Chevrolet Cruze — Adding style to the compact segment

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The first Chevrolet Cruze — which reached market in 2011 — went a long way to erase the memories of the Cobalt and Cavalier, for decades Chevrolet's rather lack-luster entries into the competitive compact car segment. So when the second-generation Cruze was introduced last year as a 2016 model it wouldn't have been surprising to see Chevrolet rest on its laurels, playing it safe with an updated clone of the first generation.

But to its credit, the bowtie brand has taken a big step in improving the Cruze with new, compelling styling inside and out, and a superior overall driving demeanor. The designers have created a sleeker profile that mimics the larger Malibu with an attractive — and unmistakable — Chevrolet-themed front end. The roof line flows gracefully rearward and a character line sweeps upward from the pronounced front fender. The windshield is steeply raked giving the Cruze a slippery look and a more airy cabin. The 2016 Cruze in our opinion is one the best looking compact sedans on the market.

The interior is more stylish with noticeably improved materials quality. A curving character line runs diagonally through the dashboard, a nice artistic touch. The center stack is attractive with separate climate controls that don't involve delving into the information screen. The new sedan is more spacious including rear-seat leg and knee room.

Chevrolet has done a creditable job in improving performance with a new turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine making a solid 153 horsepower and an even more adequate 177 pound-feet of torque. The new engine replaces both the previous base 1.8-liter four-cylinder and the optional 1.4-liter turbo four that developed less horsepower and torque.

You can feel the 15 extra horsepower and the added 29 pound-feet of torque available from the direct-injected engine — to the tune of 0-to-60 in 7.6 seconds and a quarter mile time of 15.9 seconds at 89 mph. That's better performance than most mid-sized four-cylinder sedans can muster, and, indeed, we found it more than adequate for the chores of driving life including merging into the fast lane and passing on two-lane blacktops.

One minor complaint — the auto stop-start feature in which the engine cuts off when the car is stopped (at stoplights, for instance) can be annoying and there is no defeat switch.

With the added performance come excellent handling traits along with light, but direct steering. On-center feel is good, and maintaining a straight course down the interstate is effortless. And to top off the performance kudos, the Cruze stopped from 60 mph in a scant 113 feet in instrument testing, although there were complaints that the brake pedal is positioned too high.

The engine can be paired with a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic. EPA-measured mileage is above class average with the six-speed at 30 mpg city and 42 highway in lower trim levels and 30/40 in the top-level Premier.

The Cruze comes in four trim levels — L, LS, LT and Premier — starting at $17,495 including destination charge. Standard equipment includes 15-inch wheels, air conditioning, a height-adjustable driver's seat, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth, rearview camera, MyLink infotainment system, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system comes standard with a seven-inch touchscreen or an optional eight-inch screen in the higher trims.

So regardless of price, you will get the new high-tech interface that features clear graphics and an intuitive menu configuration. We like the "pinch screen" design such as found on a tablet or smartphone, especially for the navigation screen.

While most gauges and controls are intuitive, a head-scratcher is the lack of dual climate controls on the upper trim levels. That's a feature that has become almost a necessity for mom and dad who desire different temperature levels.

We figure the LT will be the most popular trim adding 16-inch wheels, cruise control, a six-speaker audio system with satellite radio, keyless ignition, heated front seats and remote engine start at $21,995 including destination. The Premier trim — such as our test car — comes in at $28,640 with most of the Cruze good stuff included such as navigation, heated outboard rear seats, forward collision alert, lane-departure warning and intervention, automatic climate control, a blind-spot monitor with cross-traffic alert, and a nine-speaker Bose premium audio system.

While a backup camera comes on all trim levels, blind spot monitoring can only be purchased on the top two trims. We believe this technology is important and should be offered on all trim levels, at least as an option.

Base price: $17,495; as driven, $28,640
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 153 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 177 foot-pounds @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Length: 183.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,932 pounds
Turning circle: 34.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 13.9 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 13.7 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 30 city, 40 highway, 34 combined
0-60: 7.6 seconds
Also consider: Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Mazda3

The Good
• Robust standard turbocharged engine
• Excellent fuel economy
• Stylish interior
• Latest infotainment technology

The Bad
• Blind spot not available on lower trim levels

The Ugly

• Cruze faces strong competition