This week’s entry is about my current daily driver, notable partly for being a bit of a dying breed. Small cars in general, and small hatchbacks in particular, are not enjoying much popularity in this era of crossovers and SUVs. Which probably explains why I bought it, now that I think of it, just to be contrary.
As with several cars I have owned, my first experience with the current generation Cruze was as a rental car I had for about a week. I was generally impressed with the car – power from the small 1.4 liter turbocharged engine was more than adequate, handling was reasonably agile (even in the small-tired rental-spec version), and interior appointments were good. The car seemed to be well screwed together, even the much-abused rental I was driving. Besides, the car comes with an Ohio connection (sedans are still made in the small-car Lordstown factory that made the Vega and the Cavalier, both probably best forgotten nowadays).
Although I liked the Cruze, that is not to say that I went to the dealer near the end of my Equinox lease with the intention of getting one. I was really heading for the dealer (incentives and GM credit card points firmly in hand) to get myself the new all-electric Bolt, which I was very interested in having. With a more-than-reasonable 200+ mile range and practical (albeit somewhat ungainly) hatchback styling, I wanted to get back into the electric drive vehicle market with something that had much more capability than our Focus (and take advantage of the charging station still in my garage). Chevrolet had also redone the Volt and that was interesting to me as well, given my positive but short-lived experience with my first one.
We started out the negotiations well – the dealer had several Bolts in stock, including one in a rather dramatic orange color that I liked (not for everyone, to be sure) with equipment packages that worked for me. This should be quick and easy, I thought – a quick test drive, work up some lease numbers, and off I go with a Bolt. During the test drive that showed the Bolt to be a pretty spunky performer, I asked the salesperson roughly how much the lease payments would be. The number he quoted made me turn around and head back for the dealer relatively quickly – his ballpark estimate was around what I’d been paying for the last Lexus I had, and more than double the (admittedly cheap) Equinox. He said that the lease payments were so unfavorable that they had a number of early adopters who ordered the first cars off the line turn them down when they found out lease payments were over $600 per month. I wanted the car, but not this badly. I asked about the Volt as well, and their payments were not a lot better. Back to the drawing board.
I had done some inventory checking before I went just to be prepared and knew that they had some Cruze Premiers that I liked, but none in the special orange color that I wanted. I actually wanted one in orange with the special dark brown and black interior (which my wife hated). They did have a dark gray one that seemed to be a good choice so I took that one out for a spin. This one had virtually all the options available save the extra-cost paint – the RS package with 18 inch wheels and rear spoiler, navigation, Apple Car Play, leather seating (with heated seats front and rear), and a suite of safety features including lane departure warning and forward collision warning. The car’s sticker price was a bit eye-popping, coming in at just under $30k. However, I could take advantage of incentives that were piled on the hood of these somewhat unpopular compact hatchbacks to drop that price quite a bit. With my GM card points, the lease payment came in under $300 a month for this car that had all the goodies and was fun to drive to boot, so home it went with me.
Much has been written about the demise of the small car, the inability of American consumers to understand premium small cars after a steady diet of disposable Cavaliers and Escorts with sketchy driving dynamics, and the desire for crossovers that use small car platforms to create tall boxes with lower fuel economy and worse handling than the small cars they’re based on. Having said all that, and understanding GM’s rather unsteady reputation in the small car market, I have been favorably impressed with this car. The 1.4 liter turbo makes 153 horsepower which is more than enough for a car that’s only 14 feet long. One might note that the small block V-8 in my Monte Carlo made about the same horsepower from 4 times as much displacement and half the fuel economy. The handling is very entertaining, but the low profile tires on those special RS wheels make the ride a bit crunchy at times. The premium packages in these small cars bring amenities that usually only come on larger more expensive cars. The navigation system uses the middle color screen in between the speedometer and tachometer to provide the driver with the next step in the trip (turn left in 1 mile, turn right in 1000 feet, etc.), a handy feature when you’re trying to navigate an unfamiliar area. The car includes heated seats (front and rear) and a heated steering wheel. I thought the heated wheel was a gimmick until this past winter – it takes the chill off the leather-wrapped wheel very quickly, which is a nice touch when it’s below freezing.
The advanced safety features are interesting and took some getting used to. The lane departure system uses the electric power steering to make small (but firm) corrections to the car’s path if it senses the car drifting out of the lane. It can make some pretty sizeable corrections and can be pretty emphatic about it. You can override it by simply applying more force to the wheel if you are intending to move across a road line that it doesn’t like. The forward collision warning has been helpful once or twice when cars stopped more quickly than I expected, but there have been more times where it gives me false warnings about cars in another lane or curbs I am passing. The cross traffic monitoring for backing up has been handy – I did avoid backing into somebody I didn’t see in the office parking lot. I’d say on the whole these systems are useful, and I am OK that my car came with them, but I am not 100% sure I’d specifically select them in my next car.
As a hatchback, my car offers a pretty good amount of practicality. I’m not going to be bringing home any 65 inch televisions, but it certainly will swallow some pretty bulky items. Besides, the rear spoiler on the hatchback model makes the car look like a kid with his baseball hat on backwards. Alas, buying the hatchback meant I didn’t support an Ohio business, as the hatches are made in Mexico.
So I have had this car for just over a year and overall have been very happy with it. It hasn’t given any trouble (yet), it looks pretty good and doesn’t feel cheap to me, and gets me around town with some style. If I had waited a bit I probably could have gotten one of the six-speed manual diesel Cruze hatchbacks – an orange one of those would be pretty close to the mythical brown diesel wagon that practical car enthusiasts always claim to want. Maybe next time!