Review: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco 6MT
By Chris Haak
A few weeks ago at the New York Auto Show, I remarked to a colleague that I was amused by the proliferation of asterisks in some of the claims that auto manufacturers are making. Depending on who you’re asking, there are more than a half-dozen answers to the question of “what’s the most fuel-efficient small car?” To wit:
- 2011 Hyundai Elantra – the most efficient gasoline-engined, non-hybrid, non-specialty model (40 MPG highway)
- 2012 Honda Civic HF – the most efficient gasoline-engined, non-hybrid, automatic (41 MPG highway)
- 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco – the most efficient gasoline-engined, non-hybrid (42 MPG highway)
- 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI – the most efficient non-hybrid (42 MPG highway; 34 MPG combined)
- 2011 Toyota Prius – the most efficient non plug-in hybrid (50 MPG combined)
- 2011 Chevrolet Volt – the most efficient plug-in hybrid (93 MPGE in electric-only use)
- 2011 Nissan Leaf – the most efficient (albeit range-limited) (99 MPGE)
Ford is also selling the Fiesta SFE, which gets 40 MPG on the highway (and the same 33 MPG combined that the Cruze Eco with the manual transmission is rated at), and the 2012 Focus SFE will also hit 40 MPG on the highway.
Look, gas prices are high and people want to see more efficient powertrains in their vehicles, or at the very least, they want to believe that they will hit the gaudy highway numbers seen on some of these vehicles.
The truth is, though, that in many cases, these numbers are not easily attainable, despite what the Monroney stuck to the window says. Also, as I learned in Economics 101, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. You’re paying more upfront in some cases for the special tweaks to get the higher efficiency, and some of the high-mileage hardware also brings with it inherent compromises that folks need to be prepared to accept.
For the past week and a half and 552 miles, I’ve driven a Chevrolet Cruze Eco. I was happy to get the Eco with the manual transmission for three reasons: one – manuals are more fun to drive, two – they’re getting more scarce every day, and three – the Cruze Eco with the 6MT gets much better economy numbers than the six-speed automatic. The EPA claims 26 city/37 highway for the automatic, but a gaudy 28 city/42 highway for the manual.
Upon setting off for the first of my 552 miles in the Cruze Eco, it became almost immediately apparent that this car makes its numbers largely on the back of its gearing. Despite there being six ratios to choose from, they’re spaced pretty far apart. The upside of this is that sixth gear at 70 miles per hour hums along much more quietly than any other small four cylinder car I’ve driven before (about 2,000 RPMs). The downside is that you have to shift. And shift. And shift. The diminutive 1.4T mill, though it certainly produces adequate power and has a turbo-boosted flat torque curve, can do nothing resembling acceleration without dropping from sixth to third. If you’re going up a hill in sixth gear at 55 MPH, be prepared to either lose speed or drop to fourth or fifth gear. Sometimes, I get lazy and don’t feel like rowing through all six gears so I attempt to go second to fourth, skipping third gear. In most cars, that’s not an issue, but in the Cruze Eco, depending on my speed when I do that, the engine falls way out of its powerband and either my acceleration slows dramatically, or I begrudgingly go back to third gear to finish what I started.
Accompanying the Cruze Eco were a some marketing materials that mentioned “midsize car presence.” Indeed, the car out-sizes the Corolla, Civic, Elantra, and Focus in length, width, and height (with the exception of the 2012 Focus, which is 1.1 inches wider). Despite its “midsize presence,” the Cruze still doesn’t have midsize interior volume. In particular, despite its class-leading length, it skimps on rear-seat legroom. Finding enough room to fit my long legs behind the wheel (so that I could raise my leg as necessary to engage the clutch) and two child seats behind me was a balancing act. We did fit our family of four into the Cruze for two different 80-mile day trips, but everyone had to give up some of the space they’re accustomed to having in true midsize sedans like the Kia Optima or Honda Accord.
Aside from a lack of legroom versus a midsize sedan, there actually may be some merit to the marketing claims about this car. It really does feel more substantial than many of its competitors do. The doors close with a solid, Germanic thump, and are reasonably hefty when you swing them open or closed. The interior is remarkably quiet, even at highway speeds, with very little wind or road noise making its way into the cabin. My daily driver is a Cadillac CTS, so oftentimes, for better or worse, I feel somewhat self-conscious when driving around in an economy car – as if it’s not the type of car that matches well with my place in life, or my age, or my family situation. When you spend more time driving a larger car with a big V6 and leather, then step into a Corolla, you feel like a CEO who’s driving his daughter’s car. But I didn’t really have that sensation when driving the Cruze.
For the money, the Cruze perhaps impresses most. While it is possible to add options to the Cruze to get its price solidly into the mid $20,000s (or even above), which would be a midsize price to go along with its midsize presence, my lightly-optioned tester seemed to carry a mantle of reasonable value. For an as-tested MSRP of $19,745 including destination, the car included power windows and locks, keyless entry, 17 inch forged polished aluminum wheels, eight-way manually adjustable front seats, trip computer, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth, cruise control, power mirrors, leather-wrapped shift lever and steering wheel, and redundant steering wheel controls. The only options on this particular Cruze Eco werethe $325 crystal red metallic tintcoat paint, which looks far better than the greenish-blue hue that the Cruze Eco’s press photos show, and the $525 Connectivity Plus Cruze Package, which added the cruise control, USB audio, leather-wrapped steering wheel/shifter, and Bluetooth.
Compared to a Corolla S, the Cruze Eco has a $798 higher invoice price when accounting for equipment differences using TrueDelta.com. Compared to a 2012 Focus SE, the Cruze’s invoice price is just $30 higher. When comparing to midsize sedans, the Cruze does even better, pricewise. TrueDelta.com reports that it’s $2,931 less than a Malibu LT, and the cars’ interior dimensions are remarkably similar. (The 2.2 inches of additional rear-seat legroom that the Malibu has over the Cruze is significant, however, if that’s the difference between your knees being against the seat in front of your or not.)
GM chose some interesting materials and shapes for the Cruze’s interior. I can’t recall another production car with such extensive use of fabric-covered inserts on the dashboard. The fabric is a good way to break up an otherwise large expanse of hard black plastic, and of course the hard plastic is hiding just beneath the material. In Cruzes with leather seats, synthetic leather is employed rather than fabric on the dash and door panels, and that looks much better). But rather than fabric, which is similar in texture to the seats, but more course, I’d prefer that the dash and door panels simply employ soft-touch plastics like the Focus, Fiesta, Elantra, and Mazda3 do.
There’s hard plastic everywhere in the interior not covered by leather or fabric, and it’s coarsely-grained and a bit shiny. My test car, which was not equipped with a sunroof, was somewhat dark inside with charcoal everything, including dash, seats, door panels, and headliner. The Cruze’s ice-blue gauge and instrument lights are a nice touch, and the gauges look great, but the large-pixel, low-resolution radio/HVAC display atop the center stack looks like a relic of the early 1990s. There’s a useful trip computer between the tach and speedometer, with dual trip odometers, fuel economy data, tire pressure, oil life, fuel used, range, etc. Simply upgrading the display technology on the trip computer and radio display to a color LCD would make the Cruze’s interior that much more interesting to look at.
Borrowing some goodies from the Volt, such as its 215/55-17 Goodyear Assurance Fuel Max low rolling resistance tires and active lower front grille aero shutter, the Cruze takes the approach that various small improvements can yield an impressive highway economy figure. In addition to the tires and grille, the aforementioned tall gearing, the Cruze Eco also employes mid-body aero panels, a lower front fascia air dam, lowered suspension, anda decklid spoiler. It’s quite easy to top 30 miles per gallon in the Cruze Eco, even without short-shifting. It’s more challenging to hit the 42 MPG highway number. During a 36-mile trip with moderate (about 50 MPH) speeds and few traffic lights, employing all of the hypermiling tricks I dared (aside from the ones that annoy other drivers), I was able to get 40.3 MPG according to the car’s trip computer. In days where I drove the car more aggressively and leveraged the turbo’s midrange thrust, mileage dipped to the mid-20s. I saw about 29 MPG overall from 552 miles of driving over 11 days.
When I mentioned the turbo’s midrange thrust a moment ago, that’s all relative. While the turbo’s assistance is definitely apparent, the fact is that 138 horsepower is just not a lot of juice. My car during college was a 1993 Oldsmobile Achieva SCX, which weighed just a tad less than the Cruze, but had 185 horsepower. Though the Achieva SCX was ostensibly intended as a performance car (1993-vintage 8.0-second zero to sixty time and all). Basically, though the Cruze Eco’s high-mileage, low-grip tires may not provide the ultimate skidpad numbers, the engine is weak enough and the tires capable enough so that wheelspin is but a passing though unless you drop the clutch. It has enough power to keep up with traffic, but if the car next to you is really trying, you’re not going to be the first one across the intersection, and you might not zip into a hole in traffic that you see. Not only is there not a ton of power there, but remember that you not only have to knock down a few gears, but also wait a split-second for the turbo to spool up to its 148 lb-ft torque peak.
In the past, I’ve beaten up on the Cruze a bit for its conservative looks. The car has a nice stance, and looks good in the crystal red metallic tintcoat paint. But the design has little visual interest, such as competitors like the Elantra and Focus offer. Those two cars have more pleasant interiors with superior connectivity options, and still manage to keep their prices close to the Cruze, while offering (in the case of the Focus) the versatility of a hatchback bodystyle option, or (in the case of the Elantra Touring) a wagon option. I also consider the black plastic panel in front of the Cruze’s C-pillar to be an unforgivable Chrysler Sebring-like affront to good design. One, by the way, that is eliminated in the not-for-the-US Cruze hatchback.
Once or twice a decade, GM rolls out a new small car that it claims is FINALLY competitive with the best of what other companies are offering, only to disappoint us when the luster of new-ness wears off. It happened with the Cavalier. It happened with the Cobalt. Heck, it even happened with the Vega back in 1971. But with the Cruze, they may have broken that pattern. It’s not the prettiest, not the fastest, not the highest-technology, and not the most comfortable car in its segment. But it does many things well, sells for a fair price, gets excellent fuel economy (topping Honda and Toyota, even) and appears to be very well-built. If GM can avoid falling into the trap of complacency, and continues to provide updates to the Cruze during its life cycle, it may prove to be the hit product that Chevrolet desperately needs.