Payne: Should Chevy Cruze Hatch worry the Bolt Hatch?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

By hitting the market months (or could that be years?) ahead of Tesla’s ballyhooed Model 3 sedan, the battery-powered 2017 Chevy Bolt hatchback is stealing the Silicon Valley maker’s thunder on plans for electric domination. Like the Model 3, the Bolt promises 200-mile plus range, a roomy interior package – but will hit showrooms in December.

No wonder there’s a strut in young Bolt’s step.

The Chevy Cruze hatchback’s extra 22 cubic feet of cargo space comes in handy.

While Chevrolet hypes the debut of its EV wunderkind, it’s also rolling out a hatchback version of its Chevy Cruze sedan. Our government betters tell us the Bolt and Model 3 are proof the world is going electric. Hatches like the Cruze are a bracing reminder why carbon-burners are still America’s top-selling vehicles.

Merging onto Interstate 94 in St. Clair Shores this week, I flattened the little Chevy’s right pedal and the turbocharged 1.4-liter mill eagerly answered the call with quiet aggression. This four-banger is not a noisy gerbil wheel. Credit the whispery turbo, but also the Cruze’s least-in-class interior noise. Engineering manager Seth Valentine and his team spent hours stuffing chassis leaks to make the Cruze library-quiet.

Cruze’s turbo-riffic 240 pound-feet of torque nearly matches the Bolt’s electric 260. Acceleration is respectable as well: 7.6 seconds from 0-60 (the Bolt should be sub-7); that’s because the Cruze weighs just 2,932 pounds compared to the EV’s 3,580.

Lithium-ion batteries are heavy. And expensive.

The Cruze hatch matches the roomy EV (look, ma, no drivetrain tunnel!) in passenger volume – 93.5 to 94 cubic feet – but, with a longer, 106-inch wheelbase, offers almost six more cubic feet of cargo volume behind the rear seat (22.7 vs. 16.9). The Chevy siblings are similar inside and out – the Bolt techier, the Cruze sexier – and come in LT and Premier trims with standard connectivity and nifty accessories.

Yet the bigger Cruze hatch offers all this for just $22,130 – that’s $15,000 less than the Bolt.

Sure, the Bolt will lop off $7,500 of its $37,495 price tag with a federal tax credit, but that only lasts until Chevy sells 200,000 of them. The Bolt’s landmark, range-anxiety-busting 238-mile range promises to expand the EV buyer demographic beyond the usual tree-huggers – but the sticker shock will drive many away. As will the Cruze’s sippy, 37 mpg-highway engine. Want more? A diesel in 2018 promises 50 mpg highway.

“The Bolt will be a second – or third – car option for older, upper-income Boomers,” says Joe Phillippi, an analyst with Auto Trends Consulting. “Lower-income millennials won’t even go there.” Boomers may trade the lease on their Buick Encore or Audi A3 for the Bolt. The Cruze hatchback will be millennials’ primary transportation.

This isn’t a knock on the terrific Bolt EV so much as a testament to the best value proposition around: The sippy, zippy compact hatch.

The hatchback’s versatility has carved out a 300,000-unit market (nearly the total sales of all EVs last year) in the U.S. with the Ford Focus, Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf hatchback leading the way. Cruze wants a piece of the pie. Welcome back, Chevy, after a long time away.

I’d prefer a more squared-off roof line like the Golf or Mazda in order to complement the hatch’s inherent advantage – better rear head and cargo room. But Cruze’s curvy, sexy behind has a purpose – to make you forget about Chevy’s vanilla design past. Cruze’s face is forgettable, but, like cousin Malibu, it’s got a nice tush.

Speaking of tushes, solid-rear axle suspension in the Cruze hatch is no match in at-the-limit handling for the multi-link outfitted Focus, Mazda3 and Golf. But true to its compact class, it’s still a blast to whip around when the moon is full. Slip inside and the Cruze is a comfy office with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, console cubbies, intuitive gauges and knobs, competitive legroom.

Quibbles are few – but notable. The weird cloth inserts – a dash rug? – on an otherwise fluid design screams “long-term liability.” Like carpets, they’re ripe for stains, frayed threads and scuffing. I prefer the Premier model with its tidier leatherette inserts.

Trouble is, the loaded Premier I tested came in at a pricey $29,435. That’s still less than an entry-level Bolt minus federal welfare – but a grand more expensive than the first-team VW Golf GTI Sport in my driveway. At 0-60 in 6.1 seconds it will bloody the Cruze in the performance ring while matching its interior refinement.

Like I said, the hatch market is one tough neighborhood.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback

specifications

Vehicle type

Front-engine, front-wheel

drive five-passenger hatchback

Power plant

1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4

Transmission

6-speed manual or 6-speed,

automatic

Weight

2,932 pounds

Price

$22,130 base ($29,435

Premier as tested)

Power

170 horsepower, 177 pound-feet torque

Performance

0-60 mph, 7.6 seconds (Car and Driver);

top speed: 132 mph

Fuel economy

EPA 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway

/35 mpg combined (automatic Premier as tested)

report card

Highs

The Hatch is back: turbo-riffic torque

Lows

Best Cruze looks yet - still short of Focus; solid rear axle limits performance

Overall:★★★

Grading scale: Excellent ★★★★Good ★★★ Fair

Poor ★