The powertrain is where the Chevy Cruze differs from some of its peers.
It’s a good time to be looking for cars, in general. While we’re not really in the era of unrestricted muscle cars anymore, cars have gotten so good at just about everything that it’s pretty difficult to encounter something that’s simply bad, these days. New technologies has allowed for automakers to extract even more from less, while increasing safety and efficiency, all at the same time. In Canada, the compact sedan is the bread and butter of many automakers, bringing in the big volume that allows them to chase those dollars.
The big players in this class are two cars that you’re probably already seeing everywhere on the streets: the Honda Civic and the Hyundai Elantra (reviewed here). Both of those cars, when equipped, deliver an astonishing amount of features and technology to the buyer. Compact cars from even ten years ago couldn’t even come close – they were a lot more basic and simply just got the job done. Now, many luxury features are trickling down into compact cars, like heated steering wheels, LED headlights, and a laundry list of active safety technologies.
Chevrolet has been in this game for a very long time, with cars like the Cavalier and Cobalt faithfully serving this end of the market. The basic recipe has remained in a few ways: four-cylinder engines and four doors. The Chevy Cruze continues this formula, but now for its second-generation, it undergoes a full re-design, to keep it not only up to date, but competitive amongst its tough competition. We were sent a Kinetic Blue Metallic 2017 Chevrolet Cruze LT, with a six-speed manual transmission for evaluation.
The second-generation Cruze changes up the look significantly from the first-generation car. Gone is the rounded greenhouse, and in is a design language that somewhat echoes the latest Camaro (reviewed here). Going down the sides, the character lines add the impression of width, though it somewhat reminds me of a Hyundai Elantra. Up front, LED daytime running lights match those of just about everybody these days, and halogen projector headlamps are also standard equipment on the LS and LT trim levels.
Out back, large taillights fill are the primary focal point, but unfortunately, the turn signals don’t get their own dedicated amber section. Overall, it’s not quite as clean and conservative as the Elantra is, but it’s uniquely Chevy. To some, it may get points simply because it stands out for not being a Civic, Corolla, or Elantra. The LT rides on 16-inch aluminum wheels with 205-section all-season tires all around.
Automotive interiors have come quite a long way, and this doesn’t just include luxury cars! The new Civic (reviewed here) and Elantra lead the segment in terms of design; they’ve done a fantastic job at chasing the premium feel. Honda, for example, deliberately benchmarked the Audi A3, and Hyundai simply stuck to a super-clean design that not only looks great, but is also functional for everyday use. The Chevy Cruze features a lot of the technology seen in many of its competitors, such as an 8-inch Android Auto/Apple CarPlay integration, and an integrated 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot.
It’s a simple interior that errs toward the conservative side. Some of the material choices leaves a bit to be desired, however. For some reason, Chevy has decided to take the seat fabric, and plaster it all over the dashboard. It does have a soft-touch feel, but to me, a fabric dashboard doesn’t feel very premium. If you’re looking to experiment with different materials on the dashboard, Alcantara (also known as suede) should be the first choice – not the seat fabric. The rest of the interior continues the functional theme, with plenty of space for four, and five in a pinch.
The powertrain is where the Chevy Cruze differs from some of its peers. Gone is the two-engine offering in the previous Cruze – both have consolidated into a single 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engine. This isn’t the same 1.4L from the previous car, but this one adds direct injection and other updates to make 153 horsepower at 5600RPM and 177 lb-ft of torque from 2000-4000RPM. This particular car comes with a six-speed manual, which is fairly unique these days, as most automakers (except for Mazda) prefer to pair up the manual transmission option with the stripped-out base model. Chevy allows you to opt for a six-speed manual with the LT trim, which comes with the features and options people expect.
The availability of a manual transmission is always something I like to pay attention to, but the way the Chevy Cruze has its driver’s interface set up is not catered to the enthusiast, whatsoever. The clutch pedal and shifter feel are of decent quality, and the Cruze is very easy to launch – it feels like Chevy seriously benchmarked the Mazda3 for how its clutch engages, because they feel remarkably similar. The number one issue with the manual-transmission Cruze is simply how tall its gearing is. By comparison, the Mazda3 features six closely spaced ratios, with a long sixth overdrive gear that is appropriate for high-speed cruising. The Cruze’s second through fifth gear are extremely long, which allows the revs to drop far out of the peak torque range.
To put this into a more practical context, driving 60km/h in third gear, the revs are only at 2500rpm, and 100km/h in sixth gear sees the revs at approximately 1900rpm. To add insult to injury, the suggestions the Cruze gives you as to when to upshift, are laughably unrealistic. It basically encourages you to lug the engine, well out of its power band. This not only negatively impacts efficiency, but also isn’t a good practice if you’re looking for engine longevity. It feels as if the manual-transmission Cruze gets the gearing the old Cruze Eco did.
I had five adults in the Cruze at one point, and I found myself really having to work the engine hard – falling out of the peak torque range means an excruciating wait until you bring the revs back up. At 1.4L of displacement, there’s simply not a lot of torque generated until the turbo spins up. On the bright side, the low-revving nature of the Cruze combined with strategic use of sound insulation means it is a surprisingly quiet car in its class.
Chevy rates the manual-transmission Cruze at 8.2L/100km in the city, 5.8L/100km on the highway, and 7.1L/100km in a combined cycle. After a week of mixed driving, I ended up with an indicated average of 7.6L/100km. The tall gearing was probably chosen by Chevy to improve fuel efficiency, but the automatic transmission in this case still manages to do better, thanks to an idle start-stop system that helps the city rating somewhat. The fuel tank will hold 46L of regular 87-octane fuel.
The Chevy Cruze starts with the L trim, at $15,995. At this price, you don’t get air conditioning or a back-up camera, and you don’t have the option of the six-speed automatic. The LS ($18,845) adds in that air-conditioning, camera, and automatic transmission availability, and will probably be one of the volume sellers. The LT ($19,845) will be the other big volume seller, as it adds 16-inch aluminum wheels, LED daytime running lamps, heated front seats, among other items. If you’d like an automatic transmission with either of these two trims, add another $1,450.
My particular LT Manual tester also came with the $695 convenience package, which adds a push-button start, keyless access (with access buttons on all four doors – a nice touch), and a power driver’s seat. This brings the as-tested price of this Cruze LT Manual to $21,695, plus taxes and dealer fees. The Cruze Premier ($23,895) is the fully loaded option, and includes the automatic transmission, 17-inch wheels, improved rear suspension, automatic climate control, leather seating surfaces, and a remote starter, among other items.
The Cruze certainly does a decent job including a lot of the features that people are expecting these days, but competition, as always, is tougher than ever. My two top-picks in the class are the Honda Civic (reviewed here) and Hyundai Elantra, and I don’t think think the Cruze has everything it takes to de-throne the two biggest players. The interior doesn’t feel as nice (the seat fabric all over the dash is the biggest offender), and the while the engine puts out solid numbers, it is let down by unnecessarily long gearing in the manual transmission models.
The six-speed automatic may do a better job managing the power curve, and may be the better choice, here. It’s also likely the automatic will sell in much higher volumes, but kudos for Chevrolet for making the manual transmission available on the midrange LT. If you like some of the GM-specific features (like the LTE Wi-Fi hotspot), the Cruze is worth looking at, but the competition will also be more than worth considering.