But the Cruze bucks a trend Holden has worked heavily to build over the last five years. First the Barina, then the Astra, and finally the Vectra was imported from Europe to lend support to the Commodore, bolstering Holden's passenger car lineup.
The Australian love affair with everything European held true and Holden sold as many as it could import. Some models, like the Astra convertible, are proving so popular Holden is having to work hard to keep up with demand.
But now comes the Holden Cruze, a tiny crossover vehicle that offers Barina size and pricing with the emotional attraction of 'go-anywhere' all-wheel drive. Peter Hanenberger, Holden's CEO, says it's the first of many passenger car based all-wheel drive products for Holden. And, interestingly, it comes from Japan, from Suzuki in fact, and not Europe.
Did Holden want it? Talk to people in the company and you get an overwhelming sense of resignation, of frustration almost, that perhaps it's not all that it could be, that it should be. The tight constraints dictated by the already on-sale Suzuki Ignis would suggest that Holden didn't have a lot of room in which to truly develop the Cruze. Sure there are a number of differences between the two, as we'll detail further on, but during our time in the Cruze, the Ignis was never far from mind.
So, is that a good thing, or a bad thing? Just how uniquely Holden should a car feel in order to wear the Lion's badge? How much brand DNA is necessary to turn a budget-priced, cheaply built Suzuki Ignis into a car fit for sale alongside European models? Interestingly, Holden did play a fundamental part in the early life of this car.
It was June 1999 when General Motors Asia Pacific rang Holden with an offer. We need a showcar, a compact, cost-effective 4WD, potentially for production and sale in Asia. We want to show it at the Tokyo motor show later this year. Do you guys want the job?
Mike Simcoe, Holden's head of design, and the bloke responsible for the all-conquering Commodore Coupe show car that later became the Monaro, didn't waste much time in thinking it over. He said yes, though perhaps too quickly, as he admits.
"I said yes. Then I worked out we had about 12 weeks to deliver the car, a fairly daunting task. Add to that the fact that our team at Holden had pretty much been confined to working on large cars, so we didn't really understand a car of that size, and also had never built an international show car.
The results, however, show that Holden delivered the Chevrolet badged YGM1 show car, on time and to spec, and to critical acclaim. Asia would have its cost-effective small 4WD, and so too, it seemed, would Australia.
First into Australia was Suzuki with the Ignis, a five-door, front drive hatch aimed at the Barina and Mazda 121 in the $15k market. Holden's version of this car is the Cruze, also a five-door, but with all-wheel drive, putting it in a market segment just begging for decent product. The Cruze goes on sale July 1, 2002.
Holden is positioning the Cruze, which it calls a crossover between lifestyle wagon and light car, as a niche player in the burgeoning small 4WD market. Burgeoning because of vehicles like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Nissan Xtrail.
But the Cruze's size, engine and price ($19,990 at launch) puts it up against the Daihatsu Terios and the Suzuki Jimny in a niche of that market segment that isn't exactly setting Australia on fire. Holden also expects buyers of small passenger cars like the Holden Barina, Ford Ka, Toyota Echo and Daihatsu YR-V could also shop Cruze.
Holden's giving the Cruze every chance of success, with a standard features list that's bound to please. Air conditioning, driver and passenger airbags, CD player, remote central locking, power windows, electric mirrors, power steering, alloy wheels... All part of the $19,990 launch price.
The Cruze is powered by a 1.5-litre, 16-valve, four cylinder engine coupled to either a five speed manual gearbox, or an optional four speed automatic ($2000 extra). The engine produces 74kiloWatts of power, which admittedly isn't much, and is barely adequate for the lightweight Cruze, which tips the scales at a modest 985kg.
Our brief test drive of the Cruze at its national launch in Queensland revealed the notchy manual transmission version - sourced from Suzuki - to be the pick, the automatic at times struggling - particularly noticeable on hills and inclines.
Fuel economy figures also lean towards the manual version, though with both transmissions returning around 7l/100km (city/hwy combined), your wallet is not going to be troubled that often.
Back to basics, what's the difference between the Ignis and the Cruze? Quite a lot in fact. For starters, the Cruze is all-wheel drive. Holden's techos have slipped a viscous coupling differential between the axles which locks up progressively when slippage occurs. What this means is that there's no switches or buttons to press, the Cruze will automatically send drive to the rear wheels when the front wheels start to slip.
This system brings inherent savings in fuel usage and keeps things uncomplicated for drivers, two plusses that Holden believe will win a lot of buyers. But will owners know how to take advantage of this system? Most people's reaction to a car running wide on a corner is to lift off, yet doing this will nip the all-wheel drive's advantages in the bud. If there's no throttle input, there's no power going to the front wheels, and if there's no power to the front, there's none to divert to the rear.
Holden engineers widened the front and rear track (distance between the wheels) by 20mm each to improve vehicle stability and lower the centre of gravity. Each suspension component was tested and modified by Holden, and the ride and handling of the car is much improved over the Suzuki Ignis. So much so, in fact, that Suzuki is believed to be considering similar modifications for its next generation Ignis.
The Holden design team gave the Cruze production car a once over, particularly at the front and rear. The aim, says Holden's head of design Mike Simcoe, was to give the Cruze a high 'graphic' at the front - through the use of the trapezoidal grille and tall headlights - and a wider, flatter rear - by using a horizontal theme.
In our opinion the Cruze has a strong visual presence, which is more likely to find favour with the fairer sex than the lads. The Cruze looks like its riding on stilts because of its skinny 15inch tyre package - though they are larger than those fitted to the Cruze's twin, Suzuki Ignis. Bigger again would have been better, especially from a company that prides itself on visual dynamics as much as driving dynamics.
On the road the Cruze rides passably well for a light car, soaking up bumps and handling the corners as good as can be expected. It will push the nose if you enter a corner too quickly, the tyres losing grip without much of a fight. Because of its light body the Cruze does feel flighty at times, especially over yumps and hollows. On the dirt it's another story, the Cruze's all-wheel drive system is practically seamless in its transition from front drive to all-paw. The Cruze travels well over rutted or rocky dirt roads, tracking true at the front, if a little nervously at the rear.
We were surprised at how quiet the Cruze's cabin was, even when punting at highway speeds. There is a little wind noise off the fairly upright windscreen's pillars and the mirrors, but not enough to get worried about.
The Cruze is fitted with disc brakes up front and older-tech drum brakes on the rear axle, with optional anti-lock ($700). Drum brakes are widely accepted as a cheaper - perhaps less efficient - alternative to disc brakes, though in this instance they're more than capable of pulling the featherweight Cruze without dramas.
Holden's sales plans for the Cruze, which is the first of a raft of all-wheel drive products the General is working on, is modest - around 250 per month. We see a lot of financial reasons to buy the Cruze, especially with that long features list and a sub-$20k price tag. But we can't see the blokes liking it - the Cruze scoring zero votes in our official and extensive CarPoint office vox pop (three blokes at the coffee machine).
But at the end of the day, the Cruze can't outrun its Suzuki roots. It doesn't feel or drive like a Holden, and it certainly doesn't have the quality we've come to associate with Holden, so potential buyers would probably be better off in a Barina.