By Kalea Hall
The Lordstown-built Chevrolet Cruze is showing off this week at the Cleveland Auto Show surrounded by competition inside and outside of its own segment.
Its compact competitors, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, have been top nameplates in the segment for decades.
Then came the Cruze in 2010.
By June 2011, the Cruze became the first American-made vehicle to lead the compact-car segment in five years.
In 2014, the Cruze had its best year with 273,060 sales. Then in 2015, sedans started to see the impact of a migration away from compact cars to compact sport utility and larger vehicles. Sales fell 17 percent.
Last year, the next-generation Cruze hit the market, but the newly designed model didn’t help the Cruze surpass its previous year’s sales. In 2016, 188,876 Cruzes were sold, a 16.6 percent drop from 2015.
Meanwhile, the Honda Civic saw a 9.4 percent year-over-year increase in its 2016 sales of 366,927. The Toyota Corolla saw a slight decrease of 0.8 percent in 2016 sales from 2015 to 360,483. The Ford Focus, another compact-car competitor of the Cruze, saw a 16.6 percent year-over-year decrease in 2016 sales to 168,789.
The Cruze’s segment “is one of the most popular, and there’s a lot of good choices in there,” said Jack Nerad, Kelley Blue Book’s executive editorial director and executive market analyst.
Overall in 2016, compact cars saw a 6.1 percent year-over-year decrease in sales while the compact sport-utility vehicle segment saw a 3.3 percent increase in sales.
“We see a lot of people going from mid-size cars to compact SUVs,” Nerad said. “I think it is because pricing is more similar. A subcompact SUV has more space than a sedan. Compact cars were the strongest segment out there, but we have seen a continual migration to crossovers.”
The migration led to a production cutback at the GM Lordstown plant. In January, the plant lost its third shift affecting more than 600 workers on the assembly side and about 235 on the fabrication side.
At the auto show, the kinetic blue metallic 2017 Cruze shines with pride. It goes from a metal frame to a complete car at the sprawling 6 million square-foot Lordstown plant where about 3,000 work. Its seats are made at the Intier Seating Systems close to the plant. Its bumpers are made at Jamestown Industries in Austintown. This Cruze was built in January. It has that new car scent, a shiny finish and a sticker of pride on the inside of the driver’s side door noting its birthplace.
Robert Morales, president of United Auto Workers Local 1714, who represents fabrication plant workers in Lordstown, said auto shows enable a car company to show its improvements. From the compact car standpoint, analysts and customers alike notice the improvement at Chevrolet.
“It’s our opportunity to get better as an organization and understand that we are not the only game in town,” Morales said. “It opened our eyes that we need to devote 100 percent to producing a car that our customers want to purchase.”
With such stiff competition, the Cruze aims to compete with its sleek style, connectivity and safety features.
“In its segment, it’s highly popular,” said Glenn Johnson, president of UAW Local 1112, at the Cleveland Auto Show on Friday. “We hold our own with anyone. [The Cruze] exemplifies the pride of our Valley.”
Chevrolet announced and unveiled the next-generation Cruze in the summer of 2015.
Here’s what it has: a 153-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbo engine that gets 40 mpg on the highway, 10 airbags, OnStar and safety features such as lane-keep assist, forward-collision alerts and rear collision alert. The Cruze’s infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Chevrolet also added the availability of 4G-LTE Wi-Fi. The Cruze comes in multiple trim levels, a diesel version and a hatchback version, which isn’t built in Lords- town. The Chevy Cruze sedan starts at $16,975.
“They executed a good small car,” said Jessica Caldwell, senior analyst for Edmunds. “That was something they hadn’t done in the past. It’s a good small car. There’s no room in the market for a subpar compact car or midsize sedan.”
Both Nerad and Caldwell noted what the Civic has – that the Cruze lacks – is the long-lasting reputation because it’s now on its 10th generation. The Civic came out in the 1970s.
“It has a bullet-proof reputation for reliability,” Nerad said.
The 2017 Civic has a Civic Sedan that comes standard with a 158-horsepower, 2.0-liter normally-aspirated engine and also gets 40 mpg on the highway. It also has a rear camera and lane-assist system. Technology wise, the Civic has access to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Civic Sedan starts at a base price of $18,740.
Crossovers, such as the Honda HR-V, have fuel efficiency similar to that of a sedan, and they are bigger, which is why analysts say consumers are drawn to them. The HR-V, for example, gets 33 mpg on the highway and starts at $19,465.
“I think that compact cars are going to continue especially in the fleet market,” Caldwell said. “It’s still a significant portion of the market.”