Fuel-efficient Cruze Eco delivers 42 mpg highway

Last fall Chevrolet rolled out its new compact Cruze model in North America to rave reviews.

Beginning in January, consumers also had the option of the fuel-efficient Cruze Eco trim level that delivers an EPA fuel economy highway rating of 42 mpg.

With a base price starting just below $19,000, the Cruze Eco is powered by a 1.4-liter turbocharged I-4 engine using regular unleaded gasoline that when mated with a six-speed manual transmission, delivers better fuel economy than many of the hybrids in its class that cost thousands of dollars more.

Keep in mind, the Eco is just one of five Cruze trim levels and not all Cruze models are created equal.

There are several factors that contribute to its best-in-class fuel economy that sets it apart from the Cruze LS, LT, 2LT and LTZ trim levels.

True, it shares the same body style, providing segment leading interior and trunk room.

And yes, it has all the segment leading safety features as the other Cruze trim models, including 10 airbags (dual-stage frontal, roof-rail-mounted head curtain side airbags for front and rear passengers, seat-mounted side-impact airbags for front and rear passengers and front knee airbags), rollover sensing and protection system, collapsible pedal assembly, StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover sensing, traction control system, anti-lock brakes, three-point safety belts for all five seating positions with seat belt retractor pretensioners and LATCH child seat anchor system.

Beyond that, the Cruze Eco has more in common with the Chevrolet Volt than it does with its sister models.

The Cruze Eco includes several aerodynamic design elements, as well as substantial reduction in weight, to help achieve its EPA specs of 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway (26/37 respectively when equipped with the optional six-speed automatic transmission).

The Cruze Eco also features new technology that includes a lower front grille air shutter that closes at higher speeds to reduce drag and opens at lower speeds to optimize engine cooling airflow.

It also gets a boost from the use of ultra-low rolling resistance 17-inch Goodyear tires ó the same wheels and tires used on the Volt.

In all, aerodynamic drag has been reduced by 10 percent over the other Cruze trim levels.

More than 42 changes were made on the Cruze Eco to reduce weight, which comes in at 3,009 pounds, more than 200 pounds lighter than the Cruze LT.

During my week in the Cruze Eco, I was very impressed with comfort, ride and handling. I have absolutely no complaints in any of these categories. The car performed splendid ó and the turbo I-4 even exceeded my expectations for performance.

While Chevy is selling the Cruze Eco at base price of $18,895, I expect most models will be sold for more as customers upgrade for additional features.

For example, my Cruze Eco test vehicle was equipped with the optional automatic transmission ($925), the driver convenience package which includes 6-way power driverís seat, remote vehicle start and rear parking assist ($685), and the connectivity plus package which includes cruise control, USB audio interface, leather trim interior, Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel controls ($525), bringing the total cost to $21,130 when adding in the $720 destination and delivery charge. Of course, there are other available options as well.

If fuel prices continue to climb, I could see the Cruze Eco being the models top selling trim level. Still, I canít help but wonder why Chevy didnít use the same fuel-saving blueprint for the entire Cruze lineup instead of just one trim.

Neal White has been covering the automotive industry for more than 20 years and is affiliated with the Texas Auto Writers Association.

MODEL:

2011 Chevrolet Cruze

5-seat compact sedan†

Front-wheel drive

Trim packages:

LS, LT, 2LT, Eco, LTZ

PRICE RANGE:

$17,000-$25,000

ENGINE:

1.8-L I4 (138 hp/125 torque)

1.4-L turbo I4 (138 hp/148 T)

TRANSMISSION:

6-speed manual

6-speed automatic

EPA: 26/24/28 mpg city, 36/36/42 mpg highway (1.8/1.4/1/4 Eco)

FUEL: Regular unleaded

SUSPENSION: Independent, MacPherson strut-type with side-loaded strut modules, specifically tuned coil springs, direct-acting stabilizer bar, hydraulic ride bushings (front); specifically adapted compund crank (torsion beam) with double-walled, U-shaped profile at the rear, Z-Link (rear).

TRACTION CONTROL:

StabiliTrak with traction control

BRAKES: ABS

LENGTH: 181 inches

WHEELBASE: 105.7 inches

WIDTH: 70.7 inches

HEIGHT: 58.1 inches

TRUNK: 15 cubic feet

TRACK: 60.7/61.3

(front/rear)

FUEL TANK: 15.6/12.6 gallons (Eco is 12.6 gallons)

TIRES: 16-, 17-, or 18-inch