2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ: Audio Review


The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ has been in our long-term stable for just a few months, and so far the tough Edmunds editorial crowd has mostly been kind to the car on this blog. But GM's entry into the compact segment faces even tough competition from perennial frontrunner like the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic and eager over-achievers like the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. And -- no pressure -- but it's considered a make-or-break model for the new GM.

Maybe that's why Chevy chose to outfit the Cruze with lots of electronic amenities in hopes of turning what would otherwise be just another common commuter-mobile into something more cool and comfortable by decking it out with tech such as standard Bluetooth hands-free, an optional hard-drive nav system, rear park assist and remote start. You can also add a premium Pioneer sound system for an extra $445 like we did. And which I put to the test to see if it's worthy of that price, and the type of praise that other aspects of the car have received here.

The Setup
The Cruze's Pioneer system consists of nine speakers powered by 250 watts. The speakers include a 1-inch tweeter in each A-pillar, a 3.5-inch midrange in the center of the dash, a 6.5-inch midrange in each front door, a 6.5-inch full-range speaker in each rear door and a pair of 6x9-inch subwoofers in the rear deck.

The Sound
As with each and every system I test, I listened to about a dozen different musical tracks in the Cruze that I've heard in hundreds of other vehicles to gauge clarity/lack of distortion, tonal balance, timbre, tonal accuracy, soundstaging, imaging and dynamics. I also used non-musical tracks to test soundstaging, imaging, linearity and absence of noise. For more details on the testing process and the tracks used, click on the Edmunds.com article Sound Advice.

Stock systems have gotten a whole bunch better, and these days you don't even have to pay a lot for a premium system to get decent sound. And "decent" is the operative word here in describing the sound of the Cruze's Pioneer system. While listening to test tracks, I assign numerical scores from 1-10 for the sound-quality categories mentioned above. And almost across the board the Cruze system scored in the 5-6 range in the first five, which translates to average to slightly above-average sound.

Like many systems in this segment, the Cruze's Pioneer setup struggled with low-end and high-end frequency reproduction: bass was boomy and the highs were shrill. There was also little sense of separation or openness to the music, and individual instruments were reproduced with a low-res quality, while dynamics were almost nonexistent. The two 6x9s in the rear deck produced plenty of boom, but nothing that sounded like musical bass. A downward tick or two of the bass level did bring the low end somewhat under control, however.

The two interrelated bright spots were staging and imaging, which is usually the case in a car with A-pillar tweeters and especially a center channel. The soundstage was above average, but not as wide as I would have liked. Imaging was also good, although center images tended to waver and weren't stable.

This was confirmed by the non-musical test track in which solo voices are mixed left, center and right; the system failed since the center vocal could be heard in the left and right channels. But it did pass the other imaging test, a series of drumbeats that move across the stage at precise intervals. It also passed a zero-bits/absence of noise test (no surprise there), but scored poor and poor-to-fair respectively in linearity, a measure of how well the system holds together at low- and mid-volume levels.

The Sources
The Cruze's system comes with a single-disc CD player and AM, FM and XM radio. iPod hookup is also standard via a USB port, and a USB drive loaded with music files can also be plugged in. Next to the USB port in the center console is an aux-in jack to connect almost any external audio source. Of the nav system's 40GB hard drive, 10 gigs are reserved for storage of music files, and those can be ripped from a CD or a USB drive. The hard drive also enables a time shift feature for AM, FM and XM that allows storing up to 20 minutes of live radio, and it will keep recording for up to that long even after the engine is turned off.

iPod integration in the Cruze is typical of what we've seen in other GM vehicles with a nav system. It's adequate feature-wise and fairly user friendly, and files are organized into the usual playlists, artists, albums, songs and genres structure; same with music files on a USB drive. But the interface does have some quirks that can quickly turn into pet peeves. First, the system instructs the user that "to avoid data loss, select Eject USB from the menu." One editor's iPod wasn't the same after not following those instructions, but I forgot and yanked the cord without any permanent damage. I also noticed that, with my iPhone, within the songs menu the screen instead listed albums, as in our former long-term Camaro.

What We Say
The Chevy Cruze grew out of the do-or-die circumstances that GM was up against and, for the most part, the company got it right with this car. And while the premium Pioneer system isn't even close to audiophile quality, you'd be hard pressed to get something as good or better for under $500 from the aftermarket. The system certainly won't win any sound-off competitions or impress your bros on the block, but it does make a decent cruising companion.

The Scores
Sound: C
Source Selection: B
iPod Integration: B-
Cost: B+