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Times have been tough for Chevy this past decade. The august automaker has faced bankruptcy, bailouts, and mean-old Toyota even filched their spot as the #1 automaker in America - an unfathomable thought when GM stood astride the US auto-market as king, with Ford and Chrysler nibbling around the edges. If you’ve been paying attention, you know the story.

I admit, I didn’t shed too many tears. In fact, I wondered why it took so long. After a decade or so of watching a string of my parents’ GM cars disintegrate while a mid-80’s Toyota dutifully served us with only regular maintenance, I couldn’t help but marvel at how the good General managed to stay afloat.

Those early experiences left a bad taste in my mouth for American cars, one I gleefully washed out with recent test drives of Chevy’s latest offerings At a cross-promotional event between the Country Music Awards and Chevrolet, I subjected four brand-new cars to a rigorous and scientific battery of tests such as braking, accelerating, and turning right on red. All, from the Cruze to the Corvette, performed with aplomb in the humid Nashville heat.
Test drive a new Chevy todaySmall Package, Big Deal: the Compact Cruze

Red Compact CruzeI want to lead off with my Cruze impressions because the impact of GM’s latest small sedan extends way beyond its compact dimensions. To be frank, this may be the first truly competitive economy car GM has ever fielded. Blame it on the unions or management’s focus on profitable SUVs, but small cars from Japan have been eating GM’s lunch since they first hit our shores. No more.

The Cruze is refined, comfortable, and with an interior that reeks of quality, instead of the oily plastics from yesteryear’s Cavaliers and Cobalts. It’s no sports car, but handling, accelerating and ride quality are all solidly competitive with other cars in its class.

Exterior styling is nothing to get excited about, but it doesn’t embarrass. Grown-ups downsizing from larger cars for fuel efficiency will appreciate the restrained maturity of the design. It’s handsome, but not flashy or eye-catching in the least.

The Cruze doesn’t break the segment, but neither should it be ignored. For a GM hungry to return to dominance, this is good news. An automaker’s small cars are often their ambassador to a new driver. Give that young driver a great experience, and you have a buyer for life; sell them a lemon and they’ll never grace your car lot again.

Glory Days: the Camaro

Whereas the Cruze is a sign of things to come, the 400 horsepower black-stripes-on-screaming-yellow Camaro I drove is all about Chevy’s past. By now you’ve seen the latest Camaro’s wide stance and evil grin in your rearview mirror, looking every bit the muscle car it is.

Sitting inside you feel it instantly: that mix of low-price and high-power that, unlike small cars, Chevy has always known how to do. The Camaro interior is just as retro as the exterior. Squared-off gauges and black plastic line the cabin – forget the Cruze’s fancy two-toned interior, this is how American cars are s’posed to be. The illusion faded a little when I saw the automatic transmission, but steering wheel mounted paddle shifters removes some of the sting from not being able to shift myself. Claustrophobes need not apply. The deep seating position, high window line, and black interior make it feel like the Batmobile, and give it roughly the same amount of visibility. If you can get one with a back-up camera, go for it.

In motion the V8 sounds exactly like you’d expect. Chevy nicely balances the need to hear your expensive engine with the need to carry on a conversation while cruising. Acceleration with the V8 is, needless to say, brisk – one barely feels its somewhat heavy curb weight.

Pulling the Plug: the Volt

The red VoltIf you would rather not hear your engine at all, then the Volt should be on your short list. Chevy’s plug-in hybrid lets you travel around 40 miles before a conventional gasoline engine kicks in to recharge the battery and power the wheels. The combo lets drivers rack up astonishing mpgs.

The driving experience was remarkably similar to the Cruze – which is the point. Handling, acceleration, and comfort were all competent and enjoyable, if a bit forgettable. The cabin was tricked out in all manner of screens and dials, but it didn’t take long before I was listening to the radio and adjusting the thermostat. Some of the screen’s real-estate is devoted to a helpful gauge showing battery life and expected range on electricity alone.

The only caveat about all that Cruze-like performance is that it comes at a Camaro-like price. The Volt will make a roughly $35,000-sized dent in your bank account after a $7500 incentive from the government. That’s almost twice the Cruze’s price; considering the Cruze can get around 40 mpg on the highway, gas savings alone won’t make up the difference.

Smile Machine: the Corvette

Corcette black with CoreyThe unexpected highlight of my Tour de Chevrolet was the Corvette. I have to confess something: I am not a balding 50-something with a penchant for gold-chains and vanity license plates reading “RTIRMNT”.  I’ve never been particularly interested in Corvettes. That said, I had a blast in the ‘Vette.

It was a black base Corvette pushing the same 400 ponies as the Camaro. Looking out the front you mostly see the two front fenders framing the action. They don’t obscure visibility, but they are an impressive and constant reminder that you’re in no ordinary commuter.

Although the automatic transmission dutifully shifted before any real fun could be had on the crowded metropolitan streets, find the wheel-mounted paddle shifters and this all changes. Holding gear and pushing the engine turns the V8’s sedate burble into a glorious snarl that is just loud enough to tell you why people fall in love with this car. “Instant Smile Machine” would be a terrible name for this car, but it would be appropriate.

Visibility, ride quality, and comfort were all surprisingly good for a car known more for its sporting qualities than every-day utility. While most Corvettes are weekend warriors, if you wanted to use it as a daily driver, you could.

Past Corvettes were criticized for their low-rent interiors. It appears Chevy has listened, albeit grudgingly. Compared to other cars in the $50,000 and up category, the interior is nothing special. Still, it’s functional, handsome, and a vast upgrade over past Vettes. Those other cars may have better interiors, but you can console yourself that most of your money went where it really matters, underneath the hood.

So where does this all leave Chevy? Good, but not yet great. The Camaro is a good muscle car, but Ford’s Mustang has the edge. The Cruze is a contender, but it’s still running mid-pack as Ford’s new Focus dominates all comers. The Volt is a fancy bit of tech, but the steep price is putting it behind the all-electric Leaf from Nissan. However, their trajectory is definitely upward in a way the company hasn’t seen in a long time. If they keep making desirable, quality automobiles, the glory days of Chevy and GM could still be in front of us.

I can’t wait.

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 125 - September 6611
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