Test Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback Premier

Looks aren’t everything, but they are one of the most compelling reasons to consider a Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback. And yes, this car is still a bombshell with an engineering degree, as noted in our five-door compact comparison test early in 2017, with enough technological smarts on the infotainment and safety fronts to match and likely surpass its looks.

That impression didn’t change even after almost 1,000 km behind the wheel in a week, with a round trip to the nation’s capital a good test of the Cruze’s long-distance comfort. So good, in fact, that it had me wondering why so many more buyers opt for thirstier, pricier and worse-handling compact SUVs than compact hatchbacks that offer similar interior room and cargo flexibility.

Yes, this car is still a bombshell with an engineering degree.

Higher ride height? Okay, it may be a touch easier to step in and out of taller crossovers for adults, and it’s nice not to have to worry about high curbs or speed bumps scraping your bumper, but that also contributes to the higher centre of gravity and generally worse handling – or stiffer suspension settings that mean a worse ride.

All-wheel drive? Give me winter tires over AWD any day. Ever try an emergency stop or evasive manoeuvre in an SUV with no-season tires in the snow? If so, you’ll feel the same way.

Extra cargo room? Varies model by model, but the Cruze Hatchback has similar or more passenger and cargo space than various small crossovers at the same price point, and more cargo room than most of its compact rivals as well.

Anything else? Didn’t think so.

Most crossovers are essentially high-riding all-wheel drive hatchbacks – and an increasing number of crossovers now are starting to not even offer all-wheel drive.

Sexy styling outside, techie bubble inside

This most practical-bodied version of the front-wheel drive Cruze arrived for the 2017 model year, a year after the redesigned compact sedan was introduced, to finally help it compete with big hatchback sellers like the Mazda3 Sport and Volkswagen Golf, plus the five-door Honda Civic five-door that entered the market after a long absence from the hatchback market.

Compared to the Cruze sedan, the hatchback body shoots it from looking like a close Volt sibling (not a bad thing) to a sexy hot hatch. And that’s not just a personally held opinion, as our aggregated seven comparo testers scored the Cruze’s exterior design above the rest. This Premier tester came with some styling upgrades that really upped its sporting curb appeal, including a substantial rear spoiler, lower body side mouldings, front fog lamps, and more wheel-well-filling 18-inch P225/40VR18 tires.

The top trim Premier Cruze hatchback comes nicely equipped at its $24,945 starting price, with standard features like a heated steering wheel and heated seats up front, 4G LTE Wi-Fi on OnStar, with Bluetooth voice recognition and leather all around (real for the seats, leatherette for the dash and doors).

This particular tester topped out at $31,335 as tested, and wore classier duds inside than our comparo Cruze as well, dominated by the black leather seats but brightened up somewhat with chrome accents and its large and colourful seven-inch navi screen and sharp full-colour graphics. Okay, so it’s still pretty stark with this colour combo, even if lightened by the extra vitamin D allowed in by the sunroof and the contrast stitching on the leather seats.

A massive whack of niceties furthered the mini-luxury car feel inside, courtesy the pricy ($3,595) but comprehensive True North package, which essentially collects all other available option packages into one large basket of automotive pampering. A nine-speaker Bose stereo, automatic climate control, navi, wireless cellphone charging, a handy 100-volt outlet in the rear to power devices, as well as rear heated seats are all part of this package, as well as the aforementioned styling upgrades.

The Cruze is one of the least expensive vehicles to offer integrated Wi-Fi, which GM says provides a stronger and faster LTE connection than your smartphone, and can be used by multiple devices at once. Plus there’s the OnStar telematics system that’s standard, which includes high-tech features like theft recovery slowdown, automatic crash response, and live operator help on directions and a multitude of services. Want to find not only the nearest McDonalds, but the nearest McDonalds with a play area for the kids? As I discovered once, the OnStar advisor can find you that information when you’re on the road, in my case by calling the listed restaurants along my programmed route - neither Siri nor Google will do that from your phone.

Unfortunately, both Wi-Fi and OnStar services require separate monthly subscriptions after their initial free trial periods of three and six months, respectively, which can add up. Monthly Wi-Fi plans start at $15/month, while the basic OnStar Protection plan starts at $24.95 in Canada.

Comfort is the main driving priority, along with fuel economy

 

Despite what the aggressive body kit-equipped design may suggest, this is no hot hatch. Its 1.4-litre four is turbocharged, but moreso with fuel economy in mind, its downsized displacement providing 153 hp and 177 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers are not the worst in class, but they’re also far from the best.

The six-speed automatic shifts smoothly enough, but in lieu of sporty shift paddles, there’s a button on the top of the shifter where you can sequentially select gears up or down. But not only is the response from these touches slow and uninspiring, it’s also easy to shift unintentionally when resting your hand on the shifter. Which you soon learn not to do.

Handling is much like the engine note when revved up using that shifter: confidently obedient, but not playful. The V-rated tires do help in off-ramp grip, but comfort is clearly the overriding priority, leaving enthusiasts to look at the Mazda3 and perhaps the Civic for the more responsive drive.

On the plus side, fuel economy is much closer to front of the pack, its overall combined figure of 7.5 L/100 km very respectable. But it’s still notably lower than the Honda Civic in both fuel economy and power output.

With this Cruze’s emphasis on comfort, it’s somewhat surprising then that once you start up that direct injection engine, it idles like a buzzy nest has lodged underhood. It’s not quite modern diesel level loud, but loud enough so that when the engine’s stop/start system kicks in, it provides a welcome respite from the noise.

Once underway, that engine is fairly smooth and muted, with a large car demeanour on the highway that cuts down on wind noise and increases its luxury car feel. The Cruze is fairly quiet at highway cruising speeds, or even slightly above, the small turbo engine turning at 2,400 rpm at 120 km/h.

There’s plenty of headroom all around, and the seats and suspension settings are very comfortable, though most Hyundai and Kia products in this price range also offer cooled seats, which this car could really use on long highway drives – this leather may be real, but it’s not real breathable. Visibility out is decent, except for the massive rear headrests that are continually in your rear view mirror.

Advanced safety systems impress as well

Even without using the Apple Carplay/Android Auto that’s optional on the Cruze, the voice recognition system understands spoken commands fairly well. Voice commands saying “Phone Celia Bettencourt mobile” were obeyed first time and on multiple occasions, which can be a source of frustration still in some other native systems.

That True North package also comes with a suite of advanced safety systems. There’s a very impressive lane keeping system, especially on such an inexpensive car, which even on a curving highway kept me in my lane, though unsurprisingly not as smoothly as the most advanced systems, like Cadillac’s SuperCruise. If you keep your hands off the wheel for too long (about 30 seconds), it’ll bing at you and give you a warning put your hands back on the wheel.

With that lane keeping assist system that bumps you from one lane divider to the other, it’s actually kind of surprising that there’s also no automatic braking on the cruise control, because the forward collision alert, useful blindspot assist, automatic high beams at night and following distance indicator systems provide such a high tech overall feel.

Overall then, this loaded Cruze hatchback’s luxury-level safety equipment in this top-line but pricier Premier model has me thinking that this loaded tester would have bumped up its ranking in this showdown notably, though perhaps not right to the top. But it’s certainly worthy enough for buyers considering a compact crossover to think twice about their priorities, and whether any crossover would look as sweet as this Cruze Hatchback sitting in the driveway.

Engine Displacement: 1.4L turbo
Engine Cylinders: 4
Peak Horsepower: 153 hp @ 5,300 rpm
Peak Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 2,000–4,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: 8.4/6.4/7.5 L/100km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space: 699 L/1,337 L rear seats folded
Base Price $24,945
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,700
Price as Tested $31,335
Optional Equipment $4,590 – RS package $995 (Rear Spoiler
Front Fog Lamps
Sport Body Kit
18" Machined-Face Aluminum
Tires: P225/40VR18 AS BW
Rocker panel extensions); True North Package $3,595 (First-row glass sunroof
Single-Zone Auto Climate Control Air Conditioning
Heated Rear Outboard Seating Positions
Wireless Charging For Devices
110-Volt Power Outlet
Auto high-beam headlamps
Auto-dimming rear view mirror
Heated rear seats
Mini overhead console
Bose Premium 9-Speaker System
Digital signal processor
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto capability for compatible phone
Integrated navigation system
1 AC power outlet
Inductive mobile device charging
Rear parking sensors
Lane departure warning
Lane departure prevention
Blind spot warning
Forward collision warning
Rear collision warning
Following distance alert
One-touch up driver windows)
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.9
8 Styling
7 Powertrain
8 Quality
8 Comfort
9 Practicality
7 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
8 Features
8 Value