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For once, I’d like to see an American carmaker sell us an attractive, affordable, simple, and fun-to-drive compact hatch that doesn’t require a fire-breathing turbocharged engine to make it worthwhile. The Ford Fiesta ST fits the bill, but it’s kind of tiny, don’t you think?

That’s why I had great hopes for the Cruze hatch. Mind you, this is the first press car I knew nothing about prior to driving it. Usually, I read the press kits and do a bit of research before sitting behind the wheel of a car. However, with the Cruze I was hoping for a revelation. I wanted General Motors’ Opel division to surprise me by having fitted its rebadged Astra with quicker steering, a stiffer suspension, and shorter gear ratios compared to its humble (and oh-so-boring) sedan sister.

I wanted this to be America’s Golf. Sadly, it wasn’t.

(Full disclosure: GM Canada invited me along with other auto journalists to the Cruze hatch’s launch event in Saint-Sauveur, Québec. When I told everyone who I worked for, they all looked at each other with a confused look on their faces and asked: “what on earth is a Jalopnik?” Evidently, our Québécois market penetration isn’t what it needs to be.)

It Looks The Part

I think so. I mean, look at this thing! Not only does the Cruze look much better in hatch form, this is a fabulously executed design—period. My tester was painted in the Red Hot paint job, was sporting very good-looking 18-inch running shoes, had an RS badge slapped onto its front grille, and probably the longest rear wing I’ve ever seen fitted on any “non-Focus RS” hatchback. My 5-door Cruze was definitely off to a good start.

I like how the roof sweeps downwards to blend in with the aggressively raked rear glass, and how coherent Chevy’s new corporate front end, à la Malibu, feels with the rest the car. It feels like the Cruze was always meant to be a hatchback—and that’s probably because it was.

I do believe this bests the current Mazda3, one of the prettiest compact hatchbacks available. I’m not a huge fan of the Cruze’s rear treatment though, which kind of looks squashed; almost as if the car was rear-ended by an STM city bus during a Canadian snowstorm.

Whatever, there’s a hatch back there for you to throw your crap in, and that’s cool, right?

At least the Cruze hatchback looks exciting. It also has a bowtie slapped onto its trunk. Yes! Make America’s car industry great again with more exciting-looking hatchbacks like this. That said, as I eyed out this stubby little Chevy before getting into it, I instantly pictured myself ripping through its gears, zipping in and out of traffic and attacking off-ramps as if I were racing the Nürburgring. “This will be fun” I thought.

Until I started driving it.

It Definitely “Cruzes”

My excitement with the Cruze hatchback slowly deflated. The first was the transmission my test car had been fitted with. Yes, it was another automatic. Seriously, I don’t remember the last time I was handed the key to a press car with a stick and three pedals. (You’d be shocked how many so-called auto writers can’t drive stick anyway, and have no desire to learn.)

A Cruze manual is available with base trim levels, thank God. And yes, the RS package can be grafted onto your self-shifting Germano-American hatch. Unfortunately, RS adds absolutely nothing mechanical to the Cruze, and is rather an aesthetic package.

We’re very far from that, ahem, other RS American hatchback now are we?

To GM’s credit, the Cruze’s six-speed automatic is excellent. It shifts quickly, quietly, and smoothly; operating flawlessly in the background, while attracting minimal attention to itself. This is the exact same transmission as in the sedan, meaning it’s not performance-oriented at all and always defaults to the higher gear ratios to save fuel. And there is no sport mode to change that either.

There is a “manual” mode, however, but like in the Malibu, it’s a useless feature due to the jet-fighter style triggers located on top of the lever itself.

Because you must first pull that lever down to the L position (why L?) to engage manual mode, which is located in the gate pattern’s lowest location, your right arm ends up in an awkward and cramped position where you’re required to change gears with the tip of your thumb. Seriously, it’s awful.

Ah man. I wanted to shift my hatchback Cruze and pop the clutch on my own, dammit! Some Golf fighter this is.

And finally, there’s the depressing reality that the sharply styled Cruze hatch is a mechanical twin to its taxi-car grade sedan sister, the Cruze sedan. Mechanically speaking, absolutely nothing was changed for the hatch. This means that like the sedan, the Cruze’s handling leans more towards comfortable highway cruiser as opposed to an energetic sport compact car. It also inherits the same torsion beam rear axle as the sedan – so no independent rear end like a Mazda 3 or a Honda Civic.

I must say though, the Cruze is a very quiet, comfortable, and smooth car. We’re really seeing General Motor’s brilliance in chassis calibration at play here. The Cruze feels solid, absorbs road imperfections without a sweat, and overall feels much larger than it is. But exciting it is not.

Actually, this thing isn’t fun to drive at all.

But It Is A Very Good Car

I know this heading reads the same as saying “this person has a nice personality,” but it’s true. Disappointing driving dynamics aside, the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze is a fantastically well-put together compact.

The drivetrain is, as I mentioned, a direct carry-over from the sedan (urgh). In this case, it’s a 1.4-liter turbocharged four banger good for a conservative 153 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque. Again, nothing hair-rising here. There’s only one engine available throughout the entire Cruze lineup, which is somewhat disappointing, considering that many of the Cruze’s competitors offer livelier engines as you climb up their model range.

Fun fact: a Cruze diesel with a manual transmission is coming soon. But then, will anyone even buy it? Come to think of it, since we all seem addicted to crossovers these days, I wonder if the Cruze hatch will even sell at all.

The 1.4T is fine. I mean, to cruise around in, it is. Most of its power is delivered down low, kind of like a diesel, with peak torque coming on at just 2000 RPM, making it ideal for overtaking. It will rev to 5600 RPM if you let it, but not much will happen if you do so. Except for an uninspiring buzzing sound emitted from the engine compartment, the Cruze is literally telling you that it doesn’t want to be pushed around.

So, once you’ve accepted the fact that you won’t be getting anything sportier with your Cruze hatch than with the sedan, you start appreciating it for what it is.

The interior is rather impressive. Actually, I’m very satisfied with all GM interiors lately. In the Cruze you get the same sorta funky-looking design as in the larger Malibu, with a mash-up of soft plastics, rubberized surfaces, chrome inserts, and piano-black plastics. It all adds up to give the Cruze a proper upscale and semi-European cabin.

There’s a 7-inch touch-operated infotainment system complete with Android Auto and Apple Carplay compatibility. The system looks good, and is very easy and enjoyable to use. Thankfully, GM understands the importance of leaving actual physical buttons to control basic functions. Are you listening, Honda?

But yeah, I loved sitting in this car for long rides. It’s very refined and serene in there. It’s also roomy out back, where my full-sized frame could sit upright without my head touching the ceiling. And that hatch will give way to 47 cubic feet (six fewer than a Golf) of total cargo volume once the seats are folded flat.

The Cruze really is that car that you’ll drive casually with one finger on the highway, or with no fingers at all if yours is fitted with the optional lane keep assist system, which tends to play pong with the lines instead of actually keeping the car in a straight line.

A Hatchback for Normal People

Okay, so I was disappointed with the fact that the Cruze hatch isn’t inspiring to drive. It sucks that GM didn’t think this through. Why sell an aggressively-styled hatchback if it drives like your mom’s Corolla? Where is GM’s competitor to the Focus ST or RS, or even the fast Honda Civics on the way? GM, if you’re going to market this car to 25-35 year old single active urban cool people, which is what you’re telling us, the Cruze hatch needs to drive at least as “active” as its owners.

But! As an everyday junk-hauler for the masses though, the Cruze is, well, outstanding.

There were some irritating bits, however. I had noticed this on the Malibu as well. What’s up with those automatic headlights? They’re just always on. Why even bother fitting the car with an ON/OFF switch if you can’t turn off the headlights?

Then there’s the fact that even in Premium trim, like my tester, which is the highest trim level available, the car still doesn’t come standard with a sunroof or adaptive cruise control. There’s a collision mitigation system. And lane keep assist. But no adaptive cruise control. Why?

And finally there’s the issue with the rearview mirrors. I had the same problem in the Volt – they’re just too small for the car, making the Cruze’s sides appear humongous, resulting in very poor lateral visibility.

The Verdict

Prices for a 2017 Chevrolet Cruze hatchback are where things become interesting. With an entry price of $22 115 for an LT manual, it’s a rather affordable little hatch. There are a total of five trim levels to choose from with the kingpin Premier model you see here topping out at $24,820. That’s fully loaded under $25,000.

You do need to add $995 on top of that for the RS package and $1 995 for a sunroof and navigation. But still, that’s a few thousand dollars less than a fully equipped Honda Civic hatch.

At the end of the day, I can’t deny the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze hatchback’s excellent build quality, smooth and quiet ride, stunning exterior styling, and undeniable practicality. But can this be America’s Golf?

Well, that depends. I wouldn’t buy this over a Golf, a Mazda 3 or a Civic. It is, however, a well-executed product, and GM has gone a long way from the awful Cavaliers and Cobalts we grew up with.

If compact car buyers don’t really care about having fun behind the wheel at all, then yes, this can be Detroit’s Golf.

The problem is, I think America is ready for more. I think it deserves more than its own Golf. It deserves its own GTI. Chevrolet, why not slap an SS badge on this bad boy? That other blue American hatch is begging for a domestic rival.

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline four
Power: 153 HP at 5,600 RPM / 177 lb-ft at 2,000 RPM
Transmission: 6-speed manual / 6-speed automatic with manual mode
0-60 Time: 7.5 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 130 MPH (claimed)
Drivetrain: Front-wheel drive
Curb Weight: 2,900 pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 28 City / 37 Highway (from EPA)
MSRP: $22,115 base, $24,820 for Premier model

William Clavey is an automotive journalist from Montréal, Québec, Canada. He runs claveyscorner.com, and does some collaborative writing over at rightfootdown.com.

Contributing Writer, Canada at Jalopnik. williamclavey@gmail.com

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