Despite the growing ubiquity of crossovers, one of America's most tried and true segments -- non-premium, small sedans -- is still a major battleground. If you want to do well with a group of cars that have been on this war-torn field since your author was in kindergarten, you need to bring your A-game.
The last Chevrolet Cruze did not bring its A-game. I thought it was frumpy and not that great of a driver. The 2016 Cruze, all new for this model year, rectifies that with an impressive technological loadout, attractive looks all around and solid fuel efficiency. It's an impressive addition to a cutthroat segment, but it falls short of being a standout.
The old Cruze was blocky and clumsy. This time around, everything's a bit smoother, a bit slipperier, a bit more contemporary. It adopts many traits from its stablemates, like the general shape of its grille and lighting elements. The side is suitably stylized along the rocker panels and just below the belt line. It's a whole new car, truly, and it looks good, lacking the craziness of the new Civic but possessing a bit more soul than the uninspired Corolla.
Similarly, the interior looks like Chevrolet's designers finally woke up from a decades-long slumber. The Cruze's innards are properly handsome, with our Premier-trim tester sporting a handsome two-tone motif that looks more expensive than it actually is. Sure, the top-layer plastics are on the hard side, and the leather isn't Mercedes-Benz supple, but with an MSRP south of $30,000, it's damned impressive.
The interior continues its winning streak with ample storage locations -- whether you like shoving old gas receipts in the door cards, the center console or under the infotainment screen, there's enough space to accommodate plenty of accouterments.
Space for human cargo is equally ample. Despite a faster roofline than before, there's enough headroom for folks measuring six-foot-plus. Legroom is decent -- when in the back, sitting behind a seat set up for a six-foot driver, I had about two inches of space between my knees and the seatback.
The interior also features knobs and buttons aplenty, a welcome sight for buyers not yet ready to move to a future comprised of screens alone. The climate controls feel especially premium, with temperature readouts built into the knobs.
Not all is roses and daisies with the Cruze, though. There are some weird ergonomic niggles. The manual-shifting rocker switch rests on the side of the shift knob, which is unique to Chevrolet and for a good reason (it's not at all intuitive). The piece of trim that peeks over the top of the infotainment screen hampers my ability to touch the top part of the screen. When I have to look this hard to find fault with something, though, I'd consider it a good thing.
The Cruze flatters its owners with an impressive array of the latest in-car technology, so long as the right options boxes are ticked. This is where the Chevrolet gains an advantage over most of the segment, offering up a mix of creature-comfort and safety systems that tech-forward buyers will appreciate.
Chevrolet's 8.0-inch MyLink infotainment system (a 7.0-inch screen is standard on lower trims) feels much snappier than before, and the addition of both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto gives the Cruze an edge over the competition, save for the Elantra and Civic. It lacks a full suite of built-in connected apps, but you get some basic ones, like Pandora, and it will also read out your text messages without having to use CarPlay or Android Auto.
It makes up for that lack of apps with GM's OnStar connectivity. Its 4G LTE antenna and Wi-Fi hotspot gave me access to the internet when my mediocre phone provider could barely get its act together. OnStar's smartphone app uses that antenna to remotely lock, unlock and start the vehicle, which adds another level of premium feeling, although not without a paid subscription.
Sadly, there's only one USB port up front, which means you'll have to balance charging phones with multiple folks in the car. But a USB port in the back seat helps make up for this front seat deficiency.
This tester also came equipped with the full loadout of safety systems, by way of the $790 Driver Confidence II package. The forward collision warning was not overly sensitive, but a lack of adaptive cruise control and autonomous emergency braking is a bit of a surprise, and not a positive one. The combination of rear parking sensors and a legible backup camera makes parking a breeze, although blind zone monitoring feels a bit silly on a car this small. I would have gladly taken auto-braking over the blind spot system.
The Cruze is efficient, no doubt about that. I was able to easily meet and occasionally exceed the car's EPA-estimated 30-mpg-city, 40-mpg-highway ratings. However, I'm concerned that Chevrolet's powertrain engineers went a little overboard on tuning for efficiency, turning the car into a castrato on the road.
Its 1.4-liter, turbocharged inline-four produces 153 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, which is suitably competitive on paper. In practice, though, it doesn't feel competitive at all. In conjunction with a six-speed automatic (a manual is optional on lower trims), the car always feels reluctant to hustle, requiring heavy pedal pushing to elicit any feeling of forward motion.
Further adding to the driving confusion is the rear suspension. Premier-trim Cruzes receive a multi-link rear suspension, which improves handling feeling over the lower trims' torsion-beam setup. Clearly, this cost money to add to the car, but with a powertrain so against the idea of hustling about, why spend the dough in the first place? Will buyers even notice, or care? I had a hard time sussing out the differences and benefits of the two suspension types, and this is my job.
The Cruze's four-banger largely lives a life of silence, operating quietly in the background. That minimized engine note opens the door for a bit more wind and tire noise to sneak into the cabin, and our tester wasn't whisper-quiet on the road, but I attribute that largely to the larger wheels and tires of the RS appearance package included with this specific car.
The Cruze is a lovely small sedan, and it's come a very long way since the badge debuted (and even further since the Cavalier...). It's pretty, it rides quite nicely and it's loaded with the kind of tech that buyers both new and old will dig. And, with a more-or-less fully loaded model coming in at $28,640, it's not terribly expensive. For reference, a non-optioned Cruze Premier will set you back $23,120.
When you start comparing it against other cars in the segment -- both on paper and in a more subjective sense -- it falls firmly midpack, despite it benefits. With the exception of the 2017 Elantra and 2016 Civic, the Cruze beats the crowd in terms of tech equipment, but it beats only the Corolla when it comes to cargo space.
It's toward the top of the MPG mountain, losing only to the Honda Civic. Its MSRP is low, but not low enough to undercut the Elantra and the Corolla. And if you set up a good old-fashioned horsepower battle, it tops the Elantra and Corolla, but loses out to both the Civic and the Volkswagen Golf.
In more subjective matters, its ride quality is right about in the middle -- not sporty enough to be as fun as Civic or Golf, but not utterly boring and hesitant to be pushed like the Corolla. It's the same story with styling, as well. The Civic is radical, while the Elantra, Cruze and Golf are on the conservative side of nice. The Corolla is about as exciting as a soup ladle.
I view the Cruze as a more exciting Corolla. It'll serve you well and sip gas along your A-to-B commute, staying out of your way and generally acting as reliable transportation will. But it's not so boring you'll wish for the sweet embrace of death, and its tech equipment is a little less 1998. If you're the type of person that would normally opt for the 'Yota, or you're looking for something a little less ripped-from-the-comic-books than the Civic, I highly suggest you give the Cruze a spin.