• Feb 4, 2011
42 MPG, Batteries Not Included

2011 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.

Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      Glad to see GM making such good strides in their vehicles, and I'm impressed by the active shutter system.

      But this is a really tough segment, and I think if I were in the market for a new car, I'd probably go with the Elantra, which doesn't need an Eco package to hit 40 mpg, or the new Focus 5-door, which trumps all its competitors in the style department.

      Wouldn't even think about stepping into a Corolla or Civic.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I gotta admit, it gets old to keep hearing about how these new four cylinders (well, and diesels) get "hybrid fuel economy without being a stupid sissy hybrid!"

      Does everyone just drive on the highway? That's not the world I live in.
        • 3 Years Ago
        Same here.
        • 3 Years Ago
        It's the world I live in
      • 3 Years Ago
      thought 10% ETOH had penetrated near nationwide year-round? Where do you live and what are the standards?

      Most cars do worse in cold weather with whatever fuel they use. It would be interesting to test yours in winter with both fuels, but it sounds like that might not be an option.
      • 3 Years Ago
      That's some sweet highway MPG, but the city MPG is kind of puzzling. Nice interior, too.
      • 3 Years Ago
      How much will the other 1.4T Cruze models get when the six-speed manual is available?
      • 3 Years Ago
      Ok, the fuel miser is out... Now, about that SS...
      • 3 Years Ago
      I would love to see the Cruze get this kind of mileage from real world users. GM and ford are notorious number engineers that build cars purposefully for EPA tests. Look at the real world vs EPA for Camry hybrid vs Fusion hybrid and you'll see what I mean.
      • 3 Years Ago
      "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" ...so, Autblog/Zach, are you saying the ride is still harsh or pleasant? Please don't be so vague. Also, I believe the Z-link type suspension is still just a glorified torsion beam/bar.

      "in sixth gear the forced-induction four-pot is barely breathing" ...again, what is "barely breathing"? Please provide more detail! Does this mean the engine is only turning 1,200 RPM at 70mph or turning 4,000 RPM? Enough with the vagueness!

      At least you included the weight, 3,009 pounds when describing the car as "feathery". This tells me that your use of descriptors is way different than mine and so the details would actually be more useful than vague descriptions.

        • 3 Years Ago
        @travisty - As made clear in my last paragraph, when the author describes 3,000 pounds as feathery, not even avid car aficionados such as myself and presumably yourself, can make any assumptions as to the authors claims. The overall point being, it would be great if these articles provided a great deal more detail on the performance, ride quality (as opposed to just handling), and hardcore specs. It gets old when manufacturers ad-infinitum and authors of articles continuously refer to vehicles as "fun" or "sporty". These are very ambiguous terms which may have profoundly different meanings to different people.
        • 3 Years Ago
        If you honestly think that "barely breathing" equates to 4,000 RPM, you seriously have no idea on how cars (and specifically turbos) work.
        • 3 Years Ago
        AB got the description wrong. The rear comes with either a Z-link (Watt's linkage) or Panhard rod. It's a torsion beam either way.
      • 3 Years Ago
      "The air-conditioner compressor now wears a clutch in addition to being continuously variable to reduce drag on the engine"

      Last time I checked, pretty much every car built since the 80's had clutches on the A/C compressor.
      • 3 Years Ago
      AB, there's no such thing as a 'Ford Fiesta Hatchback SE at 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway with a price tag of $16,865.'

      In order to get the 29/40 rating on a Fiesta, you need the SFE package ($695). The SFE package is only available on SEs ($1000) with an automatic transmission ($1,070).

      Thus the cheapest Ford Fiesta is an SE Sedan with automatic tranny and SFE package for $16,065 (including destination). The cheapest Ford Fiesta Hatchback is an SE ($15,120, there is no S hatchback), with automatic transmission and SFE package ($395, $300 less than on the sedan), for a total of $17,620 (including destination).

      Neither of these have a single option on them outside of the SFE, not even Sync, which is $595. The Ford also doesn't have some stuff the Cruze Eco has, like satellite radio, but I think it wouldn't be unreasonable to ignore small differences like that, especially since the Cruze Eco doesn't have cruise control at its base price and I believe a Fiesta SE does.

      You do get Ford's automatic transmission though, which is either a plus or a minus depending on your preference.

      It only takes a few clicks on Ford's site to configure a vehicle and get it right.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Quite impressive mileage.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Malaise 2.0.

      Automakers market highway fuel economy on the open road at 55mph (or 65mph) with no slowing down, climbing, stopping, idling, etc. That doesn't help people in cities or highly populated regions. It also lets them put an inflated number out there.

      A more important fuel consumption number is what the car averages per tank in those conditions which is a more accurate reflection of how much fuel the car actually uses. That's what I would be interested in knowing.
        • 3 Years Ago
        The Elantra is rated at 33mpg combined, just like this car.


        It's funny you complain about lack of accuracy and then use the wrong figures to try to make your point.

        I agree if a car company advertises only one figure, it should be the combined one. I believe this is the law in the EU.

        But for the most accuracy possible, companies should give both city and highway so that people who don't drive 55% city can figure out if one car is better for them than another.
        • 3 Years Ago
        I'm glad you point out EPA combined. After extensively monitoring driving patterns, the EPA comes up with a combined mileage number that weighs estimated mileage for Highway 45% and City 55%.

        So even though the Cruze Eco has impressive Highway mileage in its advertising, it makes 33 miles combined, compared to 34 for the standard Elantra.

        For a more accurate description, automakers should be using the combined number...
        • 3 Years Ago

        Why is this so hard for people to grasp. EPA HWY number is not set at driving at a fixed speed of ~55-65. Its a combinations of several cycle numbers


        Now, I will grant you some people drive like the US06 cycle ALL the time...

        • 3 Years Ago
        The EPA calculates a "combined" mpg, you know...
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