ETROIT, Michigan – We were stuck with a six-speed manual 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback, if “stuck” is the right word. Many first drive programs offer the opportunity to switch cars halfway along the route, say from a stick-shift midgrade/cloth-seat LT with the RS package to an automatic transmission-equipped Premier with the Z-link (a.k.a. Watts link) rear suspension. But this was a relatively short drive event with few interesting roads, and anyway, the drive partner and Your Humble Servant already had plenty of stick-time with the new-for-2016 Chevy Cruze sedan.
It’s pretty much the same car, which was a bit of a surprise. Chevy might have made the Cruze Hatchback sportier than the sedan, but in fact they share chassis tuning – the Z-link comes only on the Premier trim level on either bodystyle. The key differences are unique sheetmetal from the b-pillar back and two fewer trim levels for the Hatchback, which comes only in LT or Premier levels – the sedan’s manual-only L and minimalist LS trims are absent. The RS package, which adds a rear spoiler, front fog lamps, sport body kit and 18-inch machined-face aluminum wheels is available for either bodystyle and on LT or Premier. While the sedan is assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, the Hatchback comes from Ramos, Mexico.
The only engine offered at launch is the 153-horsepower, 1.4-liter four, available with a six-speed manual (LT only) or automatic (LT or Premier). Rated at 28/37 mpg in the manual Cruze Hatchback, it’s perfectly adequate for most drivers in the familiar downsized, turbocharged idiom. What does that mean, exactly? Well, it doesn’t feel particularly spirited and will only get you into traffic efficiently if you plan well ahead — or floor the throttle. Rely on the latter and you’ll never meet EPA fuel mileage estimates, just as with any other small, turbocharged engine. This is the way of the world these days — small, boosted engines are designed to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards first and foremost.
As with its competitors’ turbo fours, the Chevy engine is okay with freeway acceleration and passing. Here is where the six-speed manual comes in handy. You’ll want to get used to six-four or even five-three downshifts, which add to the fun even if they detract from fuel efficiency.
The manual feels a bit loose and mushy, and the clutch action won’t be to every driver’s liking, but even the Honda Civic’s manual doesn’t feel the way that brand’s stick shifts used to feel. In the Chevy, it will be good enough for those of us who can’t stomach the idea of ordering a new car with an automatic.
Our first drive from Detroit to New Baltimore, Michigan, and back afforded no chance to sort out the car’s handling, but previous drives of the sedan in various trims revealed a fairly stiff suspension and nicely controlled handling with minimal understeer. The non-Premier Cruzes are busier and less planted than the Z-link-equipped models on crusty, bumpy roads. In general, the Gen II Chevy Cruze is easily in the hunt with top competitors in the compact segment.
And like its sedan sibling, it’s quieter than the Civic — the Cruze Hatchback has extra sound attenuation in back because hatches let more noise in than sedans with traditional trunks. The upshot is that the 2017 Chevy Cruze Hatchback offers 47.2 cubic-feet of rear cargo space with the rear seats down, which means you can stow a bicycle back there. It’s nearly as versatile as a compact SUV but without the “command-position seating” and the loss of handling due to a higher center of gravity.
The interior is a pleasant place to be, with lots of padding in the right places, including the dashboard, and good fit, finish and materials, though our LT’s beige upholstery literally pales next to the jet black/Kalahari leather trim offered on the pricier Premier sedan.
With the rear seat up, legroom back there is very good and headroom is okay, though the latter is a bit better than the Cruze sedan’s because of its more upright roofline. Our first drive is a bit too brief to serve as the basis for an unmitigated recommendation of the car, though with a decent six-speed manual available and a diesel option on the way, we can say with little fear of contradiction that in the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback we’ve found a viable alternative to the proverbial diesel stick-shift station wagon.