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Chevrolet

According to GM, the future lies with smaller cars that sip gas yet are good looking and fun to drive. Consequently, the company set its sights on conquering the market space currently occupied by the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, and, previously, the ho-hum Chevrolet Cobalt, with the 2011 Cruze. The sturdy little car seems capable of bringing that vision to fruition.

In terms of fuel consumption, the Eco version of the Cruze edges out its competitors, at least on paper. According to the EPA, the Cruze Eco gets 26 mpg in the city and 37 on the highway. Forgoing the automatic transmission pushes that up to 28 mpg and 42 mpg, respectively. In our relatively short testing, we got about 24 mpg. However, that was based entirely on city and suburban driving.

The Eco has automatic shutters that close off the front grille to reduce drag at highway speeds when high-volume air intake isn’t needed. Engineers also added panels to smooth the vehicle’s underbody and gave the Cruze ultralow-rolling-resistance tires to get the most out of every ounce of fuel. GM says the Eco’s drag coefficient is 0.298, 10% more slippery than a non-Eco Cruze.

The Cruze Eco also weighs 214 lb less than a standard Cruze. It’s still 200 to 400 lb heavier than its competitors, however, so the diet was necessary just to bring fuel economy into line. Weight savings came from high-strength steels that let engineers slim down sheet metal and trim weld flanges. The 17-in. alloy wheels, standard on the Eco, weigh 5.3 lb less than the 16-in. wheels on non-Eco models. Replacing power-steering hydraulics with an electric-assist subsystem and shrinking the gas tank down to 12.6 gallons were other weight-saving moves.

Fuel-economy gains also come from the Cruze Eco’s engine, a 1.4-liter, DOHC, variable-valve timing, turbocharged four cylinder that puts out 138 hp. The turbocharger gives the Cruze get-up-and-go while minimizing fuel consumption at cruising speeds. That initial turbo also makes the Cruze more fun to drive than some of its competitors. And the Cruze’s MacPherson-strut and compound-crank suspension keep it rooted to the road, despite those ultralow-rolling-resistance tires.

Finally, it’s easy on the eyes, too. The Cruze shares aggressive styling cues with the Cadillac CTS, Camaro, and Volt. The result: a compact car that looks like a large sedan.

Inside, the Cruze was comfortable for this 5-ft, 4-in. driver. The driver’s seat was supportive without being unyielding and adjusted easily. However, a front-seat passenger complained his seat was a little too hard. Back-seat space is fine, but only if those up front aren’t too tall. The trunk holds a class-leading 15.4 ft3 of stuff.

The Cruze Eco starts at $18,175. Our tester also carried a connectivity package that included cruise control, a USB port, Bluetooth, and controls for those items on the steering wheel, along with some leather trim, for $525. We also got a six-speed automatic transmission instead of the standard manual transmission for an additional $925 and a compact spare instead of a tire sealant and inflator for $100.

— Jessica Shapiro

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.