“Smooth, silent, and heavy.” That’s what I said when I drove a first-generation Cruze with 55,000 miles on the digital odometer. Another thing I said: “Ready for prime time.” Daewoo’s, excuse me, GM Korea‘s first take on a compact-class world car was, to misuse a phrase from an Eighties Updike novel, “a thick, sweet plaything” that broke all Korean-car stereotypes by being substantially heavier, quieter, and more solid-feeling than any of its competitors.
It was an intelligent, thoughtful decision on General Motors’ part, assuming it was a decision and not simply a side effect of the General’s notorious inability to understand compact-car engineering. And it ensured the Cruze continues to have a reasonable reputation in the used market as a safe choice, marrying some of the J-car’s cockroach durability with vaguely modern over-the-road dynamics.
But there was a price to be paid, and that price was fuel economy. The Cruze was always a heavy drinker, exceeding four-cylinder Camrys and Accords in its fondness for the pumps. Something had to be done, and something was done. The new Cruze is “up to 250 pounds lighter” according to GM’s press releases.
I’m here to tell you that the SlimFast program worked. The Cruze now gets class-competitive fuel economy. Which leads to the question: If that’s what you gain when you “get the lead out”, so to speak, what do you lose?
As rented by me, this Cruze “Premier” has an MSRP of $24,350. Not to worry; there’s already about a grand’s worth of cash on the hood well before the calendar actually turns to 2017. For this rather daunting amount of money, you get quite a bit of content. Keyless entry, stitched dashboard, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay telematics, alloy wheels, leather seats with power operation on the driver side, remote start, heated steering wheel, and a “Watts link suspension,” which was known as “Z-Beam” in the first-gen car. You cannot accuse GM of being stingy with this car. And if you’re willing to pair a manual transmission with the 1.4-liter turbo instead of a six-speed automatic, you can save $6,000 on a stripper version that probably shares most of the Premier’s core virtues.
What you don’t get: any sort of compelling looks. The Cruze is a folded, spindled, and mutilated take on the Impala and Malibu’s seal-sleek fastback silhouette, with virtually all of the panache drained right through GM Korea’s aesthetic colander. What styling there is appears to be halfhearted. Example: From inside the car, it looks like our own Sajeev Mehta’s bete noire, “DLO fail,” has been averted, because there’s a front quarter-window. Yet when you step out of the car, you’ll see there’s still a black plastic triangle between the A-pillar and said quarter-window. It’s ridiculous. There’s also far too much aimless flaming of the surfaces, a compulsive pinching and twisting of everything from the double-layer hood to the rear quarter-panels.
Most ridiculous of all: the “Premier” badge, which sits crooked, generic, and alone on the right side of the decklid. It looks like nothing so much as an aftermarket badge for one of the $699 dealer upcharge trim packages that sub-par dealers aim at sub-prime customers. (Camry “American Edition”, anyone?) Yet for all of the Cruze’s unlovely details, it’s still better-looking than its predecessor, which fairly screamed Korean taxi and had the sort of confused, thick-jawed countenance in its first few years that’s associated with mild mental handicap in human beings. And is there a truly attractive car left in the compact game? I can’t think of one. A 1994 Corolla looks like a Ferrari 250 GTO compared to what’s on sale now.
The story is much better once you’re behind the wheel. From here, the Cruze appears to be worth every penny. The chrome looks real, the stitching is convincing, and every touchable surface bears the hallmarks of careful, deliberate attention. Only that hideous GM aqua lighting, known to my readers as The Color That Looks Cheap, spoils the atmosphere. The doors close with a reasonable thunk. The push-button starter matches that of a Civic for quality and feel. Visibility is acceptable in all directions, and the rearview camera is better than what the “imports” have. Let’s go for a drive.
I’m embarrassed to admit this was my maiden tour of Android Auto, mostly because I haven’t bothered to try it in any other car. I plugged my new Galaxy S7 Edge into the USB port and within a few moments I had my navigation on screen and full command of the phone functions. If it works this well everywhere it’s implemented, it’s going to be a success. It’s certainly very good here. Less good: the sound quality of the stereo, which is only acceptable. In rather clever fashion, GM has copied the back-of-steering-wheel function buttons familiar from many Chrysler products, only in the Cruze they’re in the form of what feels very much like a double shifter paddle on both of the top spokes. They control volume on the right and source/station on the left. Actual manumatic shifting, if you ever want it, is handled via a plus/minus rocker switch on the top of the shift knob.
My test route, which took me from Florida’s RSW airport down to Naples and back via the so-called Tamiami Trail, didn’t exactly offer me a varied diet of tarmac and twisties, which makes the Cruze’s newfound interior rattle and hum all the more worrisome. This is now a loud car inside, at least on par with Honda, which usually offers the least effective insulation in any given class. If you went blindfolded from the old Cruze to this one, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d gone down a class, or maybe gotten in a predecessor vehicle. Wind noise isn’t a factor — the tortured ovoid styling is effective here — but road noise is a terror. It’s enough to affect conversation between front-seat occupants. If you want to know where the 250-pound savings came from, I’d suggest that it came in the form of vastly reduced sound isolation.
On the flip side of the coin, the Cruze is now a genuinely sprightly car that never feels at a loss in traffic. The sole exception is this: In certain circumstances, mostly brought on by extremely light throttle from a stoplight, the transmission is so eager to upshift that the car can feel dangerously slow and unresponsive when you finally do get around to pressing the pedal. You have to go all the way to the kickdown to reset the process — an unpleasant, lurchy procedure that makes a joke of the “Premier” badge and the dashboard stitching.
General Motors remains very fond of its despicable “auto stop” system, and it’s particularly bad in the Cruze. Shorn of its thick subcutaneous Dynamat, the car responds to each restart of the engine with a full-body shudder, not unlike the unselfconscious orgasmic release demonstrated by what the French used to call “women of a certain age.” It’s positively unsettling, doubly so if you’re trying to merge into heavy traffic from a stop. (As always, the key is to relax the brake very slowly, causing the engine to start, then pushing it back down.) Whatever absolutely inconsequential improvement in economy results from this mechanically unsympathetic misery cannot be worth it.
Nor is it required. The Cruze is quite fuel-frugal, easily besting 38 miles per gallon for a 110-mile trip both by self-reported and filling-to-click estimations. It’s faster than the old car, cheaper to run, and just as spacious. If the gravitas of the old car has been utterly and completely discarded, well, had anyone really asked for it in the first place? I cannot make an honest argument for a $24,350 Cruze; you’d be better off with an Accord LX unless you absolutely need a heated steering wheel. But after the various GM discounts, it makes more sense. As a low-equipment manual car, it probably makes most sense of all.
When the first Cruze came out, I thought it was a legitimate competitor to Civic and Corolla. I still feel that way. My money in this segment would be in a Focus or perhaps the new Civic hatch, but I wouldn’t fault anybody who drove those cars and still picked the Cruze. It’s absolutely good enough in pretty much every sense of the word. Returning Cruze customers will wonder where their peace and quiet went, but they’ll have the consolation of better fuel economy and performance. No longer smooth, silent, or heavy, the Cruze remains ready for prime time.