It doesn’t take an automotive Einstein to understand the theory of relativity between improved aerodynamics, weight reduction, engine efficiency, higher gearing and low rolling resistance in the search for fuel economy – but bringing them all together in a driveable and livable package as Chevrolet has done with its Cruze Eco is pretty clever stuff nevertheless.
Basically General Motors has combined some “simple” expedients to create a higher-mileage version of its new Cruze that can give some “complex” hybrids a run for their money in the fuel economy stakes.
The Eco isn’t essentially different from other Cruze models, it’s just been neatly tweaked to optimize its efficiency without seriously compromising its day-to-day performance and comfort.
Chevy’s new compact Cruze was the fourth-best-selling car in Canada in the first half of the year so its combination of good-looking if not adventurous styling, competitive performance and handling, an interior that’s roomy enough, comfortable and far nicer than anything Chevy has offered on its compacts before is obviously hitting its mark.
And, of course, it’s being peddled very aggressively by a dealer network keen on making its numbers. MSRPs start at $14,995 for a base LS jumping to $19,495 for the LT Turbo and the new Eco and top out at $24,780 for the LTZ Turbo.
The Eco model is based on the identically priced LT Turbo but comes with a standard six-speed manual gearbox instead of the LT Turbo’s standard six-speed automatic. It’ll cost you another $1,450 if you want an auto-Eco like the one tested.
If you stick with the stick, Natural Resources Canada’s fuel economy ratings for the Eco are 7.2 litres/100 km city and 4.6 highway, which beats Honda’s Civic (7.4 city/5.4 highway), Toyota’s Corolla (7.4 city/5.6 highway) and the Mazda3 (8.1 city/5.9 highway).
It also beats its automatic-equipped LT Turbo alter ego which gets ratings of 8.5 city/5.5 highway. The automatic-equipped Eco’s ratings are 7.8 city/5.1 highway. And just so you know, the naturally aspirated 1.8-litre-engined base Cruze with six-speed manual is rated at 7.8 city/5.4 highway.
According to NRC’s fuel consumption guide (published annually, so really only good for comparative purposes) driving a manual Eco for the Canadian average of 20,000 kilometres will run you $1,260 a year in gas costs compared to $1,512 for the LT Turbo, a $252 saving, but that drops to just $126 with the automatic-equipped Eco.
So is it worth driving the Eco version of the Cruze, particularly with automatic transmission?
Well, with the rest of the car pretty much, the same it comes down to performance and drivability and, of course, whether you’re happy driving a standard gearbox.
To create the Eco Chevy, engineers first looked at its “aero package” and developed a clever automatic shutter system for the lower grille opening that closes to reduce drag at higher speeds and opens at lower speeds to provide increased cooling. This was combined with an upper grille with fewer openings, a lower front air dam, underbody panels to smooth airflow and a rear spoiler, plus a lower ride height.
This reduced aerodynamic drag by an impressive 10 per cent , which reduced highway fuel usage by an impressive 0.8 L/100 km.
Going through the structure from end to end resulted in enough small weight savings to bring the Eco’s mass down to 1,356 kg vs the LT Turbo’s 1,462 kg. Light alloy 17-inch wheels, shod with Goodyear low rolling resistance tires, carved off 9.6 kg of that.
All very neat stuff, but it’s the six-speed manual gearbox, with “overdrive” ratios on its top three gears that likely creates the biggest overall fuel economy gains and has the most effect on performance.
The Eco’s small, lightweight and efficient 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine produces 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, which is available from a low 1,850 rpm. Feeding this to the front wheels through the six-speed automatic’s ratios, which are unchanged from the LT Turbo version, not surprisingly delivers much the same level of performance and drivability as the LT Turbo. Its lighter weight might make it a touch quicker. Acceleration is acceptable if not particularly strong and drivability is fine. But the performance of the manual Eco, through its first three gears anyway, is likely considerably quicker.
The Eco with manual gearbox has the potential to save a worthwhile amount of money in fuel costs, but opting to equip it with the automatic transmission doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
Type: Compact sedan
Base Price: $19,495; as tested, $23,710
Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra