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2011 Chevrolet Cruze ECO

September 26th, 2011

Low Tech Meets Low Compromise in the Battle for Fuel Efficiency

     It’s not as if Chevrolet has never attempted this before. Take a mainstream small car, make some powertrain tweaks and attempt to turn the vehicle into a hyper-mileage car that passes as conventional transportation. As General Motors’ entry-priced brand, Chevrolet has a long history–not all of it memorable–at marketing highly efficient vehicles. Some notable–scratch that, tragic–examples include the Chevette diesel, the GEO Metro XFi, and the Cobalt XFE. None of these vehicles set the sales charts on fire (a scant 324 diesel Chevettes were sold in 1986), so does Chevrolet’s latest hyper-miler, the Cruze ECO, have any chance at succes?
      Gentle tweaks have been made to the Cruze ECO in order to nurse the fuel economy up to once unheard of EPA ratings for a conventional sedan. Indeed, use of the 1.4-liter Turbo, tall final ratio 6-speed manual transmission, low rolling resistance tires, aero panels and weight reductions (including the deletion of the spare tire and a smaller fuel tank) have ratcheted the Cruze’s highway mileage from 36 all the way to 42 mpg. Not impressed? Consider that the GEO Metro XFi crept around at a snail’s pace with its 49 hp 1.0-liter 3-cylinder engine attempting to pull all 1,890 lbs of curb weight forward while barely achieving 50 mpg with now current EPA ratings. The Metro did this sans ABS, front and side air bags, air conditioning, power windows, locks and even a radio, much less rear doors; all these features are things Chevy wouldn’t dream of deleting for any version of the Cruze. While the Cruze may be considered a compact in today’s world, try parking one next to a 1990s Buick Century or Chevy Malibu and your eyes will recalibrate to consider it midsize. Keep in mind, the ECO is also offered with a 6-speed automatic, but so equipped manages to squeeze out a relatively less impressive 28/37 mpg.
      We are delighted that the Eco offers a manual transmission as standard equipment. Chevy emphasizes its economy-minded intentions by highlighting the ‘6’ on the shifter knob in green. Certainly this long top gear was meant for cruising-only as it offers virtually no power to accelerate. No matter, rowing the gears for ourselves makes an otherwise ordinary car engaging to drive. Acceleration through the first few gears is modest, but also doesn’t cause one to grip the wheel in terror while merging into highway traffic as Metro XFi drivers are known to do. Unfortunately, the Cruze’s low rolling resistance tires result in the car’s largest compromise; handling. Never fans of low rolling resistance treads, the added fuel economy seems like a small benefit compared to the large penalty of reduced traction. We felt it far too easy to push the tires to their squealing point on even the most aggressively banked on-ramps. Enthusiast pretensions aside, if the car were a permanent member of our fleet we’d be fitting grippier rubber for the shear benefit of increased safety. It’s not as if we’re suggesting the ECO is an unsafe car, it’s just that we speculate that the marginally ‘reduced’ fuel economy would be negligible to the wallet and certainly to the environment. Now that we’ve ranted about the tires, it should be noted that the steering was very direct but lightly weighted making it easy to dial in too much lock in corners.
      That now-familiar corporate steering wheel is an attractive piece, as is the instrument panel. Though visually appealing, it substitutes color keyed plastic for the LTZ’s unique cloth fascia. The radio and HVAC controls are artfully arranged in the center stack and we could find no complaints as we mastered their relatively intuitive functions. Our test car was amazingly base, without a single option box checked off. Even so, this didn’t feel like a stripped car. The long list of standard features included Bluetooth connectivity, XM radio with the first 3 months subscription included, steering wheel controls and the aforementioned leather wrapped steering wheel. All this brings the price (with destination) of the frugal ECO to just five bucks shy of 20 grand.
      During our stint with the ECO, the computer’s trip display hovered just below 40 mpg during our use of the car, which is no doubt influenced by the aggressive driving required to fully test the vehicle. We’ve already established how impressive the Cruze is compared to Chevrolet’s of yore, but how does this stack up with other contemporary offerings? Looking across town to Dearborn, the similarly sized Focus and smaller Fiesta each achieve 40 mpg on the highway, while the Fusion Hybrid manages 41 mpg. How about the Japanese? The Honda Insight hybrid bests the Cruze by a single mpg while the Fit achieves an abysmal 35 miles with every gallon of fuel consumed. And don’t get us started about the absurdity of the CR-Z two-seat hybrid that fails to reach that magical 40. The Civic is probably the most squarely matched car to the Cruze, with the HF sedan achieving 41 mpg with a virtually identical price but with a 5-speed automatic.
      We were impressed at how normal the Cruze ECO behaved while achieving fuel economy once reserved for diesels and hybrids. The Cruze’s lone problem, if you can call it that, is its reliance on a manual transmission to achieve true fuel sipping status. While we vastly prefer the stick-shift, for most Americans the transmission will be a show stopper that prompts potential customers to check out a Civic HF. While we would like to believe that the ECO’s added fuel mileage will encourage consumers to consider rowing gears for themselves, the more likely outcome is that this highly efficient edition of the Cruze will find itself among a long list of forgotten hyper-mileage Chevrolets.


The Good:
Manual transmission, style, standard features and did we mention fantastic mileage?
The Bad:
Available automatic largely eliminates fuel economy gains. Tires give up the grip while the chassis is asking for more.
The Verdict:
The low-tech choice for hyper-miling enthusiasts.

Photos courtesy of General Motors

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