42 MPG, Batteries Not Included

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco - Click above for high-res image gallery

There's always a little skepticism attached to Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy estimates. Even though the agency adjusted its testing procedures in 2008 to help generate more realistic figures, buyers and experts seem to approach the mystical city/highway numbers with the general impression that figures have little bearing on what owners actually experience in day-to-day use. So it should be no surprise that when General Motors and the EPA announced that the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco would hit 42 miles per gallon on the highway, a stink of disbelief filled our newsroom.

That kind of lofty highway fuel economy is typically relegated to hybrids, clean diesels and subcompacts that require an uncanny mastership of human origami to ferry four friends along – not roomy four-door compact sedans. Fortunately, GM was kind enough to turn us loose on a long stretch of Southern California interstate to put the fuel economy of the Cruze Eco to the test.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

Stylistically, there's very little to distinguish the Cruze Eco from its less fuel-savvy brethren. You won't find any gaudy vinyl graphics or strange body cladding slathered over the vehicle's exterior. Instead, you'll need a keen eye to spot the tiny green Eco badge on the rear deck and even sharper retinas to pick out the modified grille and active shutter system nestled low in the front fascia. In short, this is a green warrior without all of the unnecessary face paint.

That theme continues indoors. Only those most familiar with the Cruze cabin will be likely to notice the absence of a center headrest and the deleted rear center armrest in the back seat. Those pieces of kit were scrapped to scrape off as much weight as possible. Otherwise, the only interior hardware on hand to set the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco apart from its less efficient counterpart is the presence of a legitimate row-your own six-speed manual transmission. That means that all of the interior niceties we enjoyed when we spent time behind the wheel of the standard Cruze are all still in place.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco side view2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco front view2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco rear view

So what has GM actually done to its pint-sized sedan to be able to wring out such lofty fuel economy claims? The company says that it tackled the Cruze Eco with a three-pronged strategy to maximize the vehicle's efficiency. That started with optimizing the vehicles aerodynamics, but carried into reducing weight and tweaking the powertrain a bit as well.

On the aerodynamic front, GM bolted on a complete underbody tray to reduce wind turbulence, and small plastic spats were installed ahead of each tire to better control airflow around the wheels. Additionally, the engineers made the decision to reduce the Eco's tow rating (yes, the Cruze has a tow rating), allowing them to further close off the front grille while still maintaining proper engine temperature.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco interior2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco front seats2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco shifter2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco dash trim

But the biggest aerodynamic claim to fame comes from the Cruze Eco's trick active shutter system. Once the vehicle reaches a speed of around 38 mph, an algorithm calculates input on everything from ambient air temperature to engine temperature and load to determine when to automatically close a set of plastic slats nestled in the lower fascia. All told, the aero tweaks netted the Cruze Eco a coefficient of drag that's 10 percent slipperier than that of the standard sedan.

GM also set about stripping as much weight as possible from the four-door, starting with a set of special Alcoa forged-aluminum 17-inch wheels that are 5.3-pounds lighter per wheel than the stock rollers. In fact, The General's engineers are fond of saying that no piece of sheetmetal went unweighed in the quest to slim the Cruze Eco's waistline. A total of 42 changes were made to the car in the name of shedding pounds, and as a result, the green-leaning Cruze hits the scales at a relatively feathery 3,009 pounds. That's 214 pounds lighter than the standard-issue model thanks to things like smaller weld flanges throughout the structure and thinner sheetmetal on a few body components.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco badge2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco front fascia2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco wheel

Pop the hood and a host of mechanical changes join in the fight to help the Cruze Eco nab its lofty EPA numbers, too. While one of the most obvious changes is that the 1.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder engine is bolted to a six-speed manual gearbox, the minds at GM have pulled a few other quick tricks to squeeze as much efficiency as possible from the recipe. The air-conditioner compressor now wears a clutch in addition to being continuously variable to reduce drag on the engine. Likewise, an intelligent charging system only engages the alternator when it's required.

More interesting still is that the Cruze Eco has sacrificed its intermediate driveshaft in favor of two unequal-length half shafts to conserve weight. GM went with the original design to keep torque-steer at bay with both the 1.4-liter four-cylinder and the 1.8-liter four-pot, but the trade-off was deemed worthwhile when it came to the hyper-efficient version of the Cruze. After our time behind the wheel, we have to wonder why GM felt the intermediate shaft was necessary on the standard Cruze at all. With 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque on hand, we didn't exactly find ourselves fighting the steering wheel at every stoplight.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco engine

GM had cleverly put over 130 miles of interstate between us and a warm meal when they handed over the keys, so we had little interest in hypermiling to squeeze every last mpg from the Cruze Eco. Jostling through a bit of stop-and-go traffic, the Cruze Eco drove admirably, with the six-speed manual delivering predictable and precise shifts. As we thought when we first drove the standard Cruze, the manual gearbox makes the entire drivetrain much more enjoyable. The clutch provides a progressive throw with plenty of feedback.

We had places to go and things to eat, but once out on the sprawling expanse of interstate, we set the cruise control at 70 mph to save ourselves from a close encounter with the fine men and women of the California Highway Patrol. It's worth noting that GM has equipped the Cruze Eco with a 3.833 final drive ratio, so in sixth gear the forced-induction four-pot is barely breathing. Even so, it didn't seem to strain to keep up speed on a steep incline. Both fifth and sixth gears are effectively set up as overdrive cogs, so downshifting to go for a pass is best left to fourth (or even third) depending on your cruising speed.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco gauges

On the interstate, the Cruze Eco proved to be both quiet and comfortable – two things that we didn't really expect from a super-efficient version of the sedan. GM has deleted the Z-link rear suspension in favor of a standard torsion bar to skimp on pounds, though the absence isn't noticeable during long commutes or in abrupt stop-and-go driving. Get the Eco out onto your favorite mountain pass, and we'd suspect that between the suspension alterations and the special low-rolling resistance Goodyear tires, you'd probably detect the difference.

Still, the Cruze is not a canyon carver, and during our time behind the wheel, we saw a maximum average fuel economy of 42.8 mpg. After a few unplanned adventures off the interstate, we saw that number dip to 41.8 with an average speed of around 65 mph. While we couldn't supply any of our own city or combined numbers, the EPA says that the Cruze Eco should be good for 26 mpg city. For comparison's sake, the Honda Civic delivers 26 mpg city and 34 mpg highway, and the new-for-2011 Hyundai Elantra checks in with 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco rear 3/4 view

GM has priced the Cruze Eco at $18,895, including destination. That makes figuring out the vehicle's weight class a little difficult. On the one hand, the Bowtie lands in the same field as fuel-savvy sippers like the Honda Insight hybrid at 40 mpg city/43 mpg highway with its MSRP of $18,950, but oversteps the Ford Fiesta Hatchback SE at 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway with a price tag of $16,865. Considering that the Cruze offers more passenger space than either of those contenders, we have to think that the newest Chevrolet is the first of a new class. With non-hybrid, super-efficient competitors like the super-fueler Ford Focus on the way, buyers may soon be able to take home their choice of vehicles with excellent highway fuel economy without having to deal with the added weight, cost and environmental impact of a hybrid battery system. If the Cruze Eco is the harbinger of things to come, we can't wait to see what the future brings.

Related Gallery2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Quick Spin
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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL