HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Chevy Cruze geeks out

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I attended the 100th Indy 500 on Memorial Day weekend and it was a flag-waving, eardrum rattling spectacular. It was also a Chevrolet theme park.

Chevy sponsors the 500 and promotes its performance products in every corner of the event.

I took 140 mph hot laps in a Chevy SS driven by IndyCar star Sebastien Bourdais. Bourdais and his 32 co-competitors were each ferried by a blue Camaro convertible in the Indy 500 parade — which was anchored by a squadron of Corvettes. Roger Penske led the field to the green flag in a white Camaro SS. Chevy engines powered half the IndyCar field. Heck, even Honda-powered 500 winner Alexander Rossi did his victory lap in a Camaro. It was the most awesome display of Chevy chest-thumpin’ testosterone I have ever seen.

There wasn’t a Chevy Cruze sedan in sight — including the new, 2016 tester I had left behind at my hotel. It was like the scrawny kid with his nose pressed up against the glass looking in at all the cool kids at the car prom.

Tracks aren’t this brainy compact’s thing. High school has its jocks and geeks — and so does Chevy.

The Chevrolets have always taken pride in their gym-toned, V-8-muscled athletes — but these days there are geeked-out, tech-savvy sedans at the family reunion as well. You’ll find Car & Driver on the living room table — and Wired magazine. The Camaros and ’Vettes cut a dashing figure on the playing field, but the Cruzes, Volts, Malibus, Sonics and Sparks have an eye on Silicon Valley with their smart-phone apps, 4G WiFi and driver assist wizardry.

I’m happy to report that the nerds are taking fashion tips from their stylish siblings.

Cruze has borrowed tastefully from big brother Camaro’s fascia with its thin, wrap-around upper grille. (Could it borrow Camaro’s base wheels too? Those things on the Cruze just gotta go.) It’s a marked improvement over the mid-size Malibu sedan’s plastic surgery, which deserves an episode on “Botched.”

Japanese makes may dominate West Coast roads but the Midwest is still Big Three country and my trip to Indianapolis was full of last-generation Cruzes. With their boxier shape and plain, split grille, they looked tired next to my sleeker, coupe-like ’16.

Millennial-friendly interior

Like its Cadillac and Camaro siblings, Cruze lost 250 pounds at the gym. Inside, the instrument binnacle is straight out of a Camaro with ribbed cowl and racy gauges wedged between the RPM and MPH discs.

That’s as sporty as Cruze gets. This Chevy wears Dockers to work, not Air Jordans.

Compact sedan competitors Honda Civic, Ford Focus, VW Golf and Subaru Impreza offer wicked performance variants — but Chevy’s Super Sport cape has been hung in the closet. Motorheads have been buoyed by Chevy’s decision to make a five-door Cruze (coming this fall). Might there be a GTI-like hot hatch in the future? Not likely. Cruze wears a solid rear axle which pretty much telegraphs that it’s not interested in young rubber-burners. Cruise the Cruze over a harsh road dip and you’ll bounce like a basketball off your seat — unlike a more-poised, independent-rear-suspension Civic.

The youth that interests Cruze are millennial techies — for which Cruze is a rolling iGadget. The interior designers must have bunked with millennials for a year because the console fits ’em like a glove. The $20K LS and the $26K Premier editions I drove featured Apple Car Play, Android Auto and 4G WiFi. And to show that jocks think tech is cool, too — the Camaro, Corvette and SS get the same.

The connectivity feature is customer-friendly — and a nod to the reality — that Americans love their phones, their music and their nav systems.

Besides, Google maps blows away every car system I’ve ever used.

On my way back from Indy, I asked MyLink to find the Chick-Fil-A on Interstate 475 west of Toledo. After a multistep process through a variety of menus I ... couldn’t find it. I plugged in my Android phone, awoke “Ask Google” and — presto! — found it. Oh, Google you’re good. And so are you, Chevy, for letting it take over your console.

My wife’s Apple Car Play was less impressive if only because the app defaults to Apple’s nav system — which is less capable than the Google app she’s downloaded. Another tech detail likely to rub some the wrong way is Cruze’s stop-start feature, which shuts down the engine at stoplights. Most manufacturers make this feature an option — but nerd Cruze puts fuel economy first.

Fuel efficiency paramount

Still, Cruze is hardly a slug. The straight roads between Detroit and Indy will barely get your heartbeat up, but when passing grunt was needed (like to get around Left Lane Lollygaggers) the 1.4-liter turbo proved impressively punchy. That punch made me pine for more engine options.

While Chevy performance is synonymous with V-8 pushrod power, GM has been birthing an impressive team of small-displacement turbos such as the 260 horse-plus, 2.0-liter mills found under the hood of the Camaro, Buick Regal GS and Cadillac ATS. These athletes have made each other better by sharing their skills — Camaro, for example, is king of the muscle car segment in part because it shares the ATS’s four-banger and taught Alpha platform.

But rather than bringing more muscle to the fight with segment-king Civic and its four, increasingly-capable engine options, Chevy takes the geek route in emphasizing fuel efficiency and alternative powertrains.

Like the Chevy Spark (electric option), Malibu (hybrid-electric) and Impala (natural gas), Cruze is expected to offer a sippy, 1.6-liter diesel ... and, of course, the Chevy Volt — a Cruze with a silver beak, electrified powertrain and a high price tag.

In the crowded compact aisle, brands need identity to stand out. Subaru’s Impreza gets noticed with all-wheel drive (note to Chevy: Nerds love this, too). Mazda does its ZOOM ZOOM thing. Ford and Golf flex performance. Civic offers so much variety it can’t be ignored. Motorheads like me might pine for speed, but Cruze is carving its place as a techie superior to Toyota’s Corolla and on par with the Hyundai Elantra.

Let Camaros and Corvettes rule Indy and Belle Isle race tracks. Cruze is starring in “Revenge of the Nerds” — now playing at a dealer near you.

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

2016 Chevrolet Cruze

Specifications

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan

Price: $17,445 base ($19,995 LS and $26,855 Premier as tested)

Power plant: 1.4-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder

Power: 153 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed manual or automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.7 seconds (manufacturer)

Weight: 2,932 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway/34 mpg combined (automatic Premier as tested)

Report card

Highs: Loaded with tech; functional, roomy interior

Lows: Cringe-worthy base wheels; a performance option, please?

Overall:★★★

Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★