Mark Reuss slipped behind the wheel of the metallic-red Chevrolet Cruze, buckled his seat belt and adjusted the seat and mirrors. Surveying the car’s instrument cluster and control console, he ran his fingertips across the dashboard, checking its surface texture and the consistency of fit between trim panels.
Mr. Reuss is a career G.M. engineer and accomplished amateur racecar driver, who was made president of the automaker’s North American business last December. On a chilly afternoon at G.M.’s proving ground north of Detroit this week, he was casually clad in a fleece jacket, blue jeans and western boots, but the expression on his face was dead serious as he turned the ignition on and listened to the Cruze’s turbocharged 1.4-liter engine come alive.
“I’m taking in a lot of data here — the sound of the engine cranking, the intuitiveness of the controls, the ‘human factors’ that determine how well the vehicle and driver interact,” he explained. Observing this ritual from the Cruze’s passenger seat, I was struck by Mr. Reuss’s preflight attention to detail and his quiet intensity as he prepared for the final engineering-evaluation drive of G.M.’s new small car.
The Cruze is expected to enter production this summer, as a 2011 model. Its introduction is critical for G.M., which hasn’t fielded a truly competitive small car in the United States since, well, since perhaps ever. Previous efforts, including the current Chevrolet Cobalt and its predecessor, the Cavalier, fell woefully short in terms of refinement, quality and customer satisfaction against the more polished Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, the segment’s perennial sales leaders.
With Ford about to release its new Fiesta and Focus small-car duo in the United States, as well as an upcoming wave of crisply designed, low-priced, well-appointed fuel sippers from Hyundai, Volkswagen, and others, there is enormous pressure on G.M. to “get this car absolutely right in every regard,” Mr. Reuss said.
I was among a small group of journalists invited by G.M. to ride shotgun with the engineers as they shook down the Cruze in earnest one final time before production begins. We participated in the last of four evaluation runs made by Mr. Reuss and the engineers during the course of the Cruze’s 32-month development — a process that is used for every new car and truck. These weekly events are called “knothole drives,” signifying the engineers’ tight focus on rectifying issues as early as possible. Each week (usually Fridays) the team assaults a 10-mile loop of rural public roads near Ann Arbor, Mich., with a different new vehicle and a few of its direct competitors.
The test loop, which is covered multiple times during the six-hour events, is favored by the G.M. engineers for its variety of road surfaces, elevation changes, twisty curves and lack of traffic.
Mr. Reuss and I led a convoy of eight cars — three Cruzes in different trim levels and stages of development, and a Civic, Corolla and Mazda 3 for comparison. After each lap of the loop, we stopped at a country market with a window sign reading “Walt’s Crawlers for Sale” to switch cars and drivers. A 2009 Cobalt played tail-end Charlie “to show us how far we’ve come,” said Tom Stephens, G.M.’s global vehicle–development chief who also attends the weekly drives.
Upon exiting the proving ground, Mr. Reuss began putting the Cruze through its paces. Past a roundabout, he cranked and nudged the steering wheel left and right to gauge its precision. He was on and off the gas, accelerating and braking, while giving me a seat-of-the pants commentary on everything he was experiencing: engine performance, transmission shifts, pedal feel, handling, ride comfort and cabin noise levels at various speeds.
Mr. Reuss obviously is a very skilled driver and intimately familiar with the test route. He quickly gained my confidence while hustling us briskly through the first set of tight corners — reeling off highlights from the Cruze’s development history as we drove past red barns and freshly plowed fields.
Six hours later, we were back at the proving ground. I shared the Cruzes and competitors with eight G.M. engineers, all of them specialists in key areas like chassis dynamics and noise, vibration and harshness. I listened to their debriefing as they identified the few minor issues still needing attention before the Cruze was cleared for production.
My impression after the event was if the 2011 Chevy Cruze that leaves the Lordstown, Ohio, assembly plant is the same fun-to-drive, quiet and refined car that I viewed through the “knothole,” G.M. will finally have the small car it’s needed forever.