Chevy Cruze Eco: 58 MPG, No Hybrid Magic

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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Read/Post Comments (16) | Recommend This Article (21)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2011, at 2:08 PM, catoismymotor wrote:

    58 MPG? It's not fair to count the distance covered pushing the thing to the shop when it has broken down.

    To be serious I admit I appreciate your article, look forward to reading it again.

  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2011, at 2:39 PM, jesterisdead wrote:

    $20K? It costs on the order of $50B+ to bail out GM. Buying a car from Government Motors is throwing tax dollars down a company that continues to fail.

    On another note, it may make sense for some people looking to save money to buy a fuel efficient vehicle, but keep in mind that the more gas we save it will just be offset by Canada, Mexico and OPEC when they raise oil prices! It will also prolong the amount of time we use foreign oil, because less usage, means the reserves will last longer. All we are really doing is moving everyone toward Smart cars that sacrifice safety, storage, towing, capacity and features. The oil man will still get the same amount of money he has always been getting.

    Drive what you want...

  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2011, at 2:50 PM, reagan0 wrote:

    Seems like a nice car, until you try to order one the way you like, and they require an expensive automatic transmission upgrade in order to get the sport-tuned suspension, which, in itself, is only available through the compact-spare tire upgrade. (That's right, it doesn't come with a spare tire as standard equipment.) Granted, most people want an automatic transmission, but many of us don't. I like driving a stick -- to me, it's a superior driving experience. But, to get a manual transmission, I usually have to be satisfied with the lower trim level.

    This is one of the main gripes that I have with American automobile manufacturers, these days: in order to get a car configured the way you want, you have to purchase expensive options that you don't want, or need. Another of several reasons why the GM and Chrysler nearly went out of business, in my opinion. I know it's the main reason I didn't buy an American-made car several years ago, when I was looking around for a new car.

    BTW, another gripe I have with most automobile manufacturers, from any country, is the idiot lights that replace proper gauges. The lights are fine as a warning, but they're no substitute for an oil pressure gauge, a voltmeter and a temperature gauge. To its credit, the Cruze has a temperature gauge -- but that's all.

    I won't be buying the Cruze, unless they revise their optional equipment policy, at the very least.

  • Report this Comment On February 20, 2011, at 2:54 PM, reagan0 wrote:

    My bad, you can also get the sport-tuned suspension through the Driver Convenience Package, which still requires the automatic transmission upgrade. Bah!

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2011, at 12:26 AM, bobo44x wrote:

    I wasn't aware that BMW makes a V-6 engine or ever did, you may want to check your facts, it is a I-6 engine.

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2011, at 1:42 AM, Cmicasa wrote:

    Always amazed at the idea of people calling a company that has been the lynch pin of American corporate dominance for better part of century.. a failure because ONCE in it's 100+ year history it required help. OH Well... I love my GM cars and wouldn't consider anything else with exception to a few Fords, and maybe one or two Chryslers. But hey... I'm American and find it hard to complain about my economy and the state of manufacturing in my country while supporting foreign economies directly.

    Anyway... The Cruze has been performing beyond the EPA tests in ECO form in every test I've seen.

    So far..

    42.8 from Autoblog

    43.8 mpg from C&D

    44.1 from Green Car Reports

    58MPG now from Motley

    I'd say Chevy has one helluva car here.. that is seemingly exceeding what the EPA has said. All this while making the car stay in tune with the quiet, quality and non-tin can idea that eludes the smaller Elantra, absolutely weak Corolla, and of course the Civic. Good Job Chevy.

    How does a 2821 lb Hyundai that's supposed to pull in 29/40MPG (combined 33) pull in a combined C/D observed: 26 mpg???

    While the 3206 lb Chevy that's rated at 24/36 (combined 28) pulls in a combined C/D observed: 25 mpg???

    And of course it was just made known yesterday that a Diesel is coming to the Chevy Cruze for MY 2013

  • Report this Comment On February 21, 2011, at 5:43 PM, GrammaKim wrote:

    GM needed help because of the credit situation caused by WALL ST BANKERS who are still grabbing ungodly bonuses for causing the rest of us to become destitute.

  • Report this Comment On February 26, 2011, at 7:30 AM, johnst1001a wrote:

    Assuming you stay in the "under" $20k range, the Cruze is a great option, and made in the US as far as I can tell, in a GM plant in Ohio.

    I would certainly not go hybrid if gas mileage was my goal and I did not care if the car I bought were small.

    But most people will not buy a small car...

  • Report this Comment On February 28, 2011, at 8:59 PM, hhurst4 wrote:

    I bought an Eco model Cruze 6spd manual about a month ago. On first 3 tanks of gas I have averaged over 35 mpg in mixed driving and with daily city commute thrown in. One of the tanks I averaged 39 mpg. I am amazed by this car. It is exceeding expectations for the 18K I paid. Way to go on this one. It is a winner for me at least to go from 21 mpg avg. to over 35 without losing much room and gaining a really fun driving experience.

  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2011, at 6:01 PM, amckane wrote:

    This technology is nothing new. It was available in Chevy Sprints, Geo Metros, Toyota Tercel EZ's, and Honda Civic CRX hf's. 20 years ago, I personally achieved 70mpg on a 360 mile trip while drafting an 18 wheeler on a two lane highway in a 1987 Tercel EZ.

  • Report this Comment On June 08, 2011, at 10:20 PM, 34fdsasergxc wrote:

    So we got a car here that will average around 36 mpg...

    Big whoop! I bought a used Prius for under $6000 that routinely averages 50+ mpg. It's quick, (for limited sprints) comfortable and amazingly reliable compared to anything chevy makes... If I drive it easy, I can get 60+ mpg on my daily 57 mile commute down secondary roads. (Not flat interstate but hills and valleys.) If I drive in the city keeping it under 35 mph it'll get 60+ without even trying. It has all the standard options including an automatic transmission and almost all the luxury options.

    If I'm looking for gas mileage, tell me again why I should buy this underwhelming chevy.

  • Report this Comment On July 21, 2011, at 1:33 PM, stolemyusername wrote:

    @34fdsasergxc yes lets compare the price of a used car to a new one. The Cruze is an entirely different car and as the article states is much more of a drivers car than the "Tampon on wheels" that is the Prius. A more appropriate comp would be a new Prius (23K) compared with a new ECO (18K). In the future try not to insult people with your ignorance.

  • Report this Comment On August 18, 2011, at 11:23 AM, phreakegirl wrote:

    Using Holiday Blue Planet 87 Octane fuel, in my Chevy Cruze Eco 6 spd. manual, I got 50 mpg today! I love this car, it has the nicest gearbox of any manual I've ever driven, it's sporty when I want it to be with it's little turbocharged 1.4 ltr DOHC engine and very fun to drive! I have photos of my mpg for nay-sayers!

  • Report this Comment On September 29, 2011, at 3:22 PM, ckoch35 wrote:

    I never knew anything about an "upgraded" suspension system in an automatic vs. Standard, but I have a standard model and it rides pretty well. I am consistently getting in the 50's on the highway for myself personally. My "average" for the last 1,200 miles is 41.1 MPG, and that includes about 1/4 actual city, probably 1/3 countryside to small town driving and the rest 2/5 highway.

  • Report this Comment On September 29, 2011, at 4:17 PM, WhiteHatBobby wrote:

    Sacrifice safety for fuel economy. That's how it works.

  • Report this Comment On October 01, 2012, at 10:32 AM, GMD1982 wrote:

    You don't sacrifice safety for fuel economy, with that being said you sacrifice safety when you buy a large SUV, landrover, explorer...etc. b/c they are more apt to turn over...every vehicle has something about it that makes it less safe than the other...unless comparing apples to apples (cars in the same class).

    It has 10 air bags available, traction/stability, passenger occupant, and telematics not offered on any other car in its class.

    For a new vehicle with 100,000 powertrain and road assistance standard, 2 engines available, 9 trim packages available, best in class fuel economy....what is the downside when comparing it to the focus/civic/optima??

    Good cheap car, wait a year and buy a used one for 14k or less and only have 20,000 miles on it...the new Focus is insane on price---has ugly out dated body and no telematics...its plain jane.

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