Hybrids are a great way to max out on MPG, but a new breed of conventional gas-powered cars are promising better than 40 miles to the gallon—at least on the highway. The all-new Chevrolet Cruze Eco, due out in late 2010, is one of those contenders. Last week, we gave it our first drive on a closed course at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds.
The Cruze Eco will be marketed as a compact, but nothing about it felt cheap or undersized to us—except maybe the expected price, which GM folks hinted will be in the mid-teen range. The car had the exterior dimensions, cabin space, trunk volume, amenities, and overall presence of a quality midsize sedan.
GM says the Cruze Eco will get 40 miles-per-gallon highway, and 27 in the city. (Official EPA numbers are not yet out.) Chevy engineers are still tweaking things in pursuit of a coveted 30/40 rating.
The Cruze Eco uses GM’s new Ecotec 1.4-liter Turbo, outputting 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. A turbo delivers the performance attributes of a larger displacement engine while maintaining the fuel economy of a smaller one. Despite the low fuel consumption, we experienced more than adequate mid-range acceleration and passing power. The Eco version is only available with a specially geared 6-speed manual transmission; the Cruze Eco’s fourth, fifth, and sixth gears have been set to overdrive for improved fuel economy.
Improved aerodynamics is another key strategy. The Eco version of the Cruze uses lower grille air shutters that open and close based on speed of the car and cooling needs of the engine—and to reduce aerodynamic drag at highway speeds. This is the first use of active air shutters for a compact car in the United States. Other functional add-ons include specific front grille closeouts, a lowered front fascia air dam, mid-body aero panels, a deck lid spoiler, a lowered suspension, and ultra low-rolling resistant tires on lightweight aluminum wheels. The use of high-strength steel across the Cruze line helps to reduce mass and weight.
For our test drive, we got behind the wheel of an engineering unit, which was about 85 percent finished. It showed no signs of lag, and off-the-line performance was strong. The same goes for highway speeds, with the added note that the engine is very quiet. GM applied 18 distinctive acoustical treatments to ensure the Cruze rides free of most engine and road noise. Shifts were seamless with quick gear engagement in all shifting scenarios.
The split between ride and handling was even. The Cruze is agile, but not particularly athletic—while the ride is comfortable, although not cushy. Aside from a well constructed body, all Cruze models will feature, count ‘em, 10 standard airbags: two front, two side, two front knee, two head curtains and two rear side.
When the Chevy Cruze Eco goes on sale late this year, it will be touted as a lower-cost alternative for those seeking hybrid-like fuel economy. We think its midsize feel and 40 mile-per-gallon-highway rating will force hybrid-makers to up their game. The next generation of hybrids will need to offer 50 MPG at a minimum—or even push toward 60 MPG—in order to keep up with Cruze Eco and other small fuel-efficient cars coming down the pike.
Cruze Eco pricing has not yet announced.