First Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatch

With the all-new Cruze Hatchback, Chevrolet is hoping for a buyer that is younger than the sedan, more active, but also more hip. With that buyer in mind, they introduced the model to us with a presentation at Jack White's Third Man Records. The record store and studio is on the cutting edge of hip and cool, in an historically creative neighbourhood that was once a seedy part of town but is now full of students, new and trendy restaurants and coffee shops, and buildings that are getting their shine back. Our dinner was from a quartet of local food trucks parked in a space that will soon be churning out freshly pressed vinyl records. The area is home to exactly who Chevrolet is looking for, and the hatch's sleek design fits right in amongst the bike racks and restored storefronts.

The introduction of the hatch, combined with the diesel engine announced for early next year, is also a direct shot at the head of the hatch class, the Volkswagen Golf, which no longer has the popular diesel option.

With the launch of the Cruze hatch, Chevrolet is taking a big swing at the 60,000-car-per-year hatchback segment in Canada. Of those sales, 40 percent are in the province of Quebec, and 38 percent are in the cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver alone. GM’s assistant brand manager John Bashucky says that Chevy is looking to find those young, urban hatchback shoppers. They're the type of buyer who would not normally look toward Chevrolet. The introduction of the hatch, combined with the diesel engine announced for early next year, is also a direct shot at the head of the hatch class, the Volkswagen Golf, which no longer has the popular diesel option.

Those Golf buyers will find themselves at home when driving the Cruze hatch. This is a very solid car, with excellent suspension tuning. While the hatch is a first for Chevrolet in Canada, the car has much in common with the new Astra, which GM has sold internationally for over a year. The suspension feels like much of the Euro Astra has carried over. There is a firm and controlled ride, but it still has the comfortable ride on poor pavement you expect from a Chevrolet. It's a long way from the last-generation Cruze, and light-years ahead of Chevy compacts of old.

My main test car for the day was an RS package Premier trim car, with 18-inch wheels that caused some harshness on the cratered Detroit pavement. Switching to a car with the smaller 17-inch wheels got rid of any harshness or jarring on the bumps and made for a comfortable cruiser that felt planted and confident – even on tight on-ramps with more potholes than pavement. It's not fun to drive in the same way a Mazda3 or a Golf is, but it is definitely an enjoyable driving experience.

Inside, the build quality looks to be competitive with the Golf as well. There are no panel lines that don't line up, no sharp edges, and everything feels solid. The door closes with a surprisingly satisfying thud. The dash is the same as the sedan so has a responsive touchscreen in 7.0- or 8.0-inches, with MyLink standard and navigation available. There are soft-touch plastics on the dash, as well as the doors. The stitched accent colours available on Premier models add a very upscale look to the car. Headroom in the front seats feels top of the class, even in a sunroof-equipped car. A bright greenhouse and good visibility all-round meant that I never felt like I was sitting down in the car. If you do find it difficult to see behind you, the back-up camera is standard to help you out. Move to the back seat and the door is the same as the sedan but the roofline stays higher instead of swooping back to allow for a trunk. The change to the roof leaves room for a bump in the headliner that means rear seat passengers have some extra headroom over the sedan.

The Cruze remains quiet, with no extra noise resulting from the changes to the body. The hatchback body style can lead to increased cabin noise, as sound can echo around the extra glass and cargo area, but that's not the case here. Even at speeds in excess of 110 km/h on rough concrete and tired asphalt, there is little wind or road noise.

Open the hatch and there is easy access to 699 L of cargo space behind the rear seats. That's more than the Ford Focus, and nearly 130 L more than Mazda 3, but 27 L less than the just-revealed Civic hatchback. The seats fold down (or 60/40 split) to reveal a flat floor and a near-top-of-the-class 1,337 L of space for whatever you want to put back there. The total length of the Cruze hatch is 4,453 mm, making it 213 mm shorter than the sedan. That length is taken out of the rear overhang, so passenger knee room isn't altered. The shorter overhang and the small spoiler over the hatch improve the looks of the already handsome Cruze and make for a design that looks decidedly more sporty than its sedan sibling.

While there is a diesel on the way, a gas engine is the only choice for 2017. It's a 1.4L direct-injected and turbocharged four-cylinder making 153 hp and it spreads 177 lb-ft of torque over a broad range from 2,000 to 4,000 rpm. The turbo doesn't pull hard to redline, but the engine feels strong and moves the car along well even from low rpm. The transmissions are a pair of six-speeds, with the LT getting the choice of manual or automatic and the Premier being auto only. The automatic operates smoothly, but can be slow to downshift and hesitates when deciding how many gears to drop. Combine that with the small amount of turbo lag present and kickdowns for passing can feel like they take a while. If you want to control the auto yourself, there is a manual mode but it is operated by a rocker switch on the top of the shifter making it somewhat awkward to use. Rated fuel economy for the hatch is 8.3 / 6.4 L/100 km city / highway for the LT manual, 8.1 / 6.2 for the LT automatic, and 8.4 / 6.4 for the Premier.

Base trim for the hatchback is the LT model, skipping the L and LS of the sedan. Starting at $20,595, there is a $750 premium over the sedan. The LT will be offered with both manual and automatic (add $1,450) transmissions, and 16-inch alloys. It has a 7.0-inch touchscreen with MyLink, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and even the base trim sports a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot with OnStar and heated front seats. Power seats are optional, as is an upgraded Bose stereo with a larger 8.0-inch screen. The $2,895 True North package adds all of those, plus rear park assist, blind-spot alerts, and rear cross-traffic alerts.

The other trim is the Premium, which is automatic only and starts at $24,645. Premium adds leather seats, and if you choose the grey or Kalahari  (tan) interior there is a contrasting dash section that matches the seats. 17-inch wheels are standard with 18-inch optional. The $995 convenience package adds heated rear seats and a 110 V power outlet in the rear console. The True North package is $3,595 and adds an 8.0-inch Bose stereo with navigation, automatic high beams, forward collision alert and following-distance monitor, lane-departure warning, along with blind-spot warnings and rear parking aids. Noticeably absent is radar cruise control, a feature found on the Honda Civic and Mazda3. Both Premier and LT have an optional RS package that includes fog lamps, a rear spoiler, a body kit, and RS badging. The RS on Premier also gets 18-inch wheels.

In what is a bit of a surprise, Chevrolet is planning to offer an array of performance parts for the Cruze. On display at the event was a selection of goodies including a sportier muffler with accompanying engine computer tune, stiffer springs that lowered the car 10 mm, and even a kit to put bigger brakes on the Cruze with 11.8-inch slotted front rotors (one inch larger than standard) and bright red calipers to match.

The Cruze hatch is a solid entrant in the compact hatch market. The combination of a quiet cabin, confident ride, and  ample cargo capacity is very appealing. Chevrolet hopes that drivers looking for a compact hatch will feel the same way and that younger buyers will be attracted by what they call the “most-connected car” in the segment.

Pricing: 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback

Cruze Hatch LT Manual: $20,595
Cruze Hatch LT Automatic: $22,045
Cruze Hatch Premier: $24,645

Youth-oriented, practically minded 10/31/2016 6:28:00 AM