If you wanted a highly efficient compact car five years ago, you bought a hybrid. Diesel was still a dirty word commonly reserved for heavy-duty pickups and the occasional Euro import, and 30 miles per gallon was just becoming the new industry benchmark. The Chevrolet Volt was still just a concept, all-electrics like the Nissan Leaf were barely a blip on our radar, and if a car was turbocharged, it was for go-fast reasons, not fuel-sipping ones.
Fast forward to 2011. Times have changed.
Now, 40 mpg is the new 30 mpg, and we're quickly approaching the days when 50 mpg won't be such a lofty number. After all, there are quite a few cars that already crest that mark without breaking a sweat (including one or two of the cars in this test...).
Enter the 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid, 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco and 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI – a trio of cars that all boast fuel economy figures of 42 mpg or higher on the highway, and all have price points within the $18,000 to $24,000 range. All three fuel-sippers take a completely different path towards overall efficiency – traditional hybrid, turbocharged gasoline and clean diesel.
We're here to put these three eco compacts through their paces – testing not only economy, but general drivability, quality, comfort and value. The winner won't be based simply on its miserly ways – all three cars are pretty darn close in that regard. Instead, we're looking to see which car represents the best overall package, regardless of powertrain. We're here to find out which eco-warrior is the one we'd open our wallets for.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let's address a question that we figured was bound to pop up in the comments: Where are the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra?
The reason they're excluded is that we wanted this to be a battle not just between cars, but also between powertrains: hybrid, gas and diesel. On paper at least, the car that gives the gassers the best shot at winning is the Cruze Eco with a highway rating of 42 mpg. The Focus and Elantra top out at 40 mpg, the Ford with a special SFE package that's only available on particular models and the Elantra, to its credit, with any trim you choose. Besides, you have to play nice with a Focus SFE or Elantra to actually achieve 40 mpg, whereas with our three combatants, 42 mpg is a total breeze. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Instead, let's size up these three eco-beasts.
You can go ahead and assume that the Jetta TDI is the largest car in the group, but you'd be wrong. Yes, at 182.2 inches, it's longer than the Civic or Cruze (177.3 and 181.0, respectively), but the Chevy is actually wider and taller, and the Jetta's wheelbase is the smallest. Still, at 3,161 pounds, the Volkswagen is indeed the heftiest – 152 pounds heavier than the Cruze and 286 pounds heavier than the Civic. (We lovingly dubbed the Jetta "Fatty McTorque").
You'd also think that with its added weight and longer overall length, the Jetta would provide the most passenger volume, but again, you'd be wrong. In fact, both the Civic and Cruze, with 94.6 and 95 cubic inches of interior volume, respectively, best the Jetta's 92.4. Of course, the Jetta's added length contributes to it having the most rear legroom of the trio – a commanding 38.1 inches to the Civic's 36.2 and the Cruze's 35.4. Your long-legged friends will love the Jetta's rear seats.
The Honda Civic was completely redesigned for 2012, though we won't fault you for not noticing. Of the three cars here, it has the most overtly 'eco' appearance, even beyond our tester's Cool Mist Metallic paint job. It rides on low-rolling-resistance 195/65-series 15-inch Bridgestone Ecopia tires, and its funky alloy wheels are designed to cut through the air with as little resistance as possible. The Civic Hybrid even gets little blue inserts in the grille, a small rear lip spoiler and a nice big 'hybrid' badge on the rear fascia.
We all agree that the Civic isn't the best-looking car of the bunch. This isn't to say it's an ugly thing, it's just a rather bland design festooned in Hybrid-spec eco bits and doesn't light any fires within us. Not that the Cruze or Jetta do, either, but they win out in the beauty pageant. If just.
Handsome as it may be, the Jetta's exterior design is decidedly sedate. There aren't any interesting design elements to speak of, though this translates into a shape that will age well. Our biggest gripe is the standard set of 16-inch wheels, which look downright tiny within the Jetta's large wheel wells. We don't mind the design of the five-spoke alloys, but much like the rest of the car's exterior, they're purely conservative in terms of design – nothing special here.
To our eyes, the Cruze Eco is the most attractive sedan of the bunch. Its 17-inch alloys on 215/55-spec Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max tires are the largest in the group, though we'd gladly give up the chrome polishing for something more subtle. The Eco is easily the most aggressive-looking and certainly appears to be the most compact, though it's just clever packaging. Remember, the Cruze has the most interior volume out of the three cars.
Speaking of interiors, this is one place where we must commend the Honda. No, it isn't lined with the same soft-touch materials found all over the Cruze, but its dash and door plastics have the nicest graining and overall visibility is the best. We don't necessarily love the two-tier dash of the Civic – a carry-over feature from the last-generation car – but it makes for a more commanding driving position than the other two cars here.
The Cruze, on the other hand, feels the most solid. This isn't just because its interior fittings feel the best to the touch, or because its supreme levels of sound-deadening make it the quietest of the bunch out on the road. Instead, Chevrolet has created an interior that fits together nicely while still being stylish – combining swooping lines with contrasting fabrics, though a few of us on staff find the red and black netting treatment to be a little, shall we say, burlesque. "I started laughing the first time I saw it – it's like a fishnet stocking" said Executive Editor Chris Paukert.
And then there's the Jetta – a car with an interior that has been a major talking point since the sixth-generation car debuted last year... and not for any good reasons. You see, in lowering the cost of the Jetta for 2011, Volkswagen cheapened the car's interior quite a bit. And while our top-trim TDI tester isn't as bare bones as what you'd find in the bottom-end S model, it's easily our least favorite cabin of the bunch. Every plastic panel is slathered in the same shade of gray, save a few accent bits of aluminum-look here and there. The dashboard is now made of hard plastic, and the flat, unsupportive leatherette seats don't really... sit well with us. Still, Jetta sales are up nearly 80 percent versus the 2010 model, so consumers seem fine with trading a little luxury for a lower base price. That doesn't mean we'll stop taking issue with it, though.
A base Jetta TDI only costs $22,995, and even our test car – loaded up with things like heated seats, navigation, sunroof and foglights – commands $24,965. Sure, that's higher than the Cruze Eco – $18,425 starting, $19,895 as tested – but the Chevy doesn't have any of the amenities we just listed (the 2012 Cruze Eco will offer navigation as an option). Civic Hybrid pricing starts all the way up at $24,050, and our top-of-the-line test car with leather and nav carries a $27,520 sticker price. That's right, folks – we've entered the world of the $27K Civic.
The cars are similar in size, similar in terms of equipment and packaging, and similar-ish in price. (We're still having a hard time digesting the idea of a $27,000 Civic, sorry.) When it comes to powertrains, though, that's where each takes its own very different path to efficiency.
The Civic Hybrid uses Honda's 1.5-liter inline four-cylinder paired with the automaker's Integrated Motor Assist hybrid system. Here, engine output is rated at 110 horsepower and 127 pound-feet of torque, which includes the electric motor that provides 23 hp and 78 lb-ft for light acceleration duties.
There's a lot to be said about the Cruze's powerplant, though. General Motors' 1.4-liter turbocharged four is absolutely remarkable, with 138 hp and 148 lb-ft available in the Eco. Combined with the six-speed manual transmission, the Cruze has the smoothest overall driving experience of our assembled testers.
We started our test with a route that would only take us through downtown Detroit and out into the suburbs – no highways would be used. You'd think that the Civic would absolutely obliterate the Cruze and Jetta here, since hybrid drivetrains are tailored to achieve their highest efficiencies in city driving where the engine turns off at stoplights and accelerates with electric assist, sometimes even shutting off while coasting.
The biggest lesson learned here in the city route was just how lousy the Jetta TDI's six-speed manual transmission is. This car has a heart of pure gold, but it's accessed through a mushy clutch pedal and coarse, slushy gearbox. We're far from novices when it comes to operating stick shifts, but two of the four editors in attendance stalled the Jetta at some point throughout the two days of testing. There were complaints of the gearshift deflecting to the third gear position when first was desired, and this general disconnect between driver and transmission was seriously unnerving. Stick-shift lovers we are, but now we know why Volkswagen sells out of its dual-clutch DSG unit in the TDI models.
Props to the Cruze Eco's six-speed manual transmission, then. With a clutch that's easy to modulate and a gearbox that's pleasantly notchy, we wouldn't give a second thought to opting for it versus the six-speed automatic, and in fact, the manual-equipped model is a few miles per gallon more efficient. Bonus.
Honda uses a continuously variable transmission in the Civic Hybrid, so instead of describing its dynamics in terms of gear changes and ratios, it's merely appropriate to describe the CVT sensation as "buzzy" and "not as buzzy." Hit the throttle – buzzy. Let off the throttle – not as buzzy.
We drove the Civic in Eco mode (activated with a green button to the left of the steering wheel), and though this limits the tendency for maximum power off the line, the Civic never felt particularly sluggish pulling away from stoplights, the engine kicking on just as you cross into the heart of the intersection. Off the line, the Jetta is still the little speed demon, though. Thanks for that, Mr. McTorque.
Now, the EPA rates the Civic Hybrid at 44 mpg in the city, whereas the Cruze Eco and Jetta TDI are only estimated to achieve 28 and 30, respectively. And since we drove the Civic in Eco mode the whole time, 44 mpg should have been a cinch, right?
37.6 mpg. That's what we recorded in the Honda. In Eco Mode. 37.6.
Perhaps this number would have gone up had we used a longer test loop (or if we hadn't been blasting the air conditioning – hypermilers, we are not). But on this same set of roads, we recorded 42.7 mpg in the Cruze and 43.1 mpg in the Jetta. That's right, these cars bested their EPA-rated highway economy numbers in our city test. What gives, Civic?
As we set out for the highway route, the Honda's 37.6 mpg in mind, we weren't too optimistic about what our highway reading would be. Most hybrids aren't prone to enjoying speed, after all. Still, Honda says that it'll do 44 mpg on the highway, so we kept an open mind as we drove from northern metro Detroit out towards the more picturesque countryside of Chelsea, Michigan.
There isn't much to say about highway driving, other than the fact that your speed doesn't change too much, the steering wheel doesn't move a whole lot, and all three cars would surely show off their economical chops here. Instead, we focused on how sure-footed the cars felt at higher speeds, all of which weren't easily blown around. The Civic Hybrid struggles to keep up from time to time, and the Cruze will require some downshifting for passing. The Jetta TDI just devours the miles with very little driver effort required.
One rainstorm and 65 miles later, we exited Interstate 94 in Chelsea and filled the cars with fuel again. Would the Honda disappoint us once more?
50.5 mpg. What's that about hybrids not liking highways?
As expected, the TDI's excellent highway manners resulted in 50.3 mpg here. In fact, in many other experiences with driving the Jetta TDI on the highway, we find that 50-plus mpg is significantly easier to achieve than you might think.
Now, when it comes to Cruze economy, we had a bit of a discrepancy. When we filled the tanks before setting off on the highway route, the fuel pump clicked off too early in the Cruze – something we didn't realize until it was too late – so our official recording this time around was only 32.7 mpg. We disregarded this number, and on the drive from Detroit back to Cleveland, Editor-In-Chief John Neff did another highway economy test and achieved a more respectable 39 mpg. Not quite 42, but Neff did admit to speeding a couple of times and swears that he's achieved over 42 mpg in a Cruze Eco on more than one occasion.
The reason for our voyage to Chelsea was to push the cars' dynamic abilities on a series of more interesting country roads. No, none of these vehicles are designed to be shining beacons of sportiness, but our drive loop from Chelsea up through the towns of Hell (seriously – look it up) and Gregory taught us a lot about how these cars are engineered.
After little more than a few quick 90-degree turns, we immediately wrote off the Civic as having any sort of dynamic capability. (That's what the Si is for, anyway.) In past years, we would have praised the Honda's light, tossable steering feel, but the electronically assisted setup in the 2012 Civic is a huge downgrade. It's not any worse than what you get in the Jetta, though.
The Honda struggled to keep up with the Volkswagen and Chevy on our dynamic route, the tires screaming around swooping turns. We must say, though, that even with its regenerative braking, the Civic's stoppers didn't feel as artificial as many other hybrids. The Civic felt sure-footed and solid during braking before entering a corner – something we tested quite often, as this car despised being hustled through a turn.
The Cruze and Jetta, though, loved playing out on the fun roads – at least comparatively. The Chevy's electronic-assisted steering was light through the turns, and the larger 17-inch wheels gave it a planted, stable feeling while cornering. We don't mind the Jetta's rack here, either, but the big problem with the VW is that its weak rear suspension means the nose loads up while entering a turn, and the car's rear end tends to get a bit squirrely mid-corner.
Another plus about the diesel engine is that we rarely had to downshift while entering a turn to get us out of the corner. The Cruze takes some downshifting, as the engine prefers to rev a bit to squeeze out the most power, but because of the admirable transmission we didn't mind having to switch from fourth to third before throwing the wheel into a turn.
After 45 minutes of this, the Civic felt exhausted. We can't exactly blame it, though. Nobody who buys this hybrid will be pushing it half as hard as we did that afternoon. For the vast majority of driving, the Civic's steering and brakes are tuned well enough to make it pleasant for around-town jaunts.
As the sun started to set, we parked the three cars in downtown Chelsea and headed over to The Common Grille for dinner, where we expected to argue and debate over which car was best during our day of on-road testing. But we had a clear winner in our minds even before sitting down at the table.
Simply put, when you take all of the parts of these cars into consideration – fuel economy, style, dynamics, refinement, style, packaging and value – the Cruze Eco is our favorite, with the Jetta TDI taking a close second and the Civic coming in third. No one argued, and instead, we focused on discussing the deliciousness of The Common Grille's fresh-baked dinner rolls.
Remember, though, each of these cars represents a different definition of efficiency. We may have chosen the Cruze Eco as our favorite, but we prefer the Jetta TDI's diesel engine to the 1.4-liter turbo in the Cruze. The Honda is the most comfortable, and history suggests that it will trump the others in predicted reliability and resale. What's more, diesel still hasn't completely caught on here in the United States and there's a large handful of people who still believe that hybrids are the best bets for efficient driving – plus it's costlier than regular 87-octane gas.
What is perhaps most interesting about this comparo is that, in the battle for the best economical C-segment model, the car with the turbocharged gasoline engine won. Hybrids still have a place in the U.S., and diesels are scrabbling hard to gain market share, but these days, being efficient isn't just about how many batteries a car has.
Try spinning that one five years ago.
Battle of the Eco Compact Cars
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
The Cruze Eco may not use electricity or diesel, but it's the least expensive and offers a high-tech turbo gas engine, great transmission, well-appointed interior and crisp driving dynamics, which makes it the best overall package. 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
The Jetta's oil-burning heart of gold makes for effortless efficiency while still being pretty good to drive. It's an eminently practical package, but a shame the rest of the car is so dull. 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid
Honda's all-new Civic Hybrid is still a worthy contender in the segment, but it's proof positive that simply having a few extra batteries on board doesn't make for a champion fuel-miser.