Sometimes, spending some extra time with a car makes you develop a sense of fondness for it. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder. Sometimes, completely the opposite happens. For instance, when reviewing a Chevy Volt for the second time, the car’s weaknesses (namely EV range and gasoline fuel economy) became much clearer to me once the car’s novelty wore off. Which would be the outcome with my second weekly stint in a Chevrolet Cruze?
When I first reviewed a Chevy Cruze, it was a Cruze Eco with the six-speed manual. It was a good car, but something just wasn’t quite right about it. It felt a little cheap inside (it had cloth seats and no navigation), it had the smaller Eco-spec wheels, and though I always enjoy driving manual-transmission cars, the economy-tuned gear ratios meant that I’d have to drop a few cogs to get the 1.4T interested in motivating the car.
Driving the Cruze LTZ, however, has proven to be a different experience. The Cruze’s conservative looks are aging reasonably well (though I despise the blacked-out plastic sail panels at the front of the C-pillars), but more than the exterior looks, the interior has grown on me the most. I used to think folks were crazy when they did a mini intramural comparison between the Volt and Cruze and said that the far-cheaper Cruze had a nicer interior than the Volt did. But after having spent a week in each of those cars recently, the Volt interior’s luster has worn off a bit (particularly when I noticed the single-mold black plastic rear door panels) while I’ve come to appreciate the Cruze’s accommodations a bit more.
Stepping into the Cruze from many other cars (particularly its most direct competitors), one of the first things you’ll notice is that it’s a little larger than many of them. Someday, GM may stop trying to sell more car by the pound than its competitors (“Hey look, our car is better than theirs because it’s bigger!”) but in a vehicle like the Cruze, it actually serves the car well. It’s heavier than some, but that’s really only a downside in its city fuel economy, where gearing can’t hide its weight penalty. However, the Cruze uses its heft to its advantage by being completely rattle-free, with an extremely solid structure.
The 1.4 liter turbo four in higher-trim Cruzes (such as this LTZ tester) is the same engine found in the Cruze Eco. Interestingly enough, despite not being economy-optimized as the Cruze Eco is (what with its 42 MPG highway fuel economy number on manual-equipped cars, active grille shutters, and even the identical (size and compound) low rolling resistance tires found in the Chevy Volt, I found it easier to exceed the EPA highway number in this automatic-equipped Cruze LTZ than I found it to meet the EPA highway number in the manual-equipped Cruze Eco from last year.
One morning on my daily commute, traffic was cooperative, but not too fast – it was more or less around a steady 50-60 miles per hour – which is fertile ground for recording eye-popping economy numbers. After the first 17 miles of my 24-mile drive, the car was showing 39.6 MPG with 53.9 MPG (0.6 MPG over the EPA highway estimate.) Then I hit traffic for the final 6.7 miles, dropping the average speed to 44.0 MPH and taking the economy to 38.4 MPG. Still, not bad for a 39 MPG EPA highway rating. After a week and 328.2 miles (average speed of 38.2 MPH), I had an combined mileage of 31.1 MPG. The EPA reports city economy of 26 MPG for the Cruze LTZ (non-Eco), which may be a bit optimistic. Forty miles per gallon on the highway is typically more of a function of gearing and – to a lesser degree – aerodynamics, while a big city number typically means a lightweight car with a very good powertrain.
As mentioned earlier, the last time I had seat time in a Cruze, it had cloth seats and no navigation system. Though you won’t impress a Maybach owner with the leather seating surfaces in a Cruze LTZ, they definitely do add an air of luxury to the car, and for me at least, improved my perception of the car’s interior quality. Also helping on that front, the navigation system has a reasonably sharp display (for a GM vehicle, at least), and the system found in the Cruze, Equinox/Terrain, and Regal (among others) at least makes an attempt to mimic the user interface of an iOS or Android phone, with rows of icons for “apps” (such as media, info, settings, etc.) The only difference is, the menu selections come from a resistive touch screen (that requires a physical press, unlike the new capacitive touchscreen’s need to only brush against it. In addition to physically pressing icons on the color LCD navigation screen, it’s also possible to turn a dial to choose specific functions from the display, and there are physical buttons for both “home” and “back,” which aid system navigation.
The navigation system itself is a few years behind state-of-the-art (there isn’t a ton of street-name detail and no Google Maps integration or anything fancy like that, but it does have real-time traffic on the unreasonably-small selection of roads covered by XM’s NavTraffic service. It also performs route calculations reasonably quickly and made no egregious errors in routing. (That last point may be why I was able to return the car to GM in one piece: because it didn’t route me into any bodies of water. Just kidding.)
Ditching the Cruze Eco’s 17 inch wheels and low rolling resistance tires in favor of the LTZ’s 18 inch shoes pays two dividends. First, they do a better job of filling the wheel wells and lending a (wait for it…) upscale appearance to the Cruze’s exterior. Second, the LTZ’s tires are designed to offer more grip at the slight expense of fuel economy. The result is that the Cruze LTZ is more surefooted in turning and stopping. The brake pedal has a more natural, linear feel than does any hybrid. Opting for the LTZ gets you four wheel disc brakes vs. the disc/drum setup found in lesser Cruzes. The steering, though a bit numb, is nicely weighted, and the ubiquitous GM parts-bin steering wheel is comfy to hold, if a bit boring to look at.
Though it’s a relatively inexpensive car, if you start checking option boxes, the Cruze can easily creep into midsize sedan pricing territory. The Cruze LTZ starts at $23,190. Add $795 for destination, $995 for the navigation system, $445 for the Pioneer premium audio (not exactly a Mark Levinson system, but it’s OK), and $110 for floor mats, and the Cruze is out the door at $26,130. That pricing is on par with an Elantra or Focus, and of course you can buy a Cruze for far less money than a tarted-up LTZ. (You can’t buy one for muchmoremoney than this, unless you add the $900 power sliding sunroof.)
I remember being a young adult fresh out of college, thinking that my noisy, rough Oldsmobile Achieva SCX was not “grown up” enough for an aspiring professional. After a few months, I traded it in for an SUV. (This was the late 1990s, after all.) Even though I’m making a lot more money than I did then, and my daily driver is a late-model Cadillac CTS, I never felt the sensation of the Cruze not being “grown up” enough for a professional person to drive. It’s not a penalty box – far from it, especially with the LTZ trim – and not a car I’d be eager to move on from if I ever owned one.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this review.