Despite the surging popularity of utility vehicles, today's small sedans are do-it-alls. They're practically mid-size these days, and the top entrants still sell hundreds of thousands of units a year. And each new entrant offers better safety, nicer interiors, and features that equal and sometimes outdo pricier rivals.
The Toyota Corolla has long been the sales champ among compact sedans, but it's now five years old. The Chevy Cruze was brand-new for 2016, and better than it's ever been. To shoppers looking for value, reliability, and comfort around $20,000, which is the better choice: the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze or the 2017 Toyota Corolla?
The Cruze is the fresher design with an updated engine and a slightly wider array of standard and optional equipment and it's a little more fun to drive. That said, the Corolla gained some important safety tech as standard for 2017, something no other compact sedan can say. That really helps elevate the Corolla in our ratings, even if we prefer the way the Cruze rides and handles.
(A note: we've changed our rating system.)
Redesigned last year, the handsome, wedge-shaped profile of the redesigned Cruze makes it look crisper and more modern than its three-box predecessor with its slab sides. The many curves, angles, and accent lines mostly work well together, though from a few angles, they border on the busy. The main surprise is that the Cruze looks startlingly like the Volt plug-in hybrid hatchback, though that car's starting price is $15,000 more, and though its high-quality materials and intuitive controls set it apart.
When the Toyota Corolla was last redesigned for 2012, its look was less vanilla, more daring and edgy, which isn't changed for 2017. That's a long time ago, though, and it's now back to the vanilla end of the scale—where Corollas traditionally resided. Its front end is distinctive, but despite side accent lines, it's instantly pegged as a compact Toyota sedan. A sporty Corolla SE adds blacked-out trim and other pseudo-racy details, while high-end models get LED headlamps for an upscale finishing touch.
The new Cruze offers only a single engine, a 153-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4. It delivers EPA fuel-economy ratings of 35 mpg combined with the 6-speed automatic transmission that'll be by far the most common choice.
Most Corollas are powered by a 132-hp 1.8-liter inline-4, with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that responds well to most types of predictable driving. If maximum fuel efficiency is the criterion, the Corolla LE Eco model uses a specially tuned version of that engine. Still, while its rated gas mileage of 35 mpg combined was high five years ago, it's par for the course these days.
Performance and utility
The Cruze isn't a sport sedan, and doesn't come across as particularly eager or tossable. But its absorbent ride is taut enough to avoid bobbly handling and its steering is nicely weighted. As always, the ride is best with the smallest 15- or 16-inch wheels, which require taller sidewalls on the tires than the pricier, larger, and rougher-riding 17- or 18-inch options.
Most Corolla models, on the other hand, are a bit too springy and pillowy, and the steering is far too light for anything but demure driving. They're what they've always been: predictable, competent, and unexciting. The sportier Corolla SE has suspension tuning closer to that of a sport sedan—with a Sport button that firms up the steering, and a ride that's nicely damped and absorbs bumps well despite its stiffer cornering.