The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, with manual transmission, delivers an EPA-estimated, segment-leading 42 miles per gallon on the highway and 28 mpg on city streets. That means the all-new Chevrolet Cruze Eco, in dealer showrooms mid-December, beats all non-hybrid segment competitors for highway mileage. In addition, the Cruze Eco with stick gets better fuel economy than the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid.

As a global vehicle, the Cruze went on sale in Asia and parts of Europe in March 2009, and has already sold nearly 300,000 units in more than 60 countries. The subcompact Cruze replaces the aging Chevrolet Cobalt, a US-only model, for the 2011 model year. The Eco will be manufactured in Lordstown, Ohio alongside the rest of the Cruze lineup—LS, LT, and LTZ models already on sale—and is one of the few compact cars built in the U.S. for the 2011 model year.

In the States, a new Ecotec 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine will power the Cruze Eco. The Chevy Volt employs the same 1.4-liter engine to power its onboard electric generator, although that installation does without the turbocharger. At 138 horsepower (hitting the magic 100 horsepower-per-liter mark), the little sedanlette is estimated to scoot to 60 mph from a standstill in 10 seconds with the manual transmission, and nine seconds with the six-speed automatic.

Both manual and automatic transmissions offer six speeds, a major advance over earlier subcompacts that made do with four-speed automatics and four or five gears. No surprise that the Cruze is front-wheel-drive.

Technology: Turbocharging, Less Weight, Overdrive, Better Aero

This hybrid-like fuel economy can be attributed in part to the 1.4-liter Ecotec four-cylinder engine. While turbocharging has long been known to make a small displacement engine powerful enough and extremely efficient, the Ecotec 1.4L turbo uses a unique, integrated turbocharger and exhaust manifold. The design incorporates the turbocharger’s turbine housing into the exhaust manifold as a single component. It requires fewer parts, is lighter than a conventional system—less weight improves fuel economy—and helps the engine warm up faster, which benefits emissions performance.

Working in unison with the engine is a cleverly engineered, specially geared six-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 aid the car’s aerodynamics. It uses sensors to sense wind and temperature conditions. Electric motors hooked to the sensors open and close the shutters, closing them at high speeds to reduce drag. At lower speeds, they are open to let in more air to cool the engine. That cool system adds nearly a half-mile per gallon of fuel economy. 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.

First Drive

Earlier this year, we got behind the wheel of an engineering prototype, which was about 85 percent representative of the final-product, at GM’s proving grounds in Milford, Mich. What did it feel like?

Even though the Cruze Eco will be marketed as a compact, nothing about it felt cheap or undersized to us. The car had the exterior dimensions, cabin space, trunk volume, amenities, and overall presence of a quality midsize sedan.

Chevrolet Cruze Eco

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

The Cruze Eco 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. Manual 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.

The Eco model is not only getting attention for its efficiency, it’s also getting noticed for decent looks. Motor Trend reports that the Eco model will ride on a dropped suspension. “Equipped thus, and riding on unique—and not altogether unattractive—multispoke 17-inch wheels, the Eco model actually winds up being one of the nicest-looking Cruze models we’ve yet seen.”

Designed to go head-to-head with the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus, when it comes to cabin and cargo space the Cruze Eco is the clear leader. Passenger volume is 95 cubic feet, besting the Honda Civic’s 91 cu. ft., the Toyota Corolla’s 92 cu. ft. and the 93 cu. ft. in the Ford Focus. Trunk volume, at 15.4 cubic feet, dwarfs the Civic’s 12.0, the Corolla’s 12.3 and the Focus at 13.8.

Chevrolet Cruze Eco

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

So, what can you expect for the $18,175 price tag in addition to 42-mpg highway mileage? Chevrolet hasn’t released a complete list of standard amenities, but you can expect at least the following: power windows and locks with remote keyless entry, air conditioning, tilt-telescoping steering wheel, an eight-way (manual) adjustable driver seat, an AM/FM/CD sound system and three months free XM Satellite radio, auxiliary input for MP3 players and OnStar with six months’ free service.

Chevrolet states that the Cruze is engineered for a five-star rating, though it has not been tested. Outside the U.S., the Cruze has achieved a top safety rating on three continents. In addition to the 10 airbags, the Eco’s standard safety hardware includes four-wheel anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control with rollover sensing and traction control.

In addition to the Eco model, there are three other editions. The LS is powered by a 1.8-liter in-line four that makes 136 hp and 123 lbs.-ft. of torque and returns 22 mpg city and 35 highway with an optional six-speed automatic transmission. The LT, which gets the 1.4-liter turbo four, is actually comprised of 1LT ($18,175) and 2LT ($20,675) trim levels. At the top is the LTZ, also with turbo power, priced at $21,295.

Getting Past 40

Granted, the 42 mpg is for the highway and it is easier to increase than the city value, as aerodynamics play such a large role in highway fuel economy. But still, the Cruze Eco is the only gasoline-powered car in its class that can make that claim—at the moment. Ford’s smaller 2011 Fiesta is already a member of the 40-mpg highway club and Hyundai says its soon-to-arrive 2011 Elantra will join.

Domestic automakers are finally delivering fuel-efficient, economical, conventional small cars that can get 40+ mpg. With quality fuel-efficient small gas cars like the Chevy Cruze Eco, and the Ford Fiesta, finding their way to dealer showrooms, one question remains: Are American car buyers, who have traditionally viewed small as less, ready to make a shift?

Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at the time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or license fees.