Not too long ago, the American car manufacturers were at such a low point that their CEOs traveled to Washington, D.C., to beg for bailouts. Two of the Big Three automakers -- General Motors and Chrysler -- declared bankruptcy soon thereafter. And even after draconian reorganizations, many industry experts feared that they would never be competitive with the best of the foreign manufacturers. But jumping ahead to today, we have found the domestic car industry to be rejuvenated. It is producing world-class vehicles that are proving to be surprisingly competitive with vehicles from top-rated names, like Honda and Toyota.
So you want proof?
The following is a quick look at some of the best new offerings from each of the Big Three domestic manufacturers. And with cars like these, they are worthy of that title again.
The Chevrolet Cruze was the surprise hit of the summer. Not necessarily a car built to thrill car evaluators, the Cruze has been a sensational success with consumers. It has been at the top of the overall sales charts for several weeks during the past few months, shoving aside such perennial favorites as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.
What makes this small car so good is the fact that it is not so small. In fact, it is the largest competitor in the compact-car class and yet offers class-leading fuel economy. That has proven to be a tough combination for the imports -- and other domestics, to beat. We like the Cruze's well-sculpted, big-car styling, as well as its roomy interior and easy-to-use controls. We're also big fans of its 1.4-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine, which delivers 138 horsepower and a potent dose of torque. Best of all is the Cruze's smooth ride that belies its small size.
Fiat? A hot domestic car?
Well, yes, these days it is. For one thing, Italian auto giant Fiat is now firmly in control of Chrysler. For another, the Fiat 500 is built in a Chrysler factory in Mexico, so it is as North American as enchiladas. The 2011 interpretation of the tiny, rear-engine Cinquecento that first went on sale in Europe in 1957, the 500 uses cute as its calling card, but it is more than that. The interior is a whimsical combination of past and present, and the plush seats are remarkably comfortable. There isn't much space in the rear seat, but the good news is that there is a rear seat, so your friends can come along.
The sophisticated 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine churns out 101 horsepower, not enough to turn the car into a sports machine, but you will like the fuel economy -- 30 miles per gallon city and 38 mpg highway with the five-speed manual transmission -- and you will like the high level of standard equipment even more. It's probably the coolest car in America, and you can buy it for less than $17,000.
Based on Ford's global C-platform, the compact front-drive Ford Focus is the "world car" answer to Chevy's U.S.-oriented Cruze. While the Cruze is a four-door sedan, the configuration most Americans favor, the Focus reveals its international roots in the form of a five-door hatchback that supplements the four-door sedan.
New, naturally aspirated 2.0-liter in-line 4-cylinders power the various Focus models. It features direct fuel injection and twin-independent variable camshaft timing, helping it whir out 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, which are big increases over the numbers of the previous model. The choice of a five-speed manual transmission or a new six-speed dual-clutch automatic and a European-tuned suspension separate the Focus from its peers.
In the new, streamlined General Motors, GMC's role is selling high-end trucks, SUVs and crossovers, and so the GMC Terrain has been created to carry the flag in the hotly contested compact crossover market. Based on the popular Chevy Equinox and facing competition from the well-established Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, the Terrain makes its mark with bold, masculine styling. That sets it apart in a segment that is filled with genderless vehicles. Offering a choice of both four- and six-cylinder engines, the Terrain returns laudable fuel economy and is equipped with some interesting features.
The impressive interior is library-quiet -- something we didn't expect -- and offers a rear seat that slides back and forth about 8 inches for greater versatility in cargo-hauling. We were also impressed with the power rear-hatch mechanism that you can program to operate your way, and with the rear-vision camera that should be a must on all vehicles that are used for towing.
Jeep Grand Cherokee
If you want an impressive pedigree, consider the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It not only offers the go-anywhere, do-anything heritage of the Jeep brand that is now in its 70th year, but also is based on the same platform as the Mercedes-Benz ML. Unlike many of its competitors, the Grand Cherokee continues to eschew a third row, which gives it more maneuverability and enhances the accommodations for the second-row passengers. What you might not expect is how upscale and luxurious the Grand Cherokee's interior is.
Leather and real wood trim highlight the tastefully designed interior, and the rear-seat area offers 4 additional inches of legroom. In addition, the cargo has been expanded to 35.1 cubic feet. Fold the rear seat and you can double that area if you and a significant other want to take off for the woods. To help get you to that inaccessible lakeside campsite, Selec-Terrain lets you change vehicle behavior with a twist of a knob, adjusting for the surface on which (or through which) you're traveling.
Tom Ripley is a Driving Today contributing editor who writes about the auto industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.
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