A decade ago if you looked deeply in General Motors sales results, you find that the company was selling huge numbers of Chevrolet Cobalts and Pontiac Sunfires, but it wasn’t actually making any money on them. That’s because if you traveled and had to rent a car, chances were pretty good that you’d find row upon row of these cars populating the lots at Hertz, Avis, Budget and Enterprise. Then in September 2008, just before the financial collapse and subsequent bankruptcy, GM introduced a small car that consumers might actually want to buy, the Cruze. It would be two more years before the Cruze would hit American streets, but it actually did pretty well and in June 2015, Chevrolet revealed an all-new second-generation Cruze which I just had a chance to drive for a week.
Whether or not GM was able to build the first Cruze and sell it profitably remains unclear, but consumers certainly took it and the bad memories of the Cobalt and it’s predecessor the Cavalier were largely erased. The Cruze featured a clean, if unexciting design and well executed cabin with more premium materials than any previous GM small car.
The new Cruze ups the ante on all counts. Where the last Cruze had a more upright, three-box sedan profile (apart from the hatchback that wasn’t made available here) the new one has the sleek, fastback profile that is now de rigueur among four-door cars with a trunk. The wheelbase and length have increased slightly while the roofline has been lowered. Up front the fascia has received a similar treatment to other recent Chevrolet models. The long standing dual-port grille has been slimmed down vertically and widened. The overall look is very similar to the new Malibu and Volt.
Additional sculpting along the flanks adds some character and a sense of motion to the car that was missing previously. The relatively small dimensional changes mean the Cruze has the same overall cabin and trunk space as its predecessor but the execution has been stepped up, particularly on the high-end Premier trim that I drove. Leather coverings come standard on the top Cruze and the combination of jet black accents and the tan Kalahari leather creates an impression of luxury that would have been impossible to pull off in the Cobalt or Cavalier days.
The front seats were comfortable if not quite offering the same degree of lateral restraint as the Civic. Chevrolet continues to use a combination of buttons on the front and the back side of the steering wheel spokes with the audio controls only apparent to fingertips wrapped around the wheel. I’m sure if drove this car for more than a week I’d get used to whether the volume switches were on the left or right with the forward reverse being on the other side. Fortunately, like other new models from the bowtie brand, the latest MyLink infotainment system has proper rotary knobs where they should be for volume and tuning directly below the central screen so a quick twist is all that’s needed to adjust audio levels.
Every 2016 Cruze gets a touchscreen MyLink system with a 7-inch display standard even on the base L trim with a manual gearbox. A larger 8-inch display is available on the LT and Premier and my tester also had the optional embedded navigation. All of these options include support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto so you’re not limited to built-in voice controls. Unfortunately, unlike Ford and Honda, GM hasn’t tied the voice button on the steering wheel to the phone when using the projection systems so you’ll need to tap the microphone icon on the screen. Honda also remains the only OEM I’ve seen that mirrors navigation prompts from Google Maps on the instrument cluster display just as they do with the built-in system. Minor quibbles to be sure, but stuff for the engineers to work on improving. Either way, I’m just glad to have an increasing array of choices that provide the phone interface on the screen.
When the last Cruze was in development, GM was in its first generation of vehicles designed for global markets with structures that could meet the divergent crash safety standards. As a result, cars like the Cruze and Malibu came to market with heavier and thicker structures than hoped. In the past half-dozen years, GM has learned a lot about a concept known as multi-disciplinary optimization (MDO).
This is a process that makes extensive use of computer simulation to run through hundreds of thousands of iterations using knowledge from the materials, manufacturing, structural and NVH disciplines to develop an optimized body structure. GM engineers have been applying MDO to all of the company’s recent vehicles and it shows. Among the new models introduced by Chevrolet in 2015 and 2016, they have seen typical weight reductions of 250 to 300 pounds. The Cruze is one of the beneficiaries of those efforts and it comes across not just at the scales but also in visibility from the cabin. The previous generation of GM vehicles were notorious for having thick A-pillars that created large blind spots to the front corners. No longer as the Cruze pillars now appear to be as slim as those on the Civic.
Under the hood, every Cruze gets a brand-new powertrain. For now only one engine is available, a 1.4-liter direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder engine generating 153-horsepower and 177 lb.-ft. of torque. This engine is a member of GM’s new global small engine family that was co-developed with Chinese partner SAIC. This range of powerplants runs from 1.0-liter three-cylinders up to the 1.5-liter used in the Volt and Malibu. Cruze L and LT models are available with a six-speed manual while others get a new six-speed automatic. Despite the damage done to the reputation of diesel engines by Volkswagen, in early 2017, GM is still planning to introduce a new 1.6-liter diesel in the Cruze.
With its svelte new mass of just 2,932-pounds, the more powerful mill gives the Cruze plenty of spark for a non-performance oriented version of a compact car. This one isn’t going to hunt down any Focus STs or GTIs, but drivers won’t find themselves struggling to merge with traffic as they enter highways either. The lower mass also contributes to nimble handling that feels fully competitive with the Civic. The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly and generally feels better than the CVT in the Honda.
An auto stop-start system is standard on automatic transmissions Cruzes and it works smoothly and seamlessly when killing the engine at traffic lights or drive-through lanes. My time with the Cruze coincided with some particularly hot and humid weather, prompting me to use the automatic climate control. Because of the load on the air-conditioning with temperatures into the mid-90s, this sometimes prevented the engine from shutting off. With the A/C off or when the temps dropped into the mid-80s in the evening, the system disabled idling as expected.
Despite the auto stop-start, the Chevy fell behind the Civic and Hyundai Elantra I’ve driven recently in fuel economy although this is likely at least in part attributable to the heat and A/C use as well as the optional 18-inch wheels that my car was equipped with. In comparable weather and on the standard 17-inch wheels or the 16s on the LT, I likely would have matched the 36 mpg I saw in the Civic and Elantra. As it was I got 32 mpg while the EPA rates the Cruze Premier at 30 mpg city, 40 mpg highway and 34 mpg combined.
For those of us that still remain disinclined to utilities, the great news is that you can now have a plethora of great options in the mainstream compact car segment from a range of brands. They all offer decent performance, good ride and handling, style, room for four adults, good fuel economy and in most cases they either have or soon will have the option of a five-door hatchback. Like the Civic, the Cruze will soon be available with the option of a larger rear opening for carrying big stuff and I even saw a pre-production model on the road while I was driving this one. The Cruze L with a manual gearbox starts at just $17,495 and the loaded Premier I drove stickered at $28,640 including delivery charges. It’s a great time to like cars.