Does the Chevrolet Cruze Out-Civic the Civic?

To get respect, the upstart must bloody the star pupil's nose.

Chevy Cruze

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistfull of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,666 in there? Hey, congrats! That will buy 135 Instagram-worthy pork shoulders at New York’s Momofuku Ssäm Bar; an 80-acre plot in the Maine North Woods; 41 unlocked iPhone 6Ss; or a new car at the nationwide average price. It’s more than enough to net a Chevrolet Cruze, fully redesigned for the 2016 model year and bursting with millennial-baiting gewgaws. Chevy’s stiffy for the under-35 crowd extends from Santa Monica to Munich, with vascular off-ramps anywhere single-origin pour-over coffee and David Beckham haircuts proliferate. In fairness, all car companies are locked in a bloody, bunkhouse-rules cage match for the Gen Y dollar. Though that dollar may fray reaching for a $25,035 Cruze LT, it will grow more elastic with age, and a good ownership experience might prevent that greenback from ever leaving the dealership. Say, how does a 2030 Corvette sound to you, young’n?

The second-gen Cruze lands in a shark tank. After a few years in the wilderness, Honda’s Civic is again the segment’s sine qua non. Hyundai’s Elantra delivers boffo refinement, and the Mazda 3 begs for Miata-caliber floggings. Even Nissan’s once-daft Sentra has become something of a segment sleeper (and Prolechariot fave). These cars are proverbial six-tool players. Great gas mileage? Check. Leather? Take a seat. Power? Easy there, lead foot. Durability? You wouldn’t receive a five-year powertrain warranty otherwise. Connectivity? Pick your flavor: Apple or Android. Semi-autonomous features? No hands, brah!

But the Cruze is a curious case. Heralding a chastened, leaner General Motors in 2009, the first-gen car proved that GM, tits-deep in bankruptcy, could build and sell a car that America wanted that wasn’t named Escalade. And not only sell it, but place it right in the hunt: four million Cruzes found homes around the world. With no major updates since its debut, the car still outsold all competitors in the U.S. in 2015 except the Civic and Toyota Corolla. Staying power in spades, then. But did you hear the one about the Motorola Razr flip phone? Asked what was next on an earnings conference call, Motorola’s CEO once responded, “More Razr.” Famous last words.

So the dogged wheels of progress spin out a fresh Cruze. Powertrain, design, architecture—all new. Given the first-gen car’s sales success, Chevrolet had little to apologize or make amends for. And yet the Cruze always carried a whiff of rental counter. Holiday-makers might have tolerated the dubious interior fitment, mushy ride, and peaky powertrain over a week’s vacation, but it’s unlikely that many of them sprinted from the Hertz drop lot to their local Chevy dealer.

Has the new Cruze put in work, then? Can it win, let alone compete, in its frightfully strong segment? Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze.

1. Less Is More

Chevy trimmed 250 pounds of pork from the outgoing model. We're not suggesting that kind of weight loss is unheard of among compact cars...but it’s kinda unheard of. The tested LT automatic weighs in at 2,932 lbs, roughly even with the all-singing, all-dancing Civic. Unlike that car, though, a driver never senses that Saltines have replaced sound-deadening material. The Cruze LT is hushed. Like, bordering-on-Lexus hushed.

Chevrolet also wind-tunneled the Cruze like a SCUD, and the resulting drag coefficient of 0.28 matches that of the Volt plug-in hybrid. The combination of lightweighting and surface-smoothing yields, as you might imagine, excellent fuel economy. Chevy pegs the Cruze LT’s split at 30 mpg city and 42 mpg highway, and a day spent pushing the car through Nashville traffic and the limestone hillocks of central Tennessee suggested the city number is conservative. We observed 34.8 mpg over roughly 225 miles, with the tank still reading more than half full.

2. Not That You’d Want to Read in the Cruze…

Details, Chevy, details. Typefaces that cheapened IROC-era Camaros are still inexplicably to be found throughout the Chevrolet product portfolio. To monitor speed, we watched the LCD screen wedged between the gauges, whose digital readout doesn’t trigger RATT flashbacks.

The instrument panel ("IP" in designer parlance) echoes those found in upmarket Malibu and Impala sedans. Some people love its wavy trim bands and glowing, eye-like dials. We just see HR Giger’s Alien sketches, and run the other way. Still, it’s an effective layout, with no fumbling about for the air-recirculation button.

3. …But You Could Read in the Cruze

Moore’s Law hasn’t spun so freely that Tesla Autopilot has reached the Cruze. Still, the lane-keep assist available on Premier-trim Cruzes doesn’t feel far off from the industry leaders, coaxing the car back to center with smooth nudges. After about 10 seconds it will yell at you to put your mitts back on the wheel. Our mid-level LT cannot be spec’d with it, but the mere fact that it’s available on a sub-$30,000 domestic sedan is worth celebrating.

Chevy’s bigger play is connectivity. The Cruze LT bundles an onboard 4G LTE wi-fi hotspot, a 24-month trial subscription to Sirius XM, and a robust data package. Apple Carplay and Android Auto come standard, as are Chevrolet’s segment-best MyLink telematics system. Simple, Mac-like icons, intuitive submenus, redundant controls on the steering wheel—it’s how these things should be done.

4. The Cruze Has a Tracksuit

With neat upsweeps and wheels planted ever so slightly aggressively akimbo, the ’16 Cruze LT looks clean and contemporary. It is not, however, out to dazzle like the Civic. Slap an “RS” badge on the black grille, and the front and rear fascias get some sharply sculptured elements that make the whole car appear more sporting. IfProlechariot had its druthers, the RS exterior package, a $695 option, would be standard across the range.

Every sporting aesthetic detail that Chevy can throw at the Cruze would help mitigate the car’s oddly crude powertrain dynamics. The 1.4-liter four, with its low-rotating-mass turbo and 44-lb weight loss over the outgoing engine, deserves a better dance partner than the car’s hesitant six-speed automatic. As the Cruze gradually accelerates from a stop, the transmission seems to take a breath before finding every cog. The awkwardness continues when braking from highway speeds, with pregnant breaths before lower ratios are found.

It’s a double shame because the Cruze LT’s other dynamics are so sorted. Body roll is controlled though two-lane Tennessee sweepers taken far too fast for the local constabulary, the steering light but direct. Suspension damping feels upscale, soaking up dips nearly as well as GM’s magnetorheologically shocked Cadillacs. Like those cars, though, the Cruze LT has a bigger flaw than its wonky powertrain.

5. It Costs What?

Premier-trim Cruze sedans were pushing 30 grand in Nashville this week. The tested LT, at $25,035, had a fine spread, but not as generous as you’d find in a comparably priced Elantra, Sentra, or—the biggie—Civic.Prolechariot just took delivery of a Civic coupe, painted a beguiling Aegean Blue. It looks like a Lexus RC F that lost 1,000 lbs. There’s leather. There are 17-inch alloys. There are 10 speakers, plus a subwoofer. It looks like a damn compelling way to part with 26,960 greenbacks—but more on that next week.

GM just posted a $2 billion net profit on the back of unstoppable pickup- and SUV sales. Those vehicles, larded up with special trim and equipment packages, ought to make the Cruze less expensive. Chevrolet should be fighting harder for the Prolecharian dollar—the very dollar that spared the company a slow death by punji sticks seven years ago. It’s damning enough that a comparably equipped Civic is cheaper, sportier, and more generously appointed than the Cruze LT; doubly so when Chevrolet’s parent can afford to price the Cruze like the underdog that it is.

Dude, they sold four million of the last one, you say. It’s not an underdog. To which we say: bollocks. GM sold millions of of uninspired, shoddily assembled compact cars in the Eighties, and the stench from that steaming pile of Chevettes and Cavaliers still stings America’s nostrils. Indeed, it prevents some consumers from ever considering a Chevrolet—or even any domestic car. Chevrolet should summon its circa-2009 humility, slice a couple grand off the Cruze’s mid- and high-level trims, and compete. Hard.

Prolecharian greenbacks don’t yield high immediate returns, but enlightened companies recognize that, given time, their value has nowhere to go but up.

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2016 Chevrolet Cruze LT
PRICE (as tested):
$25,035
POWERTRAIN: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine; 153 hp, 177 lb-ft torque; six-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel drive
MPG: 30 city / 42 highway
LENGTH OF STIFFY FOR GEN Y: Approximately 7,900 miles