When the Chevrolet Cruze first debuted in North American in 2010, it was a monumental improvement over the Cobalt it replaced.
Engine: 1.4L turbocharged 4-cylinder
Power: 153 hp, 177 lb-ft
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic
EPA Fuel Economy: 30 mpg city, 42 mpg hwy (LT Auto)
US Price: Cruze L begins at $17,495, Cruze Premier Automatic begins at $23,995
Chevrolet’s small car fortunes were no longer regulated to the back of the pack. The brand now had a legitimate contender in the compact car segment. But this industry never stays stands still and after six years on the market, the Cruze is ready for replacement.
Enter an all-new model for 2016. Touted to be vastly improved in many ways, the question is, can Chevrolet do it again? Is the 2016 Cruze improved by leaps and bounds over its predecessor? After a brief drive of the entire lineup this week, it’s safe to say the Cruze is improved, but not quite by leaps and bounds.
New Corporate Face
For 2016, the Cruze borrows the corporate styling found on many of Chevrolet’s recent products like the Malibu, Volt and Impala. Growing 2.7 inches in total length compared to last year’s model, the Cruze now measures in at 183.7 inches, putting it at the larger end of the compact car segment.
Available in four trims, L, LS, LT and Premier, the car can be had with 15 through 18-inch wheel options. Like the previous Cruze, there is an available RS package that includes a unique grille, front and rear fascia, fog lamps, front splitter, rocker panels and rear spoiler. Missing from this package, however, are any actual performance enhancing upgrades.
But performance has been improved under the Cruze’s hood. Chevrolet no longer wants to include a base, cheap-out engine in the brand’s products. All cars now come with the premium engine, like the Cruze, which only offers the 1.4-liter turbocharged unit.
For 2016, it now includes direct injection that, along with a host of other upgrades, increases output by 15 hp and 29 lb-ft of torque. That puts the engine’s output at 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque, which is wholly class competitive. It allows the new model to accelerate from zero to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds.
Much like the 1.4-turbo in the old Cruze, the updated version is a very torque-laden engine. There’s a lot of low-end grunt that is great for driving around the city. But unlike the old engine that tailed off at higher rpms, the updated engine carries power though the entire rev range.
But the 1.4 turbo is really designed for efficiency instead of outright power and includes fuel saving features like start-stop technology. This allows the new Cruze a maximum fuel economy rating of 30 mpg in the city and 42 mpg on the highway for LT models equipped with the automatic transmission.
Two Transmissions with a Surprising Recommendation
That automatic remains a six-speed that provides smooth, nearly seamless shifts. Every trim up until the LT can also be had with a six-speed manual if inclined. As a life-long owner and purveyor of row-your-own gearboxes, it’s great news that the majority of the Cruze’s trims can be equipped with one.
The transmission will be familiar to anyone who has driven the old Cruze or Sonic 1.4T manual. It’s notchy, the clutch take-up point is abrupt and throws aren’t very short. With the manual, there is also a delay in the engine building up power once a gear is engaged.
Surprisingly, when paired to the automatic ,this engine lag is nonexistent. The little turbo’s torque curve and programming seem much better suited to the automatic transmission than the manual, making the auto the seemingly better suited transmission.
Premium Compact, Not Performance Compact
And this makes sense, as the car is more of a premium compact than a sporty one. The RS package just adds cosmetic updates for the most part, and the Cruze is not available with a sport mode, paddle shifters or a performance package.
That said, the Cruze is no slouch when it comes to cornering dynamics. I’ve always like the way the first-generation Cruze drove and the new car rides and drives a lot like the old one – just better. It handles well with good lateral grip and minimal body roll.
Part of this can attributed to a 27 percent stiffer body structure and a curb weight that has been dropped by roughly 250 pounds despite the car being slightly larger. The Cruze’s steering is acceptable, requiring moderate effort and offering decent feedback. There is a noticeable dead zone in the middle, though, and some drivers may find steering a bit heavy during city driving.
The top-of-the-line Premier model does get tighter steering with fewer turns lock to lock. It, along with the low profile 18-inch wheels included in the RS package, really makes the Premier drive a lot better than the other trim models.
Spring for the Premier
And it’s not just the drive where the Premier shines; it’s the interior as well. For 2016, the Cruze’s interior is much improved, but there is still a mix of good and bad elements. Some of the switchgear, like the wheel-mounted stalks, gauges and window controls seem out of place on a new 2016 car. But other items like the Premier’s infotainment controls, HVAC controls and display screen look and feel premium.
There’s one item that continues to irk us though, it’s the fact that seat fabric is still used on the dashboard and doors on the L, LS and LT models. It’s a styling element that we hoped would disappear along with the old Cruze, but like an irrational fear of clowns, it just won’t go away. Those who do spring for the Premier model will be rewarded with a much nicer leather-like surface fitted to the dashboard and doors instead.
Big and Techy
With an increased exterior comes an increased interior. Rear seat legroom has grown to a total of 36.1 inches and a six-foot-plus adult can easily fit back there. The trunk can hold between 13.9 to 14.8 cubic feet of cargo depending on the model.
Forward sightlines are good, thanks to large windows and door-mounted side mirrors. Rearward visibility is a bit cut off with a smallish rear window, but is still more than acceptable. The cabin is also quiet, as the engine note is kept to a minimum along with road and wind noise.
Of course, being a modern Chevrolet, the amount of technology available in the Cruze is impressive. Items like on-board WiFi, heated rear seats and wireless phone charging can be equipped as well as safety tech including lane keep assist with lane departure warning and forward collision alert.
The Verdict: 2016 Chevrolet Cruze Review
With more variants of the Cruze are on their way, including the hatchback and diesel models next year, the future looks bright for the Cruze. For now, the improved 2016 Chevrolet Cruze sedan carries the torch and has a lot to offer. It isn’t a class leader necessarily, but is a competitive entry in a compact car segment that’s never been better.
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