2016 Chevrolet Cruze First Drive
The Malibu of compacts.
EngineTurbo 1.4L I4
Power153 HP / 177 LB-FT
0-60 Time7.5 Seconds (est.)
Curb Weight3,000 LBS
MPG30 City / 40 HWY
As Tested Price$28,640
Five short years into the car's life, rust had started to consume the fenders. There was no CD player. There wasn't even a tape deck. The 2.2-liter four-cylinder was anemic, the four-speed automatic dimwitted, the suspension partially collapsed, and I'm sure Silly String from a long-forgotten prank was all that connected the front axle and steering wheel. I didn't want to drive my GM-built compact, and I'm sure none of my classmates wanted to drive theirs. But we'd have felt differently if our horrible cars were as good as the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze.
The second-generation Cruze is both flashy and refined, but it's also busy from certain angles. It all adds up to a far more visually assertive vehicle designed to stand out in a hotly contested segment. The fascia is full of sharp, eye-pleasing angles, especially around the grille and headlights. The way body-colored elements feed into the black plastic foglight inserts – which are tied together by a small chin spoiler – is a neat touch. Chevy got aggressive with the body lines, too. We like the small character line over the front axle and the way the shoulder line gets stronger as it approaches the taillights. The big visual flaw comes from the $995 RS package. It adds black inserts on the rear bumper that look messy and convoluted in contrast to the ho-hum taillights above.
GM has come a long way from the dreadful, black-plastic mess of the J-body's interior. Plastic is still the dominant material in the new Cruze, but the soft-touch sections here are great. But what's most surprising is Chevy's work on the materials that aren't in your sight lines. The harder plastics on the doors, lower dash, and transmission tunnel feel solid and are free of sharp edges. It's a huge part of why this cabin feels so upscale. The standard 7-inch and available 8-inch MyLink infotainment systems don't hurt, either.
Chevy has upped the safety tech for the 2016 Cruze, but it's not a match for the Civic. Like the last-gen model, blind-spot monitoring, rear parking sensors, and cross-traffic alert are all available (they're actually a no-cost option on the Premier). Chevy has also offered a range of optional, more advanced features for 2016. They include automatic high beams, forward collision alert, and lane departure warning, but you won't get adaptive cruise control or collision mitigation braking like the Honda Civic does. Like we said last week, no IIHS Top Safety Pick + for this Cruze.
Chevy dropped the naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder for 2016 in favor of a new 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder for the Cruze's four trims. The engine's 153 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque, and quick-spooling turbo get the Cruze off the line quickly. But the 1.4-liter really comes into its own around 3,000 rpm, in the heart of the engine's torque peak band (2,000 to 4,000 rpm). The engine pulls hard, especially when called upon, making the Cruze an easy partner at higher speeds. It's a quiet engine, too, smooth and refined up until the very highest parts of the rev range, when it starts getting buzzy.
We drove a top-end Premier model, which comes standard with a new HydraMatic six-speed automatic (the L, LS, and LT all offer six-speed sticks as well). The auto's relaxed attitude makes it solidly "meh" compared to what's in some of the competition. Upshifts and downshifts are slow but tolerable because they're smooth – the gearbox might take its sweet time figuring out what gear it should be in, but at least it's not jerky. This relaxed character fits the Cruze perfectly – commuters don't need a rapid, hard-shifting dual-clutch or something similar. The six-speed automatic is paired with a new stop-start system. Now, I like stop-start, because I'm a geek about fuel-saving technology, but it's unfortunate that the Cruze's system can't be manually overridden like we're used to in many other cars.
The transmission isn't the only relaxed element in the second-generation Cruze. The smooth roads in Tennessee are nothing like Michigan's third-world tarmac, so we'll need a spin around Detroit to confirm this opinion, but the 2016 Cruze might be the most comfortable ride in its class. It feels level and neutral instead of floaty and detached on undulating roads, and when faced with a bump or imperfection, the suspension is quick to intercept the impact so it doesn't disrupt driver or passengers. It's the ride you'd expect from an Impala, not a Cruze.
The flip side, of course, is that the Cruze kind of handles like an Impala. It rolls heavily when faced with the prospect of a tight, high-speed corner. The fore/aft damping is good – the Chevy doesn't feel sloppy under hard braking – but because of the way it rolls, it's never going to feel as sharp or agile as a Honda Civic or Mazda3. This is only partially down to the suspension. The steering also deserves a share of the blame.
Like a lot of new cars today, the Cruze uses a rack-mounted electric motor in a bid to improve efficiency. The problem here is that there's a serious dead zone on center. Driving down a straight road, you can saw the wheel side to side without eliciting much reaction from the front wheels. It feels imprecise, and, unlike the rest of this car, cheap. Get over the straight-line frustrations, and the steering builds weight quickly – there just isn't a lot of it. And like the chassis, the steering is completely devoid of feedback.
Ultimately, the average Cruze driver is unlikely to push their car during normal commuting as hard as I was pushing this one along the country roads around Nashville. Unless handling is of the highest priority – in which case you're probably only giving the Cruze a blank stare after seeing one while driving to your local Mazda dealer – the more comfortable ride overrules the dynamic problems.
Dynamic issues aside, it's actually a splendid vehicle for commuting. I was happiest behind the wheel of this thing while cruising up and down the highways of Nashville, soaking up that comfortable ride and commendable highway fuel economy. Speaking of, the best Cruze will hit 42 miles per gallon on the highway, but the RS (and the entire Premier range) will only do 40 mpg – GM engineers say the wheel and tire package is to blame.
Prices for the 2016 Cruze start at a reasonable $17,495 (including $875 in destination charges) for the base, manual-only Cruze L. The car you see here is a Premier, which starts at $23,995, significantly less than its most obvious competitor, the $27,335 Honda Civic Touring. Loaded to the gills, this test car rang in at $28,640. That includes the $865 Enhanced Convenience Package (single-zone climate control, heated rear seats, wireless phone charging, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror), the $1,995 Sun and Sound with Navigation Package (an eight-inch nav screen, a nine-speaker Bose stereo, and a sunroof), the $790 Driver Confidence Package II (blind-spot monitoring, rear park assist, and cross-traffic alert from the no-cost Driver Confidence Package, as well as automatic high beams, forward-collision alert, a following-distance indicator, and lane-departure warning), and the $995 RS Package. You don't want the RS Package, and you don't need the Sun and Sound pack. That shaves nearly $3,000 from this Cruze's $28,640 as-tested price.
At the risk of sounding like an old guy, today's high schoolers have it good. They've replaced our Motorola Razrs with iPhones, our Mead Five Star notebooks with tablets, and our miserable J-bodies with the most competent group of compact cars in decades, maybe ever. The Cruze is a compact my classmates and I could have only dreamt of. My old Sunfire didn't even have a tape deck or CD player, but the Cruze has a MyLink infotainment system, standard. The J-body's 115-hp, 2.2-liter engine is no match for the Cruze's cutting edge, 153-hp, 1.4-liter turbo inline-four. And it doesn't look like an emasculated Firebird. These kids today just don't know how lucky they are.
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