Monday, September 5, 2011

2012 Chevy Cruze Eco: Mileage gain, no pain

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Eco version of the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan is the fuel-mileage special. It currently holds the highest highway rating (42 mpg) for any gasoline-power car sold in the U.S.

  • The Chevrolet Cruze Eco.

    GM, Wieck

    The Chevrolet Cruze Eco.

GM, Wieck

The Chevrolet Cruze Eco.

It's a separate model in the Cruze line, positioned in price and equipment halfway between the $17,275 LS starter and the $22,975 LTZ high-end version.

Added in January, Eco now generates 22% of Cruze sales, Chevy says. And it's 27% of Cruze sales on the import-favoring West Coast. "Eco is making some serious inroads for us," says Chuck Russell, vehicle line director for compacts.

Eco, you might recall, is the car that President Obama alluded to in his energy speech, saying that conventional cars, not hybrids, already are "rolling off the lines in Detroit getting 50 mpg."

Can the Eco (actually made in Ohio) really hit 50 mpg? Pretty close in our highway test: 48.5 mpg. We'd bet on 50-plus on a flat, windless road at a steady 55 or so.

Our test was 22 highway miles, first half slightly uphill with a quartering tailwind; last half, the reverse. Cruise control was set at 60 mph. Other traffic considered that unreasonably slow even on the heavily policed, 55-mph road we chose.

Gas-electric hybrids will do better in town than the Eco's real-world 30 mpg, plus or minus, but if you're mostly concerned with fuel use on the big road, paying more than Cruze Eco's $19,175 price for a hybrid seems unnecessary.

Our tester was a manual, required for the 42 mpg highway rating. The automatic is rated 5 mpg less on the highway, but will get a 1-mpg boost, to 38 mpg, for the 2012 model, Chevy says.

But what a manual the Eco has. It's perhaps the easiest-shifting gearbox on the market. And the forgiving clutch makes it tough to accidentally kill the engine. Russell says 55% of dealer orders are for the manual transmission. Normally 10% would be a strong showing in the U.S.

Eco is very similar inside and out to the other Cruze models. You're not saddled with dorky wheels and tires (the Eco has its own, but good-looking wheel and tire package), stupid look-at-me-save-the-planet decals or other furbelows.

Thus, Eco has the same comfy seats, good-looking, well-designed gauges and controls and the same shortcomings. Chief among those being almost no space other than the cup holders to stow things. The console bin's very small. The bin ahead of the gearshift isn't even big enough for a cellphone. There are no beverage holders in the door panels. Too, markings on the climate-control knobs are hard to see in daylight.

The small turbocharged four-cylinder, same as in other Cruze models, is tuned for low-speed torque, making Cruze Eco a good traffic car. No need to rev like a racer to get power to the wheels.

Steering, stopping, turning all are well-tuned, making Eco responsive and pleasant behind the wheel. It did feel a bit more nose-heavy than a regular Cruze or most any other front-drive compact in the tight S corners that make up the smile portion of Test Drive's route. But nothing that couldn't be tamed by more vigorous steering.

Here's a kick: The pedals on this fuel-economy special are well-positioned for the high-performance driving maneuver known as heel-and-toe.

Slow with toe on the brake pedal, swivel the foot so you can blip the gas with the heel or side of the same foot at the same time. Do it while in neutral to match the engine and transmission speeds for smooth downshifts that let you quickly power out of a slow spot in the road.

Cruze, including Eco, generally feels bigger than a compact inside. You keep thinking "midsize," not "compact." One reason: The center stack and console area doesn't crowd your inboard leg.

Eco's mileage advantages are from places you normally wouldn't notice. Panels and channels to smooth airflow. Grill shutters that close to shunt air around the car when the engine doesn't need extra cooling. Metal removed where not needed, such as between welding areas. Lighter wheels.

If you can live with the lack of space for toss-it items, then Eco is a delight.

It gives hybrids strong competition, renews interest in manual transmissions, is fun to drive.

And it makes its statement by mileage and driving personality, (honest, real-world results), not "oh-so-green" graphics or dorky styling.


•What? Eco is a special fuel-economy version of the Chevrolet Cruze.

Almost indistinguishable from the regular Cruze, Eco is a front-drive, four-door, five-passenger compact sedan.

•When? On sale since January.

•Where? Made at Lordstown, Ohio.

•Why? A high mpg rating is a great advertising tool.

•How? Cut weight out of the normal Cruze, lower the stance, add low-resistance tires and more carefully manage airflow so Eco slips through the air easier.

•How much? $1,450 more than a similar non-Eco Cruze: $19,175 with shipping for manual transmission, $20,625, automatic.

•How powerful? Same as other Cruzes: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated 138 horsepower at 4,900 rpm, 148 pounds-feet of torque at 1,850 rpm, mated to six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission.

•How big? About the same as Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and other compacts. Cruze Eco is 181 inches long, 70.7 in. wide, 58.1 in. tall on a 105.7-in. wheelbase.

Weighs about 3,200 lbs. Passenger volume: 95 cubic ft. Trunk: 15 cu. ft.

Turning circle diameter: 33.7 ft.

•How thirsty? Eco with manual is rated 28 miles per gallon in town, 42 highway, 33 combined. With automatic: 26/37/30.

Trip computer in manual transmission test car showed 48.5 mpg (2.06 gallons per 100 miles) in highway trial, 27.7 mpg (3.61 gal./100 mi.) in mixed city, suburban driving.

Burns regular, holds 12.6 gallons. (Other Cruze models hold 15.6.)

•Overall: Space, style, satisfaction, strong mpg for a modest price. Watch out, hybrids.

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