Hybrids are all the craze these days, but there are some interesting cars in the compact and midsize sedan class evolving that are fine-tuned to lower their gas consumption. The Chevy Cruze Eco from General Motors (NYSE: GM) has a list of elaborate modifications that result in hybrid-like fuel economy. Take a seat in what may be the most reasonable car on the street today.

It has taken us a few years here in the U.S. to understand that gas consumption of a car does matter and that there may have to be an end to gas-guzzling V6 engines in compact and midsize cars. There is a clear trend toward smaller, often turbocharged four-cylinder engines that may not sound as deep as a V6 but are just as responsive and much more fuel-efficient as the larger power plants. If we look across the Atlantic, you will find all major car manufacturers offering four-cylinder engines with displacements of 1.2, 1.4, and 1.6 liters in the compact and midsize class to improve the fuel efficiency of their fleet. On the higher end, BMW just replaced the 2.5-liter V6 (258 hp) in the small SUV X1 28i with a turbocharged 2.0 liter (245 hp), which is said to consume about 18% less fuel.

Cruze Eco: Marrying old with new
The 2011 Cruze Eco, which went on sale in January, is one of the first American to apply this concept domestically. The car is available with GM's turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that generates 138 hp in the LT, LTZ, and Eco versions (The LS has a 1.8 liter with 138 hp). In the Eco, the engine is the centerpiece of a new approach to substantially reduce fuel consumption without the expensive option of a hybrid power plant.

On a closer look, we see that the Eco is defined by a range of paradoxical characteristics. This new power plant (which was first available in the German Opel Astra in 2009 and is still supplied by GM's Opel division) is placed in an essentially "old" car. The Cruze is the same car as the 2008 Daewoo Lacetti and was released in Chevrolet versions earlier around the globe than in the United States (Europe got the car in May 2009). Compared with the design of the Daewoo, the Cruze has only a slightly changed fascia with a Chevy logo. Overall, the design is pleasant, with flowing lines that are inoffensive but make the Cruze almost disappear in traffic. There are no design experiments, and some may find the design somewhat boring.

GM delayed the release of the Cruze in the U.S. because it had the Cobalt in place and believed it could afford to wait with the introduction of the new model. The U.S. model differs in engine availability, with the 1.4 liter exclusive to the United States. The Lacetti and European Cruze are offered with a rather gas-guzzling 1.6 liter (114 hp) and the stronger 1.8 liter (138 hp). Europe also has GM's 2.0-liter diesel (163 hp), which we would like to see in the U.S. as well, but it's rather unlikely to appear here anytime soon. Instead, GM is building a plant to produce the 1.4 liter here in the U.S. and make the engine available in other models as well.

The Eco's modifications 
The base Cruze starts at $16,995 (including destination). If you want the Eco, you'll have to shell out at least $18,895 (including destination; our tester had a $19,420 sticker). That extra $2,000 includes the turbocharged engine as well as 41 changes that are all focused on reducing the weight of the car and improving aerodynamics. The most significant changes in the Eco are:

  • Weld flanges reduced 1 mm to 2 mm in length.
  • Metal gauge thickness reduced by 1 mm.
  • Lightweight 17-inch wheels.
  • Low-resistance tires.
  • Revised gear ratios (particularly first, second, and sixth gears).
  • Unique front fascia with deeper front air dam.
  • Electronically controlled front air shutter that closes at higher speeds to reduce drag.
  • Metal pans below the car to improve air flow.
  • No spare tire.
  • Lowered suspension.
  • Trunk-lid spoiler.

The modifications result in a vehicle weight of 3,009 pounds, which is 125 pounds less than the curb weight of the Cruze LS and 214 pounds less than the Cruze 1LT. According to GM, the reduced weld flanges saved several pounds. The 17-inch wheels are more than 21 pounds lighter than the 16-inch wheels on the 1LT. The Eco's drag coefficient (cd) is 0.298, which is about 10% below the other Cruze models. All changes result in a notable improvement in fuel efficiency: Compared with the 26/36 MPG (EPA, city/highway, manual transmission) for the 1.8 liter, the Eco is rated at 28/42 MPG with a manual transmission and 26/37 MPG for the automatic, which is available as an option but somewhat defeats the purpose of this car. As it turns out, these ratings are very conservative.

The attention-getter in the Eco is the dynamically controlled grille shutter, which closes at high speeds and reduces cd by 0.016 by itself. The shutters are opened if the temperature level requires cooling. It's a rather sophisticated feature in a $19,000 car.

Step inside: Is this a Chevy? Seriously?
There was a time when Chevy's interior design was an insult to the word "design" itself. However, the upgraded materials and much more pleasant design that first showed up in more expensive models, such as the full-size SUVs, is trickling down into the compacts, and there is not much that feels cheap in the Cruze Eco. For a compact, there are rich materials, including a padded dash and buttons with a substantial feel. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is the same that's used in the Volt. The overall quality is impressive. If there is something I'd complain about, it's the center-dash radio readout, which is outdated with its green-letter display and low resolution: We had those pixel sizes 10 years ago, and it's time to move on. It's obvious that Chevy has tried to save some money here.

The Cruze Eco is not a luxury car, but you get all the basic amenities, such as a decent stereo, a satellite radio, a trip computer, steering-wheel controls, and electric windows and mirrors. Bluetooth/cell-phone activation is available as an option. There are no electric seat adjustments.

The seats are supportive and appropriate for this car. For my taste, they're too stiff for long-distance travel, but they are comfortable for the average commute.

Driving the Eco: 58 MPG
Of course, you're wondering how many miles you can squeeze out of the Eco for every gallon of gas. We were very surprised to see that Chevy's claims are very conservative and that this car can reach a range that is, for a non-hybrid and non-diesel, absolutely ridiculous, in a positive way.

We took the car on different routes -- suburban driving, rush hour, and highway driving -- in a feather-footed fashion, since fuel efficiency is really your focus with this car. Our stop-and-go driving gave us 32.3 MPG, and our suburban driving with a mix of streets ended up at 39.8 MPG. Extremely careful cruising on the interstate at exactly 55 MPH resulted in a stunning 57.9 MPG. If you take advantage of the slipstream of a semi-truck (which we, of course, do not recommend), you can easily approach 65 MPG. The aerodynamic improvements don't kick in at lower speeds but are very noticeable on the highway.

The downside of the Eco (manual) is that it has only a 12.6-gallon fuel tank, compared with the 15.6-gallon tanks of all other Cruze models, because of a modified torsion beam. The overall range suffers, but it isn't difficult to get more than 400 miles out of one tank of gas, provided you're driving with your fuel economy in mind.

Driving the Eco with a feather foot and paying attention to the permanent reminder to upshift isn't exactly fun all the time. The fifth and sixth gears are extremely tall, feel weak during acceleration, and sound rough at lower speeds, which kills any more engaged driving ambitions. On the other side, it's the lower and stiffer suspension, as well as the first four gears, that gives the car an entirely different character, if you request it.

I admit that I destroyed my fuel-efficiency average when I checked the performance capability of the Eco (0-60 mph: 10.2 seconds). It turns out that there's another soul in this car that almost approaches a sporty level, as long as you're the only person in the car and the Cruze doesn't have to carry too much weight.

The engine wakes up nicely above 2800 rpm (the maximum torque of 148 lb.-ft. of torque is available between 1850 rpm and 4900 rpm) and gives you enough power to overtake slower cars or zip through rush-hour traffic. I even felt tempted to take the car through fast corners in the lower gears, ignoring the advice to shift into the higher gears. Of course, the secret to reaching the high fuel-efficiency levels is to take the car as quickly as possible into fifth and sixth gears. If you don't, you won't see the promised EPA rating. The interesting aspect here is that the Eco is a car with two different characters: You can drive it at an extremely efficient pace and at high MPG rates. However, if you want to, it is also a lively commuter car to drive around town in a more engaged way.

It doesn't have to be a hybrid 
A few months ago, when Chevy revealed the pricing of the Volt and faced complaints about the high $40K-plus price tag (including tax and likely options, and excluding tax rebates), the company told me that the Volt really isn't about saving money. Point taken, since it's unlikely that you a buy a Prius just to save a few bucks, as those cars are still very expensive. So if you don't want to shell out the big money and you don't need the prestige of owning a hybrid, and if you're simply looking at a more affordable car with a hybrid-like MPG rating, then the Cruze Eco is a nice option. You'll see more cars with MPGs in the high 30s and even 40s (such as Hyundai's Elantra) coming to market, but the Cruze is unique because of its list of improvements.

The clear upside of the Cruze Eco is the availability of high MPGs, while the car does not force its driver into a leisurely driving pattern at all times. If you feel like it, you can choose to drive the car a bit faster around corners and simply ditch the high MPGs. Try having fun in a Prius. The Cruze may have arrived a bit too late in the U.S. to outshine its rivals, but the Cruze Eco is unique and leaves the overall impression that GM is building much more attractive cars than it did a few years ago. Within the Cruze models, the Eco is the most interesting model, and it's also an interesting alternative to more expensive hybrids. The $2,000 premium over the base Cruze is substantial, but fair, given the list of modifications. The bottom line? The Cruze Eco may the most reasonable commuter car you can buy for less than $20,000 today.

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