Last year Chevy cut 200 pounds (91 kg) out of the Camaro, made it 28 percent stiffer, gave it a new lightweight turbo four-cylinder base engine, improved the handling a bunch, gave it a more menacing face, and voil: Car of the Year! The script read at our first-drive event to recap the intro of the new 2016 Cruze included a whole bunch of these same plot elements: Weight is down by as much as 250 pounds (113 kg). The body shell is chock-full of press-hardened steels and clever CAD trickery to make it 27 percent stiffer. A new direct-injected, turbocharged, 1.4 liter four-cylinder with auto stop-start will power all Cruzes (until next year’s return of a diesel option). The chassis gets upgrades such as internal rebound springs in the struts and hydraulic bushings plus an optional Watts linkage in back. And the Cruze gets a fashion makeover that includes today’s de rigueur coupelike roofline and Chevy’s sleeker twin-grill facade.
Winner, winner, chicken dinner?
That question can only be answered by the entire Motor Trend brain trust in the crucible of a weeklong battery of testing in California’s high desert, but for a first taste Chevy invited a small number of us to take a couple laps of the ride evaluation track at its Milford Proving Ground in rural Michigan in each of four trim variants. The company even provided mainstream versions of a Focus, a Corolla, an Elantra, and a Civic for comparison.
The new engine, rated at 153 horsepower and 177 lb-ft, sounds and feels a good bit stronger than the two gas engines it replaces, and Chevy estimates it’ll scoot to 60 mph in 7.7 seconds. If true (and manufacturer estimates historically trend conservative), that would put it just a tick ahead of the new benchmark Civic 2.0-liter manual and a half-second slower than a 174-horse, 1.5-liter turbo Civic Touring with a CVT. Ford‘s 2.0-liter Focus sedan is a tick quicker, and the midlevel 1.8L turbo Jetta gets there in 7.3 seconds. Don’t expect next year’s 1.6-liter oil-burner from GM’s new Medium Diesel family to be any quicker. (In Opel trim it makes 134 hp and 236 lb-ft.)
Acceleration is nice and smooth with the six-speed automatic, but our single biggest gripe with the new Cruze is with the manual transmission’s shifter. The top of the knob is bigger than average and borderline clunky, the need to pull up on a little button under the shifter to get reverse feels antique, the shift throws are slightly long, and the shift action feels way too light. It seems as if its engineers didn’t expect many takers, which will of course probably be the case, and hence didn’t sweat the details. The only other major gripe was with the brake pedal positioning, which feels way too high above the accelerator.
My first ride was in an LT with an automatic—the expected big-volume seller—riding on 205/55R16 Goodyear Assurance tires (the smallest I sampled, as there were no L or LS models present with 15-inch tires). Man, was this car quiet—far more so than any of the competitors or any of the bigger-tired Cruzes, for that matter. The ride compliance was impressive, given the reasonable lateral grip these tires developed with no tendency to drift wide in washboard curves. The ride and handling impressions were identical on a manual Cruze RS that wore Hankook Kinergy GTs in the same size.
For comparison, I drove a 2.0-liter Focus SE on 215/55R16 ContiProContacts. The all-black interior looked far shinier and cheaper, and it was louder and less refined inside, but its chassis felt like an equal match in terms of ride and handling, with a bit more road feel coming through the helm. I also sampled the Toyota Corolla LE on Michelin Primacy MXV4s in the same tire size as the Cruze LT. This interior seemed antique, and the weaker engine was a real moaner when pressed. The body structure also seemed less robust, and there was a lot more head-toss. (Credit the Cruze’s rebound springs, which provide secondary roll control that allows the anti-roll bar to be less stiff.)
My next step up the Cruze’s performance ladder was in a Premier variant with the improved rear bushings and Watts linkage wearing 225/45R17 Firestone Firehawk GT rubber. Abetting the improved lateral grip generated by the tires with the extra lateral stiffness of the Watts link endows this version with greater cornering precision and authority that exacts only a minor penalty in terms of ride quality or road noise from the fat lower-profile tires. A slightly quicker steering ratio (16.0:1 versus 17.2:1) suits the more responsive chassis well.
The point of the Cruze’s performance pyramid is the Premier RS. That $995 USD premium for the RS buys the same gloss-black grille, decklid spoiler, more aggressive front and rear fascias, and side rocker sills that $695 USD one gets you on lesser Cruzes, but on the Premier it also buys fancy Michelin Primacy MXM4 tires in size 225/40R18 on unique rims. This one cornered the most aggressively, but we’ll need to quantify any improvement in grip at a track, and I’ll be gobsmacked if the numbers reveal an improvement that my ears would deem worthy of the unholy din these meats generate on all types of pavement. Take a long test drive before signing up for this punishment.
My final competitive drive was in the Civic EX on 215/55R16 Firestone FT140s. The Civic, you may recall, was a finalist in our most recent Car of the Year contest. Flat foot this 158-hp, 138-lb-ft, 2.0-liter CVT powertrain, and it sounds and feels like it’s accelerating quicker (certainly louder) than the Cruzes. Its suspension also felt a tad more sophisticated, as it never bottomed or topped out on the entire course, even traversing a big dip.
There’s only so much you can tell about a car from eight laps of a 3.5-mile (6-km) course, but a case is building to declare the Cruze to be the Camaro of the compact class. We’ll need a bit more time to decide whether it’s the Civic of the class.
|2016 Chevrolet Cruze|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan|
|ENGINE||1.4L/153-hp/177-lb-ft* turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4|
|TRANSMISSIONS||6-speed manual, 6-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,350-2,450 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||183.7 x 70.6 x 57.4 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.7 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||29-30/40-42/33-34 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||112-116/80-84 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.57-0.58 lb/mile (est)|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|