2010 Chevrolet Cruze LT

The Cruze is an important new product for Chevrolet, but is it just a little bit too dull for its own good.

A well-worked nose, complete with signature grille, and pretty profile are the standout features of the Chevrolet Cruze's exterior.
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Be still your beating heart, dear reader. In recent weeks these pages have fed you repeatedly at the top table of the motoring dining room, allowing you to trough on the very finest dishes served up by both Lamborghini and Bugatti. Today, though, we've found a very nice spot for you on the motoring equivalent of table 37, right next to the swing door that opens directly into the sweaty kitchens. Yep, welcome back to the real world; bet you missed us, didn't you?

Truthfully, the all-new Chevrolet Cruze pictured here is the kind of affordable, practical car that a lot of us actually do drive in the real world. Supercars are fine if you're hyper-wealthy, but the Cruze and its ilk are the real kings of our roads - built for and driven by the masses. If the car looks more than a little familiar, that's because the first-generation Cruze was formerly badged as a Lacetti and is the reasonably priced car that stars get to race around a track on Top Gear. And on that TV programme the Lacetti is the show's stooge, the butt of a thousand jokes.

But things really don't seem that bad at all on the second-generation model, now rebadged as a Cruze. It is part of a vanguard of so-called "gas-friendly and gas-free" cars being rolled out by Chevrolet that also includes the eagerly anticipated Volt. As such, the Cruze is a hugely important launch for GM, pitching Chevrolet once more into a highly charged fist fight in a compact sector already crowded by the Honda Civics, Mazda3s and Toyota Corollas of this world.

With such strong competition, Chevrolet has put together a package that places the emphasis on quality, reliability and durability - all essential characteristics of a small family car designed to break the Japanese stranglehold. Chevrolet is very excited about the way the Cruze is precisely built and it would be remiss of me not to tell you that its panel gaps are positively Germanic (and indeed Japanese) in their construction.

Styling-wise, the front grille benefits from that super-sized signature radiator that betrays its Chevrolet genes and funky wraparound headlights. An overhanging bonnet completes a well-worked nose. The car is prettiest in profile, its lines mimicking those of a coupe rather than a boxy compact. Altogether, it is a big improvement on the largely unloved Lacetti. The standard-fit 1.8L four-cylinder powertrain is reliable and very economical too. Chevrolet claims fuel economy of 6.9L/100km, a figure that indicates American car makers are finally getting serious about mass-producing fuel-efficient cars.

This engine is mated to a six-speed and class-leading automatic transmission - the Japanese competition currently has to make do with five- and sometimes four-speed equivalents. But there's little point in me boring you with too many performance numbers though, as the only real figure that matters in this cost-conscious sector is the price: Dh52,500 in base specification. Very competitive indeed.

And there's more good news too. Inside you get a more spacious interior than the Civic or Corolla, and some simple, clever touches - like cup holders you can make bigger and smaller in the centre console. Throw in a sprinkling of goodies such as a decent stereo system, power windows, cruise control, a very good air conditioning unit and a dash trimmed with faux metal inserts and the package appears to have been mixed together very nicely.

Predictably, this is all served up with the usual dollop of safety features - dual front airbags (side airbags are available as an extra cost option) and a reported five-star rating in the Euro NCAP crash safety tests. So far so good then. The difficulties begin when the open road starts. I'd hoped the Cruze would be honest, willing and able - the kind of everyday car Chevrolet needs to build to restore its dented reputation. Instead, the Cruze exhibited all the properties of a middle-aged middle manager: soft, a little flabby and very, very grey.

The problem is the Cruze feels like it has had the life sucked out of it by focus groups. Having been bashed by the critics for too long, Chevrolet has listened just a little bit too hard and created something far too clinical for its own good. Where Chevrolet had led me to believe I would be stepping inside a car that would send my heart aflutter - "We believe in the human spirit. There's nothing we can't do. All of us. Each of us," gushes the brochure babble - I found, instead, an utterly joyless car.

It may have perfect shut lines but the bean counters forgot to install a soul when they were doing all their complex calculations. In fairness, it is smooth at speed and does handle reasonably well around town, while the gearbox is a little less jerky than equivalent models from other car makers, but somehow it just feel like exactly what it is: a flawed attempt to replicate the kind of car the competitors have been building for decades.

The only difference is, after years of practice, the Japanese manufacturers have worked out it's alright to let the lunatics take over the asylum once in a while, to inject a bit of excitement back into proceedings. That's why "zoom-zoom" is more than an empty marketing phrase on every Mazda in their range. A precisely built car from Chevrolet? Sometimes, you should be careful what you wish for. nmarch@thenational.ae