Chevrolet Cruze hatchback LTZ Exec Pack 2.0 VCDi

Top speed: 127 mph

Acceleration: 0-62 mph in 8.5 seconds

Fuel consumption: 50.4 mpg

CO2 emissions: 147 g/km

Price: £19,295 (Cruze hatchback prices start at £13,995 for the 1.6-litre petrol manual)

Rivals: Ford Focus, Hyundai i30, Kia cee'd, Vauxhall Astra

Chevrolet's Cruze was always a sound car but only now, with a new hatchback version, does it have a chance to fulfil its potential in the UK market.

The Cruze was generally well received when it arrived in 2009. A sister car of Vauxhall's Astra (Chevrolet and Vauxhall are both part of General Motors), it did all the basics well. It was roomy, comfortable and refined, if a tad conservative by European standards. The reason for that conservatism lay in the Cruze's role as a world car designed to appeal to buyers living in just about every corner of the world, including many emerging markets. As well as Korea, the US and Australia, this car is also assembled at plants in each of the so-called “BRIC”s – Brazil, Russia India and China – four rapidly motorising countries that offer vast, growing markets for a solid, sensible product like the Cruze.

When a company designs a car intended to sell that widely, it will, if it is wise, come up with something that's a bit on the bland side, something that avoids giving offence, rather than appealing to adventurous types. So the Cruze was rather handsome, but in a slightly sober way. It was safe rather than exciting to drive, and had a comfy cabin, but one that lacked the sort of design flourishes Europeans like. And it was available only as a saloon with a separate boot, which is the sort of car most of the world, apart from Europe, prefers in this size bracket.

Now, though, the Cruze is available with a hatchback, and although it's pretty much the same car as it was before in every respect except its rear bodywork, this is a change that should transform its chances in the UK market. Not only is the Cruze, as you would expect, more practical with a hatch, it's a lot better looking as well.

I tried the hatchback in two forms – a top of the range 2.0 manual VCDi with LTZ trim and something called the Executive Pack, which includes leather seats, and the 1.6-litre petrol with automatic. The diesel felt exactly the same to drive as similarly-equipped saloon models, and, in particular, it had not lost its refinement – not always a given in a hatch without the extra sound insulation provided by a rear bulkhead. The VCDi unit is broadly competitive with those of other manufacturers in terms of power and smoothness but lags some in terms of CO2 emissions and published fuel consumption figure; the Ford Focus 2.0 TDCi, for example, is available with the same 163 horsepower output as the Chevrolet with the VCDi engine but emits only 129g/km of CO2 per kilometre in official tests, although the Focus is pricier than the Chevrolet to start off with.

On the face of it, the pairing of the Cruze's entry-level 1.6-litre petrol engine with an automatic gearbox doesn't look like a very appealing combination. In manual form, the 1.6 petrol in the hatch has always felt slow, with decent progress requiring quite a bit of work, but the automatic, a six-speeder, turns out to work very well at slower speeds and around town. In those conditions, it's smooth and quiet, with none of the strain the manual shows, at least out on then open road, although it wouldn't be the best Cruze to choose for longer journeys.

Cruze hatchback prices start at £13,995, which feels about right – that's slightly more than the entry prices for the capable Kia cee'd and Hyundai i30, but slightly less than Vauxhall and Volkswagen charge for the cheapest Astras and Golfs respectively. It's worth bearing in mind, too, that the smallest engine in the Cruze is a 1.6 litre petrol but the rivals' cheapest variants are only 1.4s.

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