Test Drive: 2016 Chevrolet Cruze RS Sedan

Sometimes you have to feel for a car. I’m not sure how or why, but the Chevrolet Cruze had dropped off our radars a bit in recent times. It isn’t one of the automotive industry darlings, nor does it seem to resonate strongly with internet forums.

The Cruze is actually a very strong contender, surprisingly so, and all of the refinements in this generation have resulted in a pretty sharp little rig.

Despite being the fifth-best-selling car in 2015 behind the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic, the Cruze is dropping off buyer’s radars too: down 21 percent year-on-year as of September. The hatchback variant is coming soon, which might bring more buyers back to the Cruze fold. But that’s not the point of this review.

The point is, the Cruze is actually a very strong contender, surprisingly so, and all of the refinements in this generation have resulted in a pretty sharp little rig. It deserves more kudos than it gets.

For a start, the Cruze is still a good-looking car. The $995 RS package on my tester included 18-inch aluminum wheels and a body kit with rear spoiler and front fog lamps that add some visual drama to the Cruze and enhance its curb appeal. That badge doesn’t seem out of place either.

Sometimes, when a manufacturer whacks a sporty-sounding label on a car, it is such a long bow to draw it becomes laughable, but sometimes it’s warranted. Had Chevrolet called this a Cruze “SS” – we’d be chortling all the way to our therapy session, but “RS” seems fair enough.

The turbocharged 1.4L four is good for a respectable 153 hp. More importantly, its 177 lb-ft of torque is available from 1,700 rpm through to 4,000. The result is not only segment-leading torque but a properly zippy city car that thrusts its way into gaps in commuter traffic with ease and hustles well around town. The engine is smoother and quieter than I expected – another surprise. I have complained about the six-speed automatic’s behaviour in 2015 model year diesel examples of the Cruze but it has been refined and well-tuned for this year. The manual mode is utterly pointless, especially as it is controlled by a clunky, difficult-to-use, and slow-to-respond button on the top of the gear lever, but other than that the conventional box is well-executed.

A late decision and urgency to merge with fast-flowing traffic prompted me to brake hard and hustle the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze through an on-ramp a little quicker than I ought have. As I turned in, I expected understeer, some imbalance; I expected body roll and squealing tires and awkward steering. The Cruze was unflustered. It turned in confidently, held its line and didn’t even come close to protesting. I was impressed. It’s not a sports car but it is up to snuff when it comes to handling intense moments.

The rear suspension uses a Watts link to limit sideways movement and the whole system is hinged on a torsion beam. This set up is good for ride comfort and the Watts link is designed to add stability to the torsion beam which might otherwise cause lateral movement when stressed. I prefer fully independent suspension but have to admit I was impressed by the road feel and comfort of this setup.

Inside, the Cruze suffers from GM’s brown explosion but benefits from constant and rapid refinement of Chevrolet’s MyLink system. Normally a fan of light-coloured and contrasting interior trim, I found the particular shade of leather here to be a bit on the nose. My daughter seemed to like it though, judging by the way she dove into the driver’s seat while I was taking my photos. Thankfully the push-button start is not easy to see at first.

In another colour I’d probably be raving about the dashboard whose shape straddles the line between boring and overwrought beautifully. It’s interesting without being distracting, simple without being plain. I’d have liked a larger screen than the 7.0-inch touchscreen in the centre stack but couldn’t fault the vibrant TFT nestled between the large, clear gauges in the dash.

MyLink has been through a few small iterative changes now and it’s at the point where finding fault is near on impossible. GM has even taken on the back-of-steering-wheel audio controls pioneered by the Fiat–Chrysler group and added Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. With those two additions, MyLink is elevated well into the ranks of my favourite infotainment systems. The touchscreen-plus-rotary-knob setup provides excellent usability, the icons are large, attractive and easy to find. Moving through the system is intuitive and easy. The audio sounds good too.

If I could offer GM any advice, it would be to turf in-car Wi-Fi. My least-favourite tech gimmick, in-car Wi-Fi is only cool for the first six months you own the car. After that it’s just another data subscription. Want to have in-car Wi-Fi? Hotspot your mobile phone and give your passengers access. Job done.

For those of you who are worried about the battery drain associated with that, Chevrolet added wireless charging as part of the $4,370 True North Edition. Sadly, my LG phone isn’t compatible without a specialized cover, but more and more phones are. Wireless charging and Android Auto/Apple CarPlay are two features I expect to impact the resale value (or lack thereof) of these cars down the road.

Smartphone connectivity is standard on the $23,895 Premier trim tested, as is: rear-vision camera, Sirius XM, keyless entry, push-button start, heated steering wheel, power seat, leather interior trim including steering wheel, power trunk and OnStar with navigation.

The True North Package also adds the upgraded Bose audio system, colour instrument cluster display, automatic climate control, 110 V household power outlet, power sunroof and the full suite of safety aids we’ve come to appreciate. Those include: lane-departure warning and assist, blind-zone and lane-change alert, rear park assist with cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert and automatic high-beam control.

If there’s one thing universally admired about domestic vehicles, it’s the generous cargo volume and the Cruze is no different. The long, wide and flat boot floor is accessed by a particularly wide opening, and the space is more square than most competitors. Of the top five selling compact sedans in the segment, the Cruze has the biggest trunk at 419L. The Civic is the nearest competitor at 416. Want more? The rear seats fold 60/40 and the opening between the boot and the cabin is also larger than most, easily eclipsing the same opening in the Civic. Then again, the Cruze gives up 33 mm of rear legroom to the Civic and it is tight back there. Luckily for my daughter, I am short.

Official fuel ratings of 7.8 / 5.9 / 6.9 L/100 km city / highway / combined compare well with the segment, and I finished the week of exclusive city driving in this 1,286 kg sedan on 7.6 L/100 km. This is remarkable because usually small displacement turbos don’t meet their official ratings under my watch. I often wonder though why there is no Cruze Hybrid – after all, there’s a Malibu Hybrid. I can only assume that GM sees it taking too much market away from the fantastic Chevrolet Volt.

I mentioned at the top of this article that the Cruze finished fifth in compact sedan sales last year, and is on track to repeat that performance in 2016 – albeit with fewer units moved. It’s a tough race in this segment and the Cruze can consider itself in strong company. With surprising road dynamics, and one of the best infotainment systems the Cruze is more than a contender – it’s one of the better-kept secrets of the segment.

2016 Chevrolet Cruze RS Sedan
Engine Displacement: 1.4L
Engine Cylinders: 4
Peak Horsepower: 153 hp
Peak Torque: 177 lb-ft @ 1,700–4,000 rpm
Fuel Economy: 7.8/5.9/6.9 (L/100 km, city/hwy/comb)
Cargo Space: 419 L
articles_PricingType 2016 Chevrolet Cruze RS Sedan
Base Price $23,895
Optional Equipment $4,490 – True North Edition (upgraded Bose audio system, colour instrument cluster display, automatic climate control, 110 V household power outlet, wireless charging, power sunroof, lane departure warning and assist, blind-zone and lane-change alert, rear park assist with cross-traffic alert, forward collision alert and automatic high-beam control) $3,495; RS Package (18-inch alloys, P225/40/18 R all-season tires, sport body kit, fog lamps, rear spoiler, RS badging) $995
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600
Price as Tested $30,085
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 7.5
8 Styling
8 Powertrain
6 Quality
7 Comfort
7 Practicality
8 Drivability
8 Usability/Ergonomics
8 Fuel Economy
8 Features
7 Value