2017 Chevrolet Cruze Sedan Premier Rental Review - SlimFast Compact

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

“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.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Gearhead77 Gearhead77 on Dec 31, 2016

    I had a '17 Cruze LT as a loaner while my '16 Cruze was in the shop overnight for a suspension noise. I drive my Cruze little, so the loaner and it were very close on miles (3500 for loaner and 4900 for my car). Both cars were LT trim, but not sure if the '17 was a 1LT or 2LT. My observations: - The new car feels much roomier. I haven't checked to see if dimensions have changed, but the feeling of roominess is improved. The new car has less of the "bunker" feel, rather Honda-esque actually. - Interior has improved in look and touch mostly. The odd fabric on the passenger side IP remains and has grown on me in the '16 and is still there on the '17. -Seat comfort is better, but a Volvo this isn't. - Jack mentioned that he feels NVH has gotten worse in the new car. I feel it's actually a little better. Perhaps not better, but of a different quality? The 1.4T now has DI and 13 more horses. It smoothed out what I feel was a rather unrefined engine and the extra oomph is appreciated, if not impressive. The 1.4T in my '16 is rather raspy and coarse, like a less refined VW 2.5 5 cylinder. Good thing the torque peaks at 1900 rpm or something because this motor above 4000 rpm is not enjoyable. The new car still isn't a joy to run hard, but much of the rasp and harshness has been removed. Still, a Honda or Mazda four this isn't. -I do feel the new car has more road noise than my '16. Or maybe the refining of the 1.4 has made the road noise more prevalent. The '16 is pretty quiet, decent highway car if the seats were better. -Handling feels more confident, steering feel is improved. Still not fun, but more precise. My '16 has front disc/rear drum brakes. The new car has four wheel discs, at least on the LT I drove. I've never liked the response of the brakes in my '16. Well, when I first stopped the '17, I nearly put my face into the steering wheel! The brakes are very touchy, but not that much stronger it seems. Somewhere, GM, is a happy medium. So, the evolution of the Cruze continues. My car has been fairly trouble-free, but I've only put 5k on it in a year. It does have a suspension noise that they have to sort out and now it has a buzz in the dash it didn't have before. But the '17 had a buzz too! Someone on TTAC has maybe said it, possibly referring to the new Malibu instead. GM has built a competent small car in the Cruze and no one cares because it's not a cross-over. I probably wouldn't get the Cruze again, but I don't hate it. I'd still would have rather had the Sonic, but the lease deal wasn't available on the Sonic.

  • Akear Akear on Jan 16, 2017

    If I want a real Korean car I will just go to my local Hyundai dealer. Nothing beats the real thing.

  • Bd2 If they let me and the boyz roll around naked in their dealership I'll buy a Chinese car.
  • THX1136 I would not 'knowingly' purchase a Chinese built or brand. I am somewhat skeptical of actual build quality. What I've seen in other Chinese made products show them to be of low quality/poor longevity. They are quite good at 'copying' a design/product, but often they appear to take shortcuts by using less reliable materials and/or parts. And , yes, I know that is not exclusive to Chinese products. When I was younger 'made in Japan' was synonymous with poor quality (check John Entwistle's tune 'Made in Japan' out for a smile). This is not true today as much of Japan's output is considered very favorably and, in some product types, to be of superior quality. I tend to equate the same notion today for things 'made in China'.
  • Mike Beranek No, but I'm for a world where everyone, everywhere buys cars (and everything else) that are sourced and assembled regionally. Shipping big heavy things all over the planet is not a solution.
  • Jeffrey No not for me at this time
  • El scotto Hmm, my VPN and security options have 12-month subscriptions. Car dealers are not accountable to anyone except the owner. Of course, the dealer principles are running around going "state of the art security!", "We need dedicated IT people!" For the next 12 months. The hackers can wait.