PowerSteering: 2016 Chevrolet Cruze Review
Aside from a small back seat and a "Marginal" overall crash-test rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the first-generation Chevrolet Cruze and Cruze Limited models were reasonably good little cars. Built all around the world and offered in sedan, hatchback, and station wagon body styles, the U.S. market received only the 4-door sedan version of the car.
Now, for 2016, a new Cruze debuts and, for the first time, Chevrolet plans to offer it to U.S. customers as a 5-door hatchback in 2017. Highlights of the new Cruze include a larger interior, lighter curb weight, more efficient drivetrain, and new infotainment and driver-assistance technologies.
What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the new Chevrolet Cruze, it is helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this compact car and what they liked most and least about it.
According to J.D. Power study data, Cruze buyers make less money, compared with the Compact Car segment average. Median household income for new Cruze buyers is $58,226, compared with $72,719 for the segment. Cruze buyers also tend to be slightly older (51 years vs. 49) and 48% are women compared with 44% for the segment.
Overwhelmingly, Cruze buyers prefer to buy a vehicle from a U.S. company (87% vs. 40% segment average). They also say that they are less likely to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (52% vs. 59%), and their friends and family think of them as someone who knows a great deal about autos at a greater rate (59% vs. 54%).
In the J.D. Power 2015 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study,SM the Cruze ranked 14th among 19 entries in the Compact Car segment. Five of the top 10 opportunities identified for improvement related to the engine—the most significant being transmission smoothness when shifting. Fuel economy was also a sore spot among buyers, as well as rear-seat space and the usefulness of center console storage.
Buyers indicate that their favorite things about the Cruze are (in descending order) exterior styling, driving dynamics, interior design, visibility and safety, and the infotainment system. Owners indicate that their least favorite things about the Cruze are (in descending order) storage and space, climate control system, engine/transmission, fuel economy, and seats.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the new 2016 Cruze performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2015 U.S. APEAL Study.
Rakish and aerodynamic, the new Cruze is visually appealing, as was the model it replaced. Long front and rear overhangs give the car’s wheelbase a stubby appearance, but from any other angle the car is attractive.
The test vehicle had the racy-looking RS option package, which adds revised front and rear styling, lower body trim beneath the doorsills, rear spoiler, and larger aluminum wheels. The changes give the car an undeservedly aggressive look, but selecting it is the only way to get the handsome 18-in. aluminum wheels.
Inside, the new Cruze adopts Chevrolet’s dual-cockpit design theme, decorated in modern piano black trim with chrome accents. Combined with the next-generation MyLink infotainment technology and upgraded switchgear that often looks and feels as though it could be shared with an entry-level Cadillac, there is no doubt that the new Cruze is a more modern automobile.
Unfortunately, there is also no hiding the fact that lower interior panels are constructed of inexpensively finished plastic and that the car’s headliner didn’t cost much to produce.
Compared with the previous-generation Cruze, which provided a firm and supportive seat with a tall seating position behind a steering wheel that was comfortable to grip, the all-new 2016 Cruze takes a step backwards with regard to comfort.
The test car’s 8-way power driver’s seat was wide and flat, lacking a lumbar support adjustment, and the seating position felt low even when the seat was raised to its highest position. Heated front seats and a heated steering wheel are available, though buyers cannot get ventilated front seats. A sharp radius defines the leading edge of the steering wheel rim, making it uncomfortable to grip.
Climate Control System
Equipped with a single-zone automatic climate control system, which is a part of the Enhanced Convenience option package, the Cruze effectively cooled the cabin on warm spring days in Southern California. Notably, operation did impact the car’s automatic engine start/stop system, especially early in a trip.
The temperature control knob and the fan speed knob should swap places, though. With automatic climate control systems, temperature is more frequently adjusted than is fan speed, and in the Cruze the temperature knob is located to the right, farther from the driver, than on the left, closer to the driver.
Chevrolet’s latest version of its MyLink infotainment system is remarkably sophisticated, featuring a tablet-style, capacitive-touch display screen with modern graphics and featuring quick response to input.
Highlights include smartphone-projection technology in the form of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, OnStar subscription services, and a 4G LTE Wi-Fi connection. To provide a more compelling value equation, every Cruze includes a 2-year/24-month subscription to the most comprehensive OnStar services plan, as well as a 2-year/24-gig Wi-Fi data service plan. That’s huge.
As a bonus, and in recognition of clear trends related to media consumption, Chevrolet offers optional tablet computer holders for rear-seat entertainment purposes.
Storage and Space
Chevrolet supplies robust bins within each of the Cruze’s door panels. They are deep and wide and accommodate a variety of objects. Additionally, the glove box is of a decent size, helping to offset the somewhat small center console storage bin. Small, unlined trays round out the Cruze’s storage capacity, including one located forward of the shifter near the USB port.
The cube-shaped trunk is easy to load, but for the Cruze LT and Premier trim levels, it shrinks from 14.8 cu. ft. to 13.9 cu. ft. Nevertheless, full-size suitcases lay flat with room for a compact folding stroller lengthwise between the luggage and the lid. The car can also accommodate several duffel bags, too. A handle on the inside of the lid makes it easy to close the trunk, a nice feature that is missing from the larger and more expensive Malibu.
Visibility and Safety
New front quarter window glass slims the windshield pillars, helping to create a better view forward, and the Cruze’s side mirrors are quite large. It can be hard to judge distances in front, though, as the car’s nose is both invisible to the driver and quite short. After parking at a local restaurant, my pre-schooler made fun of how far away from the parking block I’d left the car.
Chevrolet’s blind-spot monitoring system employs illuminated warnings on the side mirror glass, where it is easiest to spot and to reference. The reversing camera provides a broad view, and the rear cross-traffic alert certainly comes in handy when maneuvering in parking lots. Additionally, Chevrolet supplies a lane-departure warning system with lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights, and a forward-collision warning system for the Cruze.
Given this car’s technological excellence, two features are conspicuously absent. First, you cannot get an adaptive cruise control system on the Cruze. Second—and more concerning given its track record for preventing collisions—you cannot get an automatic emergency braking system on the Cruze.
Because Chevy introduced the redesigned Cruze late in the model year, it had not been crash-tested as this review was published.
As was true of the previous Cruze, the new model is equipped with a turbocharged, 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine. This is a new power plant, though, one featuring direct fuel injection and automatic start/stop technology, and capable of generating 153 horsepower at 5,300 rpm and 177 lb.-ft. of torque from 2,000 rpm to 4,000 rpm.
Accelerating from a stop, there is an initial delay as the engine revs into the thick of the torque, and then as revs climb toward the horsepower peak the power delivery levels off. While Chevrolet quotes a 0-to-60-mph acceleration time of 7.7 seconds, and while that sounds right, the car certainly lacks the zing that can make some competitors a joy to drive.
According to official EPA estimates, the 2016 Cruze is rated to return 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway, and 35 mpg in combined driving.
On the official test loop, the Cruze returned 28.3 mpg, and over the course of a week and more than 500 miles of driving, which included a round-trip jaunt from the northern Los Angeles suburbs to San Diego and back, the car’s trip computer displayed no better than 29.9 mpg.
Clearly, something is not right, either with the EPA numbers or with the test car. And if you’re wondering, yes, the automatic engine start/stop system was operating properly.
Among small cars, the Cruze is a quiet one. You can barely hear the engine, and wind noise is almost non-existent. With the Premier RS and its larger 18-in. wheels, road rumble is the most intrusive sound.
Most people will like this about the Cruze, but in combination with the car’s leisurely saunter under acceleration, relatively soft and compliant suspension tuning, and light and linear steering, this Chevy produces a forgettable driving character—unless you drive it rather hard and fast down a mountain road, during which the level of brake fade can certainly stir an emotional reaction in a driver.
The most enjoyable thing about driving a Cruze Premier RS is diving into corners. Body roll is almost non-existent, and the big 18-in. tires grip with authority. Otherwise, you might want to hit up a Starbucks with every trip in a Cruze. A drowsy driving monitor would be perfect for this car.
In the press release for the redesigned 2016 Cruze, Chevrolet asserts that the car is “more agile with a dynamic driving experience.” Yes, in Premier trim, with the RS option package, the Cruze is more agile. But is the driving experience dynamic? Hardly.
Instead, the Cruze is all grown up, a more mature and sophisticated small car, one that offers dynamic design in addition to luxury touches and modern conveniences as long as you’re willing to pay for them. Chevrolet is also smart to provide free, long-term access to OnStar and 4G LTE Wi-Fi services, easily one of the most compelling reasons to choose the Cruze.
Otherwise, if you like the way the Cruze looks, and you like the way the Cruze drives, you’ll find plenty of other things about this new compact car to be satisfying.
General Motors supplied the vehicle used for this 2016 Chevrolet Cruze review.
For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.