Before Chevrolet let us take its 2017 Cruze Hatchback for a spin, it had us watch a new advertisement -- one of those "opinions of regular folks" deals. When the subjects were asked their opinion of this new model, one person opined, "It looks just like a small SUV!"
My brain and my heart remained stuck in a haze of sadness and confusion for a good hour. But that's the market today. All people seem to want are crossovers and SUVs, whether it's for the cargo capacity, the illusion of capability or the complete misunderstanding of physics that leads people to believe taller vehicles are safer.
It occurred to me that Chevrolet went into this knowing it would be an uphill battle. There's ground to be won, sure -- the Ford Focus and Mazda3 hatchbacks sell some 100,000 units combined each year -- but Chevrolet hopes that everything good about the Cruze can be made better with a bit more junk in the trunk.
You, dear reader (as well as Chevrolet's PR team), will be happy to know that the hatchback does make the Cruze better. It was a solid middle grounder to begin with, packing loads of technology and a comfortable ride, but the extra 3.7 cubic feet of cargo space (from 14.8 to 18.5), as well as the sheet metal required to create that extra space, has made this car better. It's still something of a snooze, don't get me wrong, but now it's a more well-rounded one.
(For comparison's sake, the Cruze Hatchback offers 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the second row up, and 47.2 cubic feet with the second row folded down. The Civic Hatchback's figures are 25.7 and 46.2, respectively, although in Sport trim that first number drops to 22.6. The Mazda3 hatch offers 20.2 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and 47.1 with it folded down.)
Other than the actual shape of the thing, the Cruze Hatchback is nearly exactly the same as the Cruze sedan. Only two trims are on offer for the hatch, the midrange LT and the top-tier Premier. I spent all of my time in the LT, as I'd already reviewed the Cruze Premier and wanted to slum it to see what the hoi polloi will really be buying.
No matter the trim or body style, the Cruze comes with a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder, good for 153 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque. Mated to a six-speed automatic, it feels a bit more planted on the road thanks to the hatchback's extra weight, but it never has been, nor will it ever be quick. The transmission feels a bit ancient in this application, with slow gear changes and a desire to get going only once the pedal kisses the firewall.
That big booty, while attractive, carries a small hit to fuel economy. The LT sedan will hit 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, while the hatchback's EPA figures are pegged at 29 and 38, respectively. As with the sedan, though, I was able to meet and occasionally exceed those figures with a barely conscious effort to keep a light right foot.
As I spent my time with the Cruze Hatchback LT on the not-so-sinewy back roads of Southeastern Michigan, I never once pined for the leather-bound fjords of the Premier. The cloth seats in my tester were plenty comfortable, and while the LT also removes the leatherette from the dashboard, the layered shape remains, which is my favorite part.
What I couldn't stand, though, was the rocker button mounted atop the shifter. That's for changing gears yourself, which I can't imagine most people will do, except by accident as their hands graze the shift lever. Just put some damn paddles on the wheel if you're really intent on giving drivers the ability to change gears at will, Chevrolet.
On the road, Cruze car felt...fine. It was never uncomfortable, regardless of road quality. The taller tire sidewalls of the LT ate up more undulations than the thinner rubber on the Premier, but all that tire led to plenty of road noise making its way into the cabin below highway speeds. Above the ol' double nickels, tire noise makes way for wind noise as air whips its way around the A-pillars.
Having the lower trim meant making do with Chevrolet's lesser MyLink touchscreen infotainment system, which lives on a 7-inch screen (it's 8 inches, and packs a far nicer UI, on the Premier). There was no navigation, but having Apple CarPlay and Android Auto means you still technically have navigation available unless you're a Windows Phone user. (And if you are...why?)
The safety-first crowd will likely opt for this hatchback's available active and passive safety features, which include lane-keep assist, rear cross traffic alert, rear parking sensors, blind-zone monitoring and forward collision warning. Like the sedan, adaptive cruise and autonomous emergency braking are absent, which is both surprising and a shame.
All in, the Cruze Hatch is a solid car. Buyers will appreciate its relative lack of cabin noise, the general interior and exterior design and a proper complement of 21st century technology, some of which is even (gasp!) standard. In a segment that's growing more competitive by the day (Honda's Civic Hatchback just entered dealerships, folks), Chevrolet's ready to put up its dukes and engage in some fisticuffs.
Update, October 12: The First Take has been updated with capacity comparisons within the segment.