Here I am on some great ribbons of pavement outside of Nashville, Tennessee, following a beat-up Ford Ranger idling along well below the speed limit. I'm in a new 2016 Chevrolet Cruze with cars stacking up behind me, and I get a little irate after 10 miles. I know, the Cruze isn't fast enough to set these southern roads on fire, but I believe it's capable of being a little fun -- or at least more fun than crawling along at 30 mph.
The slow going gives me time to take in the Cruze's interior, though. My top-of-the-line Premier model includes comfortable leather seats, a leather-wrapped heated steering wheel, attractive piano-black trim, lots of padded and stitched surfaces and satin-painted hard plastics. Materials are on par with the Cruze's competition. In the back, there's sufficient room for two adults with a touch more legroom than the old car, and optional heated outboard seats.
It's the features available through the Chevrolet MyLink 8-inch touchscreen that really set the Cruze apart. It has a 4G/LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, navigation, satellite radio, a nice Bose audio system and Bluetooth. If you don't dig MyLink, then the system is Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-compatible, with an available wireless charging slot to keep smartphones juiced up. While the 8-inch screen is optional in my test car, every 2016 Cruze comes standard with a 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system that's also Apple CarPlay- and Android Auto-ready.
My car is also a bit of looker on the outside, its optional $995 RS package adding more aggressive fascias with unique grilles, front splitter, rocker panels, rear spoiler and 18-inch wheels. Styling cues from the Impala and Malibu are there, which isn't a bad thing because those are good-looking vehicles themselves. From the rear three-quarters view, I see some previous-generation Hyundai Elantra mixed in, too, which is again not a bad thing since that car was a visual ground breaker in its segment.
After what seems like an eternity, the Ford Ranger mercifully peels off, opening up the road and ending the slow-motion conga line. Dropping the hammer reveals noticeable boost lag before the 1.4-liter, direct-injection, turbocharged four-cylinder perks up with its 153 horsepower. The six-speed automatic transmission short shifts quickly, meaning more noticeable downshifts when I step on the gas. Some downshifts throughout the day are slow and harsh. Manually selecting cogs with the button on the center console shifter helps keep me in the engine's power band, but the six-speed manual gearbox available on non-Premier Cruze models is the ideal ticket to get the most performance out of the small engine. There's more to come on the manual later.
More interesting to me is how the Cruze will handle when I push it around corners. On paper, its lighter and 28 percent stiffer body structure should mean better driving dynamics. Depending on trim level, Chevy says the new Cruze is up to 250 pounds lighter than the outgoing model. My Premier's 18-inch wheels, Z-link torsion beam rear suspension and quicker steering ratio make it the most capable car in the lineup so far, and it does well. It scurries through gradually sweeping turns confidently with minimal body roll and healthy grip on the Michelin tires. With an electric power-steering system shared with the Chevy Camaro and Cadillac ATS, it responds quickly to inputs with a nice amount of weight tuned into the wheel, but is void of any feedback. Most people shopping this class won't care about that. The standard four-wheel disc brakes are strong, and easily slow the Cruze down with a fairly firm pedal feel.
On the smooth roads in the Tennessee countryside, I have no complaints about the torsion beam rear suspension. The small road imperfections I do come across don't upset the car, but I do wonder how it will cope with the dreaded roads I have back home in Michigan. Will the Cruze handle mid-corner bumps as well as the Ford Focus or Honda Civic, which have independent rear suspension setups? Hopefully, I can find that out when I get more seat time during an in-depth review.
While the Cruze's all-out performance isn't anything to write home about, its frugal fuel nature is. The quick-to-upshift automatic transmission along with a standard engine stop/start system, slippy aerodynamics and lighter curb weight help the Premier achieve EPA fuel economy ratings of 30 mpg city and 40 mpg on the highway. The LS and LT models, with smaller tire packages and lighter curb weights, receive a highway rating of 42 mpg to match the Civic with its 1.5-liter turbo engine, and beat the Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra and non-hybrid Volkswagen Jetta.
Interestingly, the Cruze's engine stop/start system can't be turned off, which allows the company to receive the full EPA fuel economy credit for the technology. The system is aggressive and kills the engine almost immediately after coming to a stop, but fires the engine in short order so you can continue on your way without interruption.
Also impressive is how quiet the cabin is with the acoustic laminated front windshield and additional sound-deadening materials used throughout. For safety, the Cruze features 10 standard airbags, and available tech items such as side blind-zone alert, rear cross-traffic alert that warns drivers of approaching vehicles when backing up, forward collision alert that signals potential front-end impacts and lane keep assist that gently steers the Cruze back into a lane if it senses the car going off course.
My full-zoot Premier tester carries a $29,035 sticker price, which is a good chunk of change for a car of this class. For comparison, a range-topping Civic starts at $27,335, but lacks trick capabilities like being a Wi-Fi hotspot, proving that connectivity does come at a cost. Chevy is helping customers who purchase a LT or Premier model out by providing a 24GB data plan, two years of SiriusXM satellite radio service and OnStar guidance.
However, most Cruzes driving off dealer lots won't be that expensive. The Cruze starts at $17,495 for an L model riding on 15-inch steel wheels. Personally, I would go for the LT model with the six-speed manual transmission that begins at $20,695. I briefly drove one around downtown Nashville, and had a decent time. It's a nice car with 16-inch aluminum wheels, fabric seats and the 7-inch infotainment touchscreen. With the manual, staying in the engine's power band is easily done, while the fluid shifts and easy-to-modulate clutch pedal made the Cruze a little more entertaining to drive, but boost lag from stops is still there.
Would the manual have helped on those twisties behind that Ford Ranger? Maybe a little...
If the new Cruze lineup isn't very appealing to you now, Chevy may have a couple of things coming that may be of interest. This fall, a great-looking hatchback version joins the lineup, while a diesel model will arrive in early 2017.