloth is more pleasant on a hot day.
A five-star crasher, the Cruze's safety rating is underwritten not only by the requisite airbags and acronyms, but a solid road stance calculated to appeal to those downsizing from bigger cars - such as the Commodore. The SRi adds exceptional turn in and grip, abetted by their cleverer rear suspension.
We'll go into the improved entry level 1.8 in more detail soon. Suffice for now that incremental but impressive improvements make it more than a bargain basement deal. The essential figures are unchanged, but a car that was the poorest in its class is at least equal to its competitors and better value besides.
The limelight is hogged by the new turbo petrol engine variants and given that it's virtually a whole other and better car, the extra few grand's ask over the base model seems trivial.
Driven last year against the Focus Sport, the SRi-V couldn't put a glove on it. Ford shouldn't be confident about the return bout. The top Cruze is vastly better now. Its steering betters even the Ford's sharp set up.
The Holden's engine and transmission are superior. We'll present this main event ASAP. Ford had better get the 1.6 Ecoboost engine into the Focus pronto.
I'm struggling to think of another car that so happily marries sporty intent with composure and poise. Certainly no car has the right to ride so smoothly and with such refinement on 18s. Nor are they there for show.
The grip is immense. It simply will not push wide short of suicidal cornering speeds. And when exiting the corner in question, the smart auto is ready and willing.
In manual mode it holds a gear at redline, but is intuitive enough for you not to trouble that setting. If the warm hatch/sedan is an exceptional, confidence-enhancing open road performer, it is also one the most refined small cars you could hope to find.
Much attention has been paid to those perennial class bugbears - vibration, noise and harshness. Again a Golf owner could do worse than compare.
Yet the sporting Cruzes are every bit as civilised in the suburbs as their softer siblings. While we've never wrapped ourselves in the flag or extolled Australian cars simply for their state of origin, this one proves to some who may have forgotten that local engineers do it better for local people.