With so many models vying for sales in the hugely competitive compact family car class, it’s easy to overlook the Chevrolet Cruze. The five-door hatchback version has been available for just over a year now, yet it hasn’t set the sales charts alight.
This could be down to the Cruze’s looks. While the overall proportions are neat, that large grille, clamshell bonnet and angular headlights fail to come together to make a cohesive front end.
Compared to the Octavia, the Cruze looks sportier and more compact from the side – an effect which is boosted by our LTZ-spec car’s standard 17-inch alloy wheels. At the rear, the Chevrolet has a much shorter rear overhang than the Skoda, which further adds to its more purposeful looks.
Step inside the Cruze and you’re greeted with an attractively designed interior. The cowled instruments are a sporty touch, and the attractive silver centre console with piano black inserts places controls for the stereo and climate control in easy reach. The rotary controls and column stalks will be familiar to anyone who’s driven a Vauxhall Astra, but that’s no bad thing, as the switchgear is well damped and precise in its operation.
One novel feature is the woven fabric material that covers the dashboard and front doors. It gives them a carbon-fibre look, yet doesn’t appear tacky. There are some flimsy plastics to be found – the dashtop cubby is particularly poor – and the light-blue digital display on the centre console now looks very dated. Overall, cabin quality isn’t quite on a par with that of the rock-solid Skoda.
It’s easy for the driver to get comfortable, as there’s reach and height adjustment on the mulitfunction steering wheel and the seat is height-adjustable, too. Passenger space is also good. There’s just as much legroom in the rear as there is in the Skoda, although the Cruze’s seats feel slightly firmer than the Octavia’s. Back-seat passengers get electric windows and a handy 12V power socket to plug their mobile devices in to.
The Cruze’s boot is slightly wider than the Octavia’s between the wheelarches, but the Skoda’s longer rear overhang means it has more luggage space overall. The Chevy’s ribbed boot floor helps to prevent items from rolling about, while both cars have puncture repair kits instead of spare wheels, so there’s hidden storage under their boot floors.
Chevrolet has enjoyed racing success in the World Touring Car Championship with the Cruze, and some of that on-track ability shines through in the road car. It feels lighter and more alert than the Skoda, even though it’s around 150kg heavier, and while the steering lacks feedback, it has a sharp turn-in.
There’s more grip than in the Skoda, and the Chevy feels sportier, but constant adjustment of the steering wheel is needed to keep the car pointing in the right direction. And while the Cruze is quiet and comfortable on the motorway, the stiff suspension can be unsettled by big bumps in the road.
The new 1.7-litre diesel engine is a very accomplished performer. At 128bhp, it has more power than the Octavia’s 104bhp 1.6 TDI. The Chevrolet was faster in all of our performance tests, thanks in part to the fact it has a six-speed manual gearbox, compared to the Octavia’s five-speed transmission.
Another strong point is the new engine’s emissions. At 117g/km, it’s 2g/km cleaner than the Octavia’s, while on-test economy was better, too, at 47.9mpg. The rest of the financial equation is a mixed bag. At £18,685, this top- spec Cruze LTZ costs £215 more than the Octavia SE Plus, but it comes with more standard kit, plus the reassuramce of a five-year warranty and pre-paid servicing plan.