By Alex Taylor III
November 24, 2010

One of the up-and-coming stars of the new General Motors is a Korean-born designer named Taewan Kim, who was educated both at the Royal College of Art in the U.K. and Brigham Young University, practiced his design chops at Fiat working on the Punto and Cinquecento, and now oversees the design studio at GM’s Daewoo Auto & Technology in Seoul.

The charismatic Kim, who blends an easy charm with a deep understanding of the auto business, presented the design of the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze during a recent trip to Asia.

What’s a Chevrolet doing in Seoul? The Cruze, Kim explained, would be the first global Chevrolet and will be sold around the world. While the underpinnings of the Cruze were engineered at GM’s Opel in Germany, the design was created in South Korea at Kim’s GM DAT studio.

I can’t forecast how the Cruze will do in Brazil, Russia, or India. But it certainly seems destined to perform more strongly in the U.S. than predecessors dating back nearly three decades named Cavalier and Cobalt.

The Cruze is also a far more significant car than the much-praised Chevrolet Volt, which despite its car-of-the-year accolades, is destined to lose hundreds of millions of dollars for GM and, at best, represents a transitional technology.

To build the Cruze, GM has assembled a global network of plants in St. Petersburg, Russia, Shenyang, China, and Halol, India — not to mention Incheon, South Korea, and Lordstown, Ohio. At the start of production in Ohio, Mark Reuss, the president of GM’s North American operations said, “This is everything for us.”

As with any compact car, functionality came first for the Cruze, with an emphasis on cost, weight, and interior room. But Kim was clearly proudest of the Chevy design cues that have been interpreted for the Cruze: the dual-port grille, Corvette-inspired, dual-cowl cockpit, and in something new for Chevy: a more aggressive stance, with the body tucked in and the wheels and fenders flared out.
Kim also gets credit for a smart substitute for those acres of pebble-grained plastic with which GM used to slather the instrument panel. The upper half is covered with cloth or leather, which is nicer to look at and warms up the cabin.

The Silver Ice Metallic test car, equipped with the 1.4 liter turbo and six-speed transmission, felt peppy, though it was never burdened with a full load of passengers. Gas mileage was a decent 24 miles per gallon city/36 miles per gallon highway, though one mpg worse than the old Cobalt, with its 2.2 liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder motor.

That may be due to the 250 pounds of extra weight that the Cruze has taken on, a common failing of newer GM vehicles as additional equipment is added. A larger fuel tank, more acoustic materials, and greater overall size are largely to blame.

The Cruze also has no fewer than ten airbags (the old Cobalt had five) and a raft of standard safety equipment that includes StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover sensing, traction control, anti-lock brakes, and collapsible pedal system.

The Cruze may be small and inexpensive but it isn’t cheesy or cheap. The base model, which starts at $16,995, comes with air conditioning, power windows, and power door locks with remote keyless entry as standard equipment. Additional features like leather-trimmed seats and a shift lever in the higher spec LT2 version drove the as-tested price up to $21,890.

The Cruze isn’t going to dethrone the leading cars in the segment like the Honda Civic and will likely be challenged by the soon-to-be launched Ford Focus, but it is a credible entry that will help fulfill the promises of GM’s successful IPO when it goes on sale four months from now.

And based on the future models I saw in the GM DAT design studio, the same could be said of Taewan Kim as well.

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