It’s finally here! Malaysians have been promised the Chevrolet Cruze for quite some time now, starting from mid last year. In fact, yours truly was part of a media contingent sent by GM to the 2009 Shanghai Motor Show, where we got to drive the group’s (then) latest pride and joy. Held in a public park, it was far from a proper test drive, so we were happy to go on a drive to Kuala Terengganu to confirm/debunk those first impressions.

The Cruze replaces the Chevy Optra, but has a different sort of upbringing. While the Optra was a Daewoo designed model, its successor is billed as a Global Car, with GM’s various outposts (GMDAT Korea and Opel) sharing development duties. Testing was spread across continents, with Korea being just one of the few global production hubs for the Cruze alongside China and the US. Naza subsidiary Pavilion Crest gets its supply from Korea, and the single spec Cruze 1.8 retails at RM98,767.60 OTR without insurance.

Continue reading the report after the jump.

The Cruze comes into a segment dominated by the Japanese; names like Civic, Corolla and Lancer have been with us for more than 30 years, and that’s a long time to gain market trust and acceptance. The Chevy will have to battle for the cheques of the more open minded among car buyers, who already have the Kia Forte and Peugeot 308 to choose from. Coincidentally, both are also distributed by the Naza Group.

As you can imagine, it’s not an easy task, and we feel that most (if not all) of the Cruze’s prospects will throw a glance or two at the sharply styled Kia. For the record, the Forte 2.0 is cheaper and better equipped than the Cruze, and the 1.6 SX costs nearly RM20K less than the Chevy, which is a lot of money in this segment.

But surely the Cruze has something going for it? It does. Chevy’s latest sits on GM’s Delta II platform, which is the best compact car platform the company has at its disposal, and the same one used by the current Opel/Vauxhall Astra in Europe and the Chinese market Buick Excelle. It was engineered to claim all five stars in Euro NCAP crash tests, even if our Cruze can’t quite take full plaudits with only two airbags. Still, a strong frame (torsional rigidity is up by 140% over the Optra) is the best safety feature a car can have, and that’s standard fit here, as are ABS with EBD and Traction Control.

Under that heavy hood (lift repeatedly to build biceps) is a 1.8-litre Ecotec engine with 140 bhp and 176 Nm of torque at 3,800 rpm. We are told that this is an Opel sourced engine, a twin-cam 16-valve unit with DCVCP (Double Continuous Variable Cam Phasing) and VIS (Variable Intake System). The figures are competitive, and GM is the first in the C-segment to offer a six-speed automatic gearbox with Shiftronic.

The package looks quite promising on paper, but not fully satisfying in practice. Three adults on board, the Cruze really had to be worked hard to maintain a fast pace on the trunk road from Jabor to Jerangau, and the gruffy Ecotec isn’t a rev happy unit, protesting with loud boominess from mid to high rpms. This finding is consistent with the Cruze I drove in China, although the 1.6 that’s not available here revved slightly sweeter, if memory serves right.

There are no major flaws in how the six-speed auto works, although it prefers smooth overlapping into the next ratio rather than quick, clean shifts. Manual override is good to have.

But it has to be said that the cars we drove to Terengganu were fresh off the port – perhaps they’ll be smoother with more miles on the odo. By the way, kerb weight is 1,315 kg and the 0-100 km/h sprint is completed in 11.5 seconds, while top speed is 190 km/h.

Bear in mind that the above paragraph described an “as fast as possible” scenario common in media drives. Calm things down a notch or two, like we did on the highway, and the Cruze is clearly more at ease. There’s a sense of solidity and heft not found in the Civic/Altis and the insulation from wind and tyre noise is very, very good. It’s silent all the way to 150-160 km/h, where you’ll finally hear some wind rustle – a library compared to the Civic! Funnily, you’ll hear more of the road and tyres from the rear seats than in the fronts.

With the engine ticking quietly slightly below 2,000 rpm in sixth, the Cruze a very good cruiser indeed. The only time peace is disrupted is when the gearbox kicks down to fourth; the highest two ratios can’t be used for overtaking. The curves of the Karak highway revealed steering that’s nicely weighted, but with very little feel from the 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock position.

Body roll isn’t an issue and the Cruze rides well both on the highway and on poorly surfaced roads. On the latter, potholes, bumps and rough tarmac are easily dealt with by the well-damped suspension. If you hear “European tuned” in the sales pitch, this could be what they were referring to. There’s a decent amount of travel to the suspension (front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam) and the body moves around quite a bit on uneven B-roads, but the Cruze tracks and grips well. As a whole, ride and handling is good. The brakes are adequate and pedal feel is decent.

The Cruze driver sits in a sporty environment, with a good driving position and steering wheel that’s adjustable for reach. The wheel itself is not covered with leather, which isn’t a deal breaker for me as it isn’t too slippery and quite chunky to hold. Then you notice the empty left spoke and realise that the Cruze doesn’t come with cruise control. Curiously, there’s also no left foot rest for the driver.

The chrome hooded instruments look good, but aren’t that easy to read at a glance. Both stereo and air-con share the prominent central display, where you can also alter the car’s settings, such as turning the reverse sensors off or altering the duration the lights remain on, and so on. Plastics are not of the soft touch variety, but that’s expected.

The unique thing about the Cruze’s interior is the swathe of fabric across the dash, which continues on the door panels. I loved this idea when it was in grey, but our cars came with blue fabric (regardless of exterior colour), which i personally thought looked cheap and strangely retro. The fabric covering the seats didn’t feel very premium either. Not to all tastes, so go check it out yourselves.

Moving to the back, the rear bench looks very flat, but offers decent comfort. Head and legroom should be adequate for most average sized Asians. That plunging roofline, which is described as “coupe-like” by Naza/GM doesn’t seem to come at the cost of headroom. For a mental picture of the Cruze’s size, it’s 57 mm longer, 42 mm taller and slightly wider than the Civic, while its 2,685 mm wheelbase is just 15 mm short of the Honda’s class leading 2,700 mm. Luggage capacity stands at 450 litres and there’s a full sized spare under the boot floor.

While the C-segment isn’t short of players, the Chevrolet Cruze is a welcome addition. It’s not perfect (it deserves a better engine, for instance) but is certainly a capable contender. Despite the lower price, it’ll be hard to see those already set on a Civic/Corolla/Sylphy turning to the Cruze, which leaves us with the Kia Forte. Who will prevail? Let’s look at the sales charts a year from now.