Road Tests

2016 Chevrolet Cruze Second Drive Review

Sharpening initial impressions about Chevy’s freshened compact

NASHVILLE – After a pre-First Drive of the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze a week earlier, the automaker offered a longer First Drive on public roads in and around the Music City. This follow-up Chevy Cruze drive helped sharpen impressions from the earlier preview at the General Motors Proving Grounds in Milford, Michigan, and allowed me to take a closer look into other features.

You can read my First Drive of the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze here. The car is popular with AUTOMOBILE readers and with regular Chevrolet customers, who have made the Cruze the brand’s most popular sedan. Since the Cruze’s first full calendar year in the U.S., Chevrolet has sold well over 200,000 annually, peaking at 273,060 in 2014. Though Chevy has retrenched from the Western European market, it plans to sell the new Cruze in more than 75 other markets. It adds the appealing hatchback model in the U.S. market by this September and the diesel model early next year.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze rear three quarter in motion

Herewith, a few observations and revelations from our Nashville drive of the 2016 Chevy Cruze:

Engine/Transmission

Acceleration is best described as adequate. Both the new, direct-injection, variable-valve-timing 1.4-liter turbocharged I-4 and the six-speed automatic save weight—44 pounds and 24 pounds, respectively—but the transmission clearly is geared for best-possible fuel economy. The start/stop feature, which has no defeat button, on this drive felt less smooth switching the engine back on than it did during preview at the Milford Proving Grounds. Still, it’s smoother than in German luxury cars, for example.

Although 40 mpg highway for the Premier and 42 mpg highway for non-Premier automatics is impressive, anyone with the least bit of driving enthusiasm will choose the six-speed manual, which gets 41 mpg highway. Keep in mind that rowing your own aggressively and ignoring the “upshift” light will almost certainly drop your highway number well below the EPA estimate. The manual is the only transmission on the base L model and is available on the LS and LT. These three trim levels come with a torsion beam rear suspension and 15- or 16-inch tires. We didn’t get to drive the manual in Nashville, but we did take a three-pedal lap of Milford’s 4.5-mile ride and handling loop.

Yes, I try the automatic’s manumatic control (+/- button on the shift knob, no paddles) and conclude that it’s best kept in Drive.

Ride quality

My drive partner and I spend most of the drive of a loop around Nashville, including parts of the curvy, hilly Natchez Trace Parkway, in a Chevy Cruze Premier RS. The Premier is the top-spec Cruze, which adds a Watts link to the rear suspension, and upgrades the interior to leather seat surfaces and a rich-looking, two-tone black-and-deep tan no-cost option. The RS package upgrades the Premier’s 17-inch wheels and all-season tires to 18 inches but is otherwise simply an appearance package, with unique front and rear lower fascias, blacked-out grille, and rear lip spoiler. Just like the Milford drive, the Nashville/Natchez Trace drive reveals a fairly stiff suspension. The Cruze Premier RS corners with minimal yaw at moderate speeds, though we don’t push it hard enough to get into the inevitable front tire scrub of understeer.

After a lunch break, we trade into an LT with 16-inch tires. (The RS package is available in this trim, but unlike the Premier RS, does not include larger wheels and tires.) The LT, which has a twist-beam rear without the Watts linkage, feels a bit softer, but most importantly, road noise is substantially quieter thanks to the smaller tires.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze side in motion 02

Steering

Confirmed: That the Premier’s steering has very good feel and feedback and is pretty quick and precise. The LT’s steering also feels good, though a bit looser and not as precise. It’s not as quick, either. The Premier has a 16:1 steering ratio, while other trim levels get 17.2:1.

Special features

Like its competitors, Chevrolet is obsessed with the perceived demands of millennial-generation consumers. Chevy’s promotion is “24/7,” which bundles a buyer’s choice of 24 gigabytes or 24 months’ worth of free data. Like most new GM models, the ’16 Chevy Cruze LT and Premier come standard with 4G LTE Wi-Fi, Apple CarPlay and Android for Auto, and wireless charging. The Cruze LT comes with a standard 7-inch touchscreen; the Premier’s touchscreen is 8 inches. After 24/7 is done, you can add the 4G LTE to your own phone/Internet plan monthly fee.

Heated rear seats and heated steering wheel are available. Optional advanced safety features include side blind-zone alert, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, and forward collision alert.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze front end in motion 03

Design

Chevrolet’s design staff has figured out that the Toyota Prius philosophy of making a “green” car stand out at the expense of handsome styling is so 2009. The Chevy Volt and Cruze look like close siblings, both with taut, handsome lines, even if they also look like they’re related to the Honda Civic. The Premier’s interior is handsome and expensive-looking, recalling Chevrolet’s longstanding philosophy of looking richer than it costs, though the LS and LT interiors only look like they belong in the $21,000-$25,000 sedans they are.

Cost considerations

My driver partner, analyst Joe Phillippi, and I spend much of the drive discussing the somewhat odd decision to offer two different rear suspensions on a pretty straightforward model with just one engine choice (before the diesel option arrives). After grilling a couple of engineers, here’s what we’ve discovered: Chevrolet was unhappy with excessive lateral suspension motion on cars equipped with the 17- or 18-inch wheels. It’s an unsprung weight issue. Well, then, analyst Phillippi wants to know, why not include the Watts linkage across the lineup? Surely the complexity of offering two rear suspensions cancels out the cost savings of not offering an extra piece of steel stamping on lower trim levels, right? Turns out the Chevy Cruze is very cost-sensitive, and a piece cost of “more than $10” can be prohibitive on L, LS, and LT trim variants.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze front end 02

Why that’s important

The first Chevy Cruze was designed to sell at higher prices, and thus become the brand’s first profitable small car, pre-bankruptcy GM CEO Rick Wagoner said at its September 2008 Paris auto show introduction. How’s that working out? GM earned $2 billion net income in the first quarter of 2016, compared with a $15.5 billion loss in the second quarter of 2008. Back then, however, fuel prices in the U.S. had reached an historic high. Credit last quarter’s net profit on trucks and SUVs, though GM’s newfound discipline on curbing daily rental-fleet sales on cars like this compact doesn’t hurt.

Speaking of daily rental fleet

The new Chevy Cruze is a 2016 model. The old one was built out by the end of last year as the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze Classic, to fulfill such fleet demand.

Will it matter if the Cruze makes money?

Yes. It will when the auto sales cycle brings us back to a 12 million or 13 million unit sales year and/or the next time the price of gasoline and diesel spikes. In other words, it’s designed to be a recession survivor.

The bottom line

Unchanged from my first First Drive. The Mark I Chevrolet Cruze was the brand’s first competitive compact in more than four decades. The Mark II model is a good leap forward, though it’s not the revelation that the new Chevy Malibu is. It will take a head-to-head comparison with the new Honda Civic to convince me it has what it takes to be best in class.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $17,495-$23,995 (base)
Engine: 1.4L turbo 16-valve DOHC inline-4/153 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 177 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic (LS, LT and Premier); 6-speed manual (L, LS and LT)
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 29-30/40-42 mph (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 183.7 x 70.6 x 57.4 in.
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Weight: 2,932-3,000 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.7 sec
Top Speed: N/A

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Buying Guide
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Fair Market Price:

$ 18,987

EPA MPG:

27 City / 40 Hwy

Safety (NHTSA):

★★★★★