2016 Chevrolet Cruze First Impressions

Unaffected by harsh winters, the curvaceous roads on the undulating countryside hills surrounding Nashville, Tennessee render a driver’s Elysium – a great place to test the improved dynamics of the sleeker, thoroughly (and some would say finally) updated and upgraded 2016 Chevrolet Cruze. Amid stiff competition in the compact market, this second generation – Cruze 2.0 – stands up well. GM Canada’s packed loads of value and new features into a price that, depending on your choice of six trims, costs between $180 to $520 lower than last year’s. A significant majority of Cruze customers are repeat buyers, but if you’re in the market for a compact sedan, you should put it on the list.

Last Friday morning, I drove for two hours in the surprisingly lithe and comfortable Premier trim, which opens bidding well packed with goodies at $23,895; in the afternoon, the LT automatic, starting at $21,295. Sportier looking the first generation, the new Cruze poses athletically confident with an elegant sweeping roofline for both improved aerodynamics and camera-friendliness.

The Premier’s thoroughly equipped, heated and leather-bound steering wheel felt good to the touch, though the actual steering and acceleration felt flaccid at first. However on the previous day, I’d just completed a week taming the beastly Chevrolet Camaro SS and had yet to cleanse the pallet. The Cruze contains a peppy 1.4L four-cylinder engine but against the Camaro’s volcanic 6.2L V8, you’re comparing one of those temporarily blinding police flashlights to the sun. On the other hand, you could buy two 2.0 Premier Cruzes and still not breach the price of the Camaro SS. Knowing that was a comfort, because the ride felt quite luxurious for the dollars.

Overall, the Cruze is a well-balanced blend of value-packed engineering, comfort, just a hint of sex, and technology.

Accent on the technology.

The drive was bookended by activities in Nashville for a thematic reason beyond the perfect surrounding country roads. Nashville is among the fastest growing (and only interesting) cities in America. The unchallenged country music HQ for decades – Prince died during our plane ride here, but you wouldn’t know it for all the Merle Haggard memorials still wreathing the honkytonk row on Broadway Street – the Nashville business community is branching out. The city’s being revitalized and reinvented by innovative young entrepreneurs setting themselves up for a work-life balance failure just like the rest of us.

NB: This demographic doesn’t simply find technology helpful for their quotidian lives, they are the Borg. I’ve never seen so many drivers distracted by their phone as during the two days we spent in and around Nashville (and I lived in Italy for most of last year). Saying this group expects connective communications tech to surround them and work flawlessly 24/7 – preferably for free – is like saying that, beyond Nashville, Prince influenced pop.

So Chevrolet delivers. Not quite for free, but included standard in the Cruze is a colour 7-inch-diagonal infotainment screen; an 8.0-inch is available with the LT and Premier trims. Also standard on all models is the customizable MyLink interface. It can be matched with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which I tested out with my iPhone 5.

The explanation some marketers use is that CarPlay turns the car into an extension of your phone. Well, kind of. Carplay follows American highway safety laws regarding smartphone apps. That is, whatever you’re looking for – song, map, hook-up – can only be a maximum of four clicks from the home screen. That’s why so many apps on your phone will not appear on the car’s screen. And it’s why, despite the car being an extension of your phone, you cannot yet create and post cat videos using the car’s rear-view camera.

Speaking of which, the Cruze rear-view camera is standard on LS, LT and Premier trims, an essential tool for distractible city dwellers bombarded by distracted others.

Every trim is a potential Wi-Fi hotspot.

Of course your smartphone’s only so useful if you’re connected. So I also tested the tech 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. Data is a simple add-on to OnStar and all new Cruzes in Canada come with six months of OnStar’s Guidance package, the most comprehensive of the three.

In the USA, AT&T supplies the data needs of GM. So we were subject to the availability and range of their towers in the southern rolling countryside. The Wi-Fi worked well, save for a few slow patches amid deep green valleys. I talked to my daughter who’s currently living in Scotland and Siri informed us that the Raptors were favoured to win the first series in this year’s playoff run.

Initially OnStar was sold as a safety service but safety has always driven innovation in the auto sector, reaping secondary applications. Besides, one marketer’s safety feature is another’s luxury. It’s all positioning.

Anyway, you can purchase single, 12-day or monthly data packages to turn your car into a hotspot. A few samples: $5 per day for 250mb; $20 per month for 1gb; $200 for 12 months of 10GB. (That’s a lot for a car – are they streaming high-def director’s cuts of all three Lord of the Rings while remotely engaging NATO drones in a dogfight?) After those six months, you don’t even need to continue subscribing to OnStar to buy data packages on demand or as an ongoing plan.

Speaking of tech, safety and the connected class . . .

The corollary of equipping OnStar in every car is a tsunami of incoming customer data GM receives that could make the ghost of Ted Rogers blush. And which led to an industry first, called Proactive Alerts. According to George Saratlic, GM Canada’s Product, Brand & Technology Communications Lead Manager, this new service “notifies vehicle owners of certain component conditions before vehicle performance is impacted by monitoring an unparalleled level of vehicle data (aggregated and anonymized data).”

Meaning? They can read when a given part should be replaced well before the situation becomes critical. Saratlic: “This predictive technology is initially focused on the battery, starter motor and fuel pump, all important to keeping a vehicle running. Additional vehicle parts and components are expected to be added in future model years.” Proactive Alerts arrive by text, email and in your vehicle.

That may sound a bit ominous to some of us but the Borg don’t fear Big Brother, they watch it online. (Or there’s that other loathsomely condescending expression: they ‘get it’.) Besides, for those of us who still think some privacy is worthwhile, Saratlic says, “If someone does choose to deactivate their OnStar connection, no further data will be collected from that vehicle.”

It just shows how utterly interconnected we all are.

Who knew that a humble car review would lead to a meditation on Buddhism?

Back here on Earth, the Cruze 2.0 redesign reveals some clever details. For instance, to make room for all this buttonry and screenism (it’s not tech writing if you don’t molest the English language) Cruze’s engineers cleverly moved the parking brake on the automatic transmission models to your feet, freeing up space for the new console and longer armrest with extra storage space. Despite the flurry of tech, the centre stack exudes an air of user-friendly simplicity.

The connected class purports a greener lifestyle and should appreciate the automatic start-stop technology, included in each 2016 Cruze with a standard transmission. It automatically turns off the engine at traffic lights, then re-starts it when you remove your foot from the brake. (The belief that re-starting the ignition uses more fuel than 10 seconds of idling is not true.) Unlike some earlier iterations of this feature in other cars, the 2016 Cruze’s is well integrated and hardly noticeable.

More features and space at lower prices than last years’ models.

The drive experience through horse country was thoroughly pleasant, quiet and comfortable without sacrificing a healthy measure of stiffness. The power driver’s seat immediately felt just right.

Back in the city of Nashville, which gets some ugly rush-hour traffic – a symptom of success, Torontonian politicians love to lie – narrow streets, tight spots and parking lots were easy to negotiate. City dwellers, take note.

The comfort isn’t exclusive to the front. The Cruze’s redesign delivers more space for rear passengers: there's now 917 mm of legroom - 19 more than the previous generation. That now eclipses the Mazda 6 (909 mm) but lags behind the Corolla at 1,051 mm and Civic at 950. Overall this Cruze 2.0 is 69 mm longer than the first generation with a 25 mm longer wheelbase.

Meanwhile Chevy’s engineers subtracted 113 kg from all trims except for the Premier with its larger wheels. The estimated fuel efficiency consumption ratings range from the base L manual transmission’s 8.2 / 5.8 / 7.1 (city/ highway/ combined) to the Premier automatic’s 7.8 / 5.9 / 6.9.

Competition is fierce in the compact category and superb value abounds. The new Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic are receiving generous lauds and their manufacturers must be partying like it’s 1999. Nonetheless, the Cruze is worth a test if those competitors are on your list because it’s priced to move.

Competitors
Dodge Dart
Ford Focus
Honda Civic
Hyundai Elantra
Mazda3
Toyota Corolla
Volkswagen Jetta

Pricing: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze
Cruze L Manual: $15,995
Cruze LS Manual: $18,845
Cruze LS Automatic: $20,295
Cruze LT Manual: $19,845
Cruze LT Automatic: $21,295
Cruze Premier Automatic: $23,895
Freight: $1,600

The Chevrolet Cruze “2.0”: Redesigned for the Value Conscious and Tech-Savvy.