A better-value version of Holden’s small car is brought to you by the letter Z.
The Holden Cruze Z-Series could be viewed as an ironic badge name for an update that is out to wake the locally made small car from a bit of a sales slumber.
Two Holden Cruze Z-Series models step into the fray; a plain Z-Series replaces the one-up-from-base CDX trim grade and the SRi-Z takes over from the SRi-V as the small car’s flagship.
The sedan-only Z-Series retains key CDX features such as reverse-view camera, leather-wrapped seats and rear parking sensors but adds new-design 17-inch alloy wheels, lip spoiler and mats.
The hatch-or-sedan SRi-Z maintains the SRi-V’s satellite navigation, sports body kit, sports suspension and brings to the mix darker 18-inch alloys, a rear spoiler (hatch), alloy pedal covers, new mats and sill plates.
Those extras come at no extra cost, with pricing staying put – though the Z-Series sedan is available at the cheaper point of $21,490 as it comes with a manual gearbox unlike the old CDX.
Linking the Z-Series’ 1.8-litre petrol engine with a six-speed auto is a $24,190 outlay; choosing an auto with a 2.0-litre diesel costs from $28,190.
The Holden Cruze SRi-Z continues to start from $26,490 in manual form or from $28,690 as an auto, with power coming – as it has done on SRi models since a March 2013 update – from a 1.6-litre turbo engine.
That update also introduced a Cruze that had benefitted from greater input from Holden engineers to make a better-driving car of what had been a locally built but not fully locally developed model.
With no mechanical changes the small Holden continues to offer highly pleasant road manners.
Ride quality is at its smoothest on the 17-inch wheels standard on the Z-Series (as well as Equipe and SRi), with the larger 18s with lower-profile tyres and sports suspension of the SRi-V losing some of the cushioning and having a tendency to nibble at joins and other irregularities on the road.
The Holden Cruze SRi-Z is still comfortable enough and the stiffer suspension is better judged for country roads where it settles more quickly after big bumps than the regular Z.
Both Cruzes handle well, brake smoothly and confidently, offer reassuring grip from either set of tyres. The steering can kick-back mildly over mid-corner bumps but responds smoothly and promptly to instructions from the driver.
The SRi-Z is the sportier variant, though buyers looking for a Holden hot-hatch will have to wait until 2015 for the Astra GTC that will return without Opel badging this time.
We know from a previous comparison test that Holden did wonders with the Sport mode of the SRi-V's six-speed auto, which is terrific at well-timed downshifts during spirited driving.
This time around we had the six-speed manual linked with the SRi-Z’s turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder. The shift action is notchy and lacks foolproof precision between all the gears, though the flexibility of the engine means gearchanges don’t need to be constant.
The engine responds well to throttle pedal movement from low revs and is pleasantly linear for a turbo engine. Although there’s more power and torque than the 1.4L the 1.6L replaced as part of the March 2013 update, there’s still not a great deal of oomph in the mid-range and the engine note starts to get whiney at higher revs.
That 1.4 turbo is still available as an option on lower-order Cruzes including the from-$19,990 Equipe, though it’s a shame it’s not the standard petrol engine instead of GM’s ageing 1.8L.
It’s far from a terrible engine, feeling up to the task of commuting and suburban driving. Beyond light and medium throttle applications, however, the non-boosted four-cylinder feels and sounds lethargic.
And while the auto is well calibrated (also thanks to a Holden retune) and tries its best to cope with the lack of engine torque, ultimately it struggles to figure out the best gear when the Cruze Z is faced with windy or hill roads, and there was the odd clumsy shift at times during commuting, too.
Neither petrol engine in fact shines for fuel economy against a number of rivals, both in the range of 7.0L-8.0L per 100 kilometres where the Golf and 3, for example, both manage to get under 6.0L/100km.
The majority of buyers should also find good seat comfort in either Z model, with decent bolstering even in the regular version.
Central to the dash that reflects the strong fit and finish of the interior is the excellent standard Holden MyLink infotainment system, with its clear menu and phone-app-integrating functions displayed on a smart, high-resolution colour touchscreen. The system is not quite as dapper or simple to navigate as the MyLink units seen in the Trax and Barina, but it certainly passes the test.
Pairing your smartphone is also a simple operation, and there’s good sound quality whether chatting or streaming music via Bluetooth.
Rear passengers are afforded plenty of space whether you opt for the hatch or sedan, though air-vents are absent.
The hatch of course is the most practical body style, though the sedan’s rear seats still split fold. A step means the cargo floor isn’t flat.
Boot space is slightly more generous in the sedan, though there’s still a space-saver tyre only and gooseneck hinges aren’t ideal.
While we mentioned earlier that fuel running costs were far from class leading, the Cruze is inexpensive to service over three years or 60,000km, whichever comes first. Holden has capped the first four services so your total outlay for petrol models is $740, or almost double ($1340) if you opt for a diesel Cruze.
If you’re not beholden to a Holden badge, the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda 3 remain our picks of the small car segment.
And if you do want a Z-badged Cruze, we rate the SRi-V a bit higher than the Z-Series simply because of the much better engine and sportier drive that doesn’t come at a huge cost to ride comfort.
The Cruze nameplate itself may not survive beyond 2017 when Holden ends Australian manufacturing, while the next-generation Cruze could make way for an expanded Astra line-up from Europe.
For now, though, Holden’s greater input to the Cruze at its midlife update had already lifted Australia’s homegrown small car from the mid-pack to be one of the stronger offerings in the segment, and the Z-Series steps up the value.