Vital Stats

Turbo 1.4L I4
138 HP / 148 LB-FT
6-Speed Manual
Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight:
3,011 LBS
15.4 CU-FT
28 City / 42 HWY
Is 42 MPG The Ultimate Answer To The Ultimate Question?

On paper, it sounds like an enthusiast's dream. Start by trimming almost 100 pounds from the curb weight of the base Chevrolet Cruze. Then drop the optional turbocharged engine underhood, bolted to a six-speed manual transmission. Lower the suspension and mount some lightweight, forged alloy wheels. Finish it off by sticking a little spoiler on the decklid, along with a special badge.

Where do we sign up?

But the car we've described isn't the stuff of boy racer fantasies; it's not even a performance car at all. No, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco is not meant to run circles around the competition on an autocross course as much as it is designed to pirouette its way around the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy test. It's the greenest machine to wear a Bowtie this side of the Volt, boasting a highway fuel economy of 42 miles per gallon. But that heady figure is accomplished without the benefit of any advanced hybrid powertrain technology. The Cruze Eco is an impressive package that proves GM's smarts and gives the company further green bragging rights. That said, we're not entirely sure it's the Cruze we'd park in our driveway.
General Motors
rolled out the Eco for the 2011 model year, building on the fuel-sipper program it pioneered with the 37-mpg Chevrolet Cobalt SFE. But with the Cruze, GM engineers went to greater lengths to improve fuel economy, and they've made some further changes for 2012.

We'll get into an analysis of the tricks that makes the Cruze Eco special, but first let's emphasize what GM didn't do to punch up the Eco's mileage. This is a car without any hybrid technology, not even a mild hybrid system like the eAssist system GM deployed on the Buick LaCrosse and has planned for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu Eco. There's no start-stop system to aid Cruze Eco's 28 miles per gallon city fuel economy rating. In fact, the Cruze Eco's turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder doesn't even use direct injection to make its 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco side view2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco front view2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco rear view

So what did GM really do? Three smart things. First, those clever engineers put the Cruze on a good old fashioned diet. They trimmed an easy 21 pounds by virtue of an attractive set of polished alloy wheels and another 26 by replacing the spare tire and jack with a 12-volt electric tire pump. The fuel tank was shrunk by three gallons and the rear suspension design was simplified, eliminating even more weight. The icing on the cake is that GM says it was able to reduce the sheet metal gauge thickness in some areas of the body-in-white, while reducing the length of some of the weld flanges to pare even more mass. This last change has now been deployed throughout the Cruze lineup, with the lighter body structure being adopted as a running change during the first model year.

The second key to the Eco's thrifty nature are some aerodynamic improvements that start with lowering the vehicle by 10mm. Even more importantly, the Cruze Eco gets some special kit, like underbody panels and an "active" front fascia, which can close up airflow passages to cut drag. (This means you can't tow with a Cruze Eco, which isn't a big deal.) Low rolling resistance tires also find a home on the Eco, which GM says has a 0.298 coefficient of drag – not far off the 0.287 of the Volt.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco headlight2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco grille2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco wheel detail2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco taillight

Finally, we come to the most important of the Eco's singularities: A six-speed manual transmission with not one, not two, but three overdrive gears. Here is where things begin to get complicated, because you can also get a Cruze Eco with the same six-speed automatic used in other Cruze trims. It doesn't perform as well on the EPA cycle, achieving a still-commendable 26/39 rating and leading GM to retain the normal-sized fuel tank. This contributes to a curb weight of 3,102 pounds; 91 pounds heavier than the Eco manual. Fuel economy in the automatic is actually an improvement over the 2011 model's 26/37, a change attributable to a taller final drive in the 2012 model year automatic. Said gearing revision has been applied to automatics across the board for 2012, on all trim levels, which is significant.

Before we go further, and in the interest of clarity, understand that the Cruze is offered in three distinct trim levels besides Eco. The base car, powered by a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four, is designated "LS." In the middle, there are two "LT" models, and at the top-of-the-line is the "LTZ." In two model years, GM has offered nine different powertrain combinations on the Cruze, including four different transmissions – you'll need a scorecard to keep up.

Parsing all the possible powertrain combinations on the Cruze is necessary because, as attractive as that 42 mpg number is, most people like automatics. That GM has to deploy a manual to hit that number is something of a problem, given that the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra nail 40 EPA-rated miles per gallon with automatics. (Ford has its own problem on this score: A less-than-smooth-shifting dual-clutch gearbox.) Even if you prefer rowing your own gears, the Eco's manual transmission can be frustrating. The special tranny has a "normal" first gear (the same as the manual in the LS and LT), so its initial acceleration is quite good, brisk even, as the little four-cylinder's turbo spools up. Second is useable too. But with further gear changes at normal shift points, the engine keeps dropping out of its sweet spot on the power curve. If we had a dollar for every time we found ourselves lugging the engine, waiting for the turbo to catch up to our right foot, we would have had enough cash on hand after a week to have sprung for the automatic – which might just be a better option anyway.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco engine

Rather, we found ourselves shifting differently than we would most manual gearboxes, almost entirely avoiding the use of fourth and fifth, the first two of the three power-sapping overdrive gears. Sixth sure was nice for cruising on the freeway, however, as we saw our best 50-mile average fuel economy, as displayed on the Cruze Eco's trip computer, of 48 miles per gallon. Overall observed fuel economy during our week-long test drive was 34 mpg, beating the EPA combined estimate by a single mile per gallon. Is that enough to live with the maximum overdrive transmission? That's the ultimate question – can life, the universe, and everything be boiled down to fuel economy?

As much as we missed having a properly geared manual transmission in the Eco, we didn't find the elimination of the standard Z-link rear suspension to be any problem whatsoever. Now, this might have something to do with the way we drove the Eco, which, rolling on its special tires, didn't exactly invite us to thrash it. While the standard Cruze is a decent handling car with competent steering and a comfortable ride, so too is the Eco, which feels even lighter on its feet. Nobody is going to confuse any Cruze with a BMW, but there is nothing wrong with its driving dynamics, especially considering the intended market. Sure, the Cruze's electric power steering could offer more feedback and it can certainly feel overboosted at low speeds, but in its defense, it has a linear progression and is markedly improved compared to GM's earlier efforts with the technology.

The Cruze Eco starts at an entirely reasonable $19,245, plus a $750 destination charge, placing it right in between the two different LT trims Chevy offers. While that's an $820 price hike from 2011, the previously optional $525 Connectivity Plus Cruise package is now standard.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco interior2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco front seats2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco gauges2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco shifter

In assessing how we ultimately feel about the Eco, let's start by saying we think the Cruze is a good car, in aggregate. Everything we've said about the standard Cruze holds true here: The Eco is a nice looking car with a quiet and comfortable cockpit, right down to its fabric-covered burlesque dashboard. But it's a one-trick-pony. While we like the idea of the 42-mpg Eco and we love its fuel economy, we're pretty sure its biggest competition lies with the rest of the Cruze lineup. There is a growing range of fuel efficient, 40-mpg cars selling at the same price-point, from the Honda Insight hybrid to the aforementioned Focus and Elantra. While the Eco compares well with all of them – heck, it does boast the highest highway mileage number of any vehicle powered exclusively by a conventional internal combustion engine – the mileage improvements to the other Cruze trims make the Eco less compelling on its own.

The automatic Cruze LT and LTZ models for 2012 saw a bump in fuel economy, and now come close to the automatic Eco at 26/38, giving up just a single mile per gallon on the highway. Also worth noting is that LT Cruzes are now being offered with a standard manual transmission (meaning the automatic is now $995 extra). This is the very same gearbox as in the base model, without the overdrive gearing of the Eco. In this application it gives the Cruze a fuel economy rating of 26/38 – equivalent to the automatic and, again, only a mile per gallon behind the Eco automatic.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco rear 3/4 view

While we entirely understand the marketing impetus of having a separate "green" trim level, we wish GM would just allow for ordering the Eco with the LT's manual trans. The conventionally geared tranny might give up a couple of miles per gallon, but it sure would be easier to live with. Having the option of leather seats would be nice too. While we're sure the leather interior weighs a bit more than cloth and isn't as in line with tree-hugger sensibilities, it seems more fitting to the Eco's mission statement than offering a remote starter, which GM does. Or it could just let the LT manual be had with the Eco's alloys and aero package, and be done with it.

If this sounds like we're making a case for just incorporating the Eco's weight-saving and aerodynamic qualities into the other trim levels, well, that's pretty close to it. That GM has already confirmed a diesel Cruze for next year, which will no doubt best the Eco in thriftiness, only reinforces our position. Certainly for some a three or four mile per gallon boost in the manual Eco is worth its trade-offs. But if GM wants to make a more compelling case – the forthcoming diesel engine notwithstanding – it should punch up that mileage differential by throwing eAssist and direct injection at the Cruze Eco. Now there's some substantial technology that could give this trim level an identity more its own.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 3 Years Ago
      They probably could have save even more weight by going with smaller-diameter wheels in place of the 17-inchers. An added bonus would be less money to shell out when the tires need replacement.
        • 3 Years Ago
        True on the cheaper tires, BUT the tires are heavier than the wheels so technically that would hurt handling and fuel economy.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I actually like the gearing. You just have to know what your doing to find the power bands and it's part of the art of driving. Cars with more power have made many manual drivers lazy but there is driving joy to be found here.
      • 3 Years Ago
      This is the direction I wish the majority of the market would go. Why go high tech and high cost with hybrid technology or DSG transmissions when all you need to do is simplify and lighten? Heck, the car doesn't even have direct injection! To me this just seems the better way to go. Using smart engineering and design to improve efficiency rather than using what I think are band-aid technologies like hybrids.
        • 3 Years Ago
        because of emissions and we want less reliance of oil, stupid.
        Sorten Borten
        • 3 Years Ago
        Why go high tech? Because some people want more than 42 MPG efficient from their cars. The new Prius C should hit 55 MPG the same price point as this Cruise. I'm not knocking GM ... they did a good job with the Cruise, but I'll take the extra complexity of a hybrid if it means a 30% bump in fuel efficiency.
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Sorten Borten
          Lets not act like the size and performance of a Prius C would be comparably to this car. Lets not forget the high tech Prius needs about 10 secs to hit 60 in spite of being relatively lightweight. Hybrids like the priuse are ideal if all you care about is city mileage. The Prius isnt a fast car, its not really an agile car and its not really a good looking car. Its a single purpose car- one that gets great mileage. And of course if you want to drive a manual the Prius isnt on your list anyway.
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Sorten Borten
          Not really comparing apples to apples with the C, and even then until the EPA results come out, it's speculation. However, the 3rd gen Prius does net 48 mpg on the highway, but the real thing noteworthy is the city mileage at 50 mpg. In that point, I will say that a hybrid is far superior. But for highway driving, that 6 mpg is only 14%. Admirable, but not necessarily a mind maker depending on what you're looking for. Still, maybe I should rephrase the point I was trying to make. To get good highway mileage, it seems like the market thinks it needs hybrid technology, direct injection, or DSG transmission when the reality is it really doesn't take anything special. Just good design. I'm not going to deny, however, that hybrid and DSG technology has the greatest gains in city usage.
      • 3 Years Ago
      42 MPG is damn impressive.
      Avinash Machado
      • 3 Years Ago
      Seems to be a nice package.Great MPG and reasonable performance and handling.
      • 3 Years Ago
      Cool. If I needed another car this year, this is one I would consider. And all the family cars are manual trans, so that is no problem. It's interesting that most manufacturers are trying to gain fuel mileage with more complex designs, while this car shows that reducing weight and complexity can achieve many of the same results at lower price.
      • 3 Years Ago
      My Saturn SL1 had similarly tall gearing, and it was easy to get used to. I also had an SL2, which had much shorter gearing. The SL1 did about 4-5 MPG better on the highway, and felt more relaxed than the slightly twitchy SL2 when cruising. Chevy is smart to offer these two distinct versions, as some small car buyers want zippy and others want the most miles per gallon.
      • 3 Years Ago
      this seems like a fair review. And btw, good copy editing this time, AB. That may sound like a back-handed compliment, but it is not. I gripe about "faze" so I should say nice things when things are done right. I think you hit the transmission note too hard. Ford doesn't offer a 40mpg Focus (or Fiesta) with a stick, you must get a rather expensive automatic. So if you want a stick (I do), Ford has a problem also. Additionally note the 40mpg Focus isn't exactly in the price range of the Cruze Eco. The cheapest Focus with 40mpg (Focus SE sedan with auto and SFE) is just a hair under $20K, and it's a tiny but under-specced, if you want cruise control it's over $20K (oddly, the Cruze Eco had the same lack of standard cruise control issue last year). I don't really agree about the idea GM should offer the regular transmission ratios in the Eco. What would be the point of that? So then you'd give up the Z-link, the 3 gallons of gas tank and still wouldn't get 42mpg. I think an LT with a stick is a much better idea, just let me option the spare out for an inflator. It'll be nice when GM figures out how to get the city up to 30 on this thing. Whether DI, more weight loss or a trick automatic I dunno, but it'll be a welcome change.
        • 3 Years Ago
        • 3 Years Ago
        I take it back about the price difference to the Focus. I should have compared MSRP to MSRP instead I compared AOL's big green number to the Focus MSRP. That was a mistake. The Focus SE Sedan SFE is almost exactly the same MSRP (with delivery) as the Cruze Ecu.
      Larry D.
      • 2 Years Ago
      After 13,000 miles, we have achieved 42.5 mpg, pretty evenly divided between city and highway, in our 2012 Cruze Eco, standard transmission. Yes, we consciously drive for fuel efficiency: that's why we bought the most fuel-efficient car we could afford. We routinely get more than 50 mpg driving 60 mph-ish on the interstate, and easily get 36 mpg city driving. I once got 60 mpg for more than 200 miles of strictly interstate driving, putting the cruise control on 53 mpg and enjoying the ride. All this in a car with a comfortable cabin space for four medium-sized adults.
      Glynn Hadskey
      • 3 Years Ago
      Very interesting considering the guys on the pod cast repeatedly say that the Eco manual is the Cruze to have. Thanks for a more indepth review. Looks to me like the LT manual is the one the have.
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Glynn Hadskey
        They don't want people to know they can get all the goodies WITH the manual.
      • 2 Years Ago
      the lumbar system is defective. My doctor has prohibited me from riding in the car. My car is a 2011 cruz
        • 2 Years Ago
        ??? What do you mean defective?
      • 3 Years Ago
      I agree with your assessment Jeff Sabatini and Autoblog. This car should be rolled into the standard Cruze. The 1.8L is really only there as a base engine to save cost and as it is not competitive with the base engines in other cars in this class, I say ditch it and standardize the 1.4L turbo (less options might actually make the car cheaper). I think losing the rear center headrest and armrest for weight savings isn't worth it, nor is the simpler rear suspension. The underbody aero and grill shutters should at least be optional on the regular car, if not standard. I personally wouldn't want the eco tires or those wheels, but they could be made an option. The silly thing is that there's really no reason the standard transmission in all the cars shouldn't get around 42 MPG if the gear ratio is the same (post-final drive) and the aero is good. The weight is negligible here and the tires will be the rest of the difference. The transitions while shifting would be different depending on the ratio spread, but if a certain 6th gear (again, including final drive differential ratio) gets 42 MPG, then there's no reason to ruin that for steady state cruising. If you need more, then downshift for it. Maybe by reducing torque converter drag the automatic could be just as frugal--if not even moreso with a couple more ratios. Basically my point is this: it's a good car with no need to complicate it. Having too many versions was one of the pitfalls of old GM. Sometimes with products like the Civic, Elantra, CR-V, iPhone, or Coca-cola there's only one current engine/model and that's just how the public seems to like it. GM, the Cruze is already a winner, just keep focusing your energies on making it ONE good car.
        • 3 Years Ago
        you're stupid, the turbo is an additional component that is costly and more expensive to make. If you think that they would want to standardize that to the lower end models think again. Also, manual transmissions are not selling, nobody wants standard transmissions.
          • 3 Years Ago
          They might as well standardize it because the last I saw the 1.8L was only offered on one trim level.
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