General Motors' (GM - Get Report) Chevrolet Cruze compact car punches below its weight in terms of sales against competitors like Toyota's (TM - Get Report) Corolla and Nissan's (NSANY) Sentra, whose nameplates have been around longer.
That's why GM now is offering a hatchback version of the sedan to the U.S. market; next year it will be available with a 1.6-liter diesel engine -- an open invitation to defectors from Volkswagen (VLKAY) . With these two variations, GM could add tens of thousands of sales to its tally, bringing more balance to a GM product lineup that, by its own admission, relies too heavily on pickups and big SUVs for profit.
GM marketing executives said the hatchback will appeal to a more male-oriented and older audience that is searching for utility with the additional cargo space. For the moment, Ford's (F - Get Report) Focus and Mazda 3 sell the most hatchbacks in the compact car segment. Overall, Honda's (HMC - Get Report) Civic led the compact segment through September, according to Kelley Blue Book, with sales of 283,783 cars in the U.S.; Cruze was in sixth place, with sales of 138,012.
Cruze is a handsomely styled and cleverly engineered vehicle, free of the corner-cutting, cheap materials and clunky layout that characterized many GM small cars of yesteryear. In a 50-mile drive in the vicinity of Ann Arbor, Mich., the car handled, accelerated and braked competently, providing a quiet, comfortable tour of the autumn foliage.
The car's 1.4-liter gasoline engine is rated 29 mpg city/38 highway with the automatic transmission and 28 city/37 highway with a manual transmission by the Environmental Protection Agency. Starting at about $22,000, including destination charge, Cruze hatchback can cost at much as $29,000 with all options.
One of the features included in all versions of the hatchback -- an infotainment system featuring Apple Car Play or Android Auto -- lets the in-dash screen mirror many but not all of a phone's apps, including the most popular ones. Thus, the driver can rely, for example, on the smartphone's navigation program, and save expense of Chevrolet's navi.
The diesel option, available across the Cruze line and on the Chevrolet Equinox crossover, could attract many diesel fans who no longer will be able to buy from VW, which has announced its intention to exit the category. In September 2015, the EPA announced that VW had faked emissions tests, triggering an uproar that led to the resignation of its CEO and more than $16 billion in charges and fines.
Will VW owners be willing to try Chevrolet? Conventional wisdom says that import shoppers don't usually cross back to domestic brands.
"Eighteen months ago, I would have said, 'No, VW buyers would not consider switching,'" said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific, told the Automotive News. "But that tide has turned. The Equinox diesel plays in the only white space of the segment that seems to be left. Toyota and Nissan have competing hybrids in the segment. The diesel is a different direction."
Sullivan added that the Cruze diesel further filled in the white space.