The Chevrolet Cruze's predecessor, the Cobalt, lasted only six years, thanks to tumultuous times for GM and the automotive industry as a whole. But it is a sign of a new era in automobiles that, where the Cobalt's smallest engine was a turbocharged 2-liter, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze comes on the scene with a maximum 1.8-liter engine.
In many ways a typical small car, the 2011 Cruze boasts a high, curved roof to enhance headroom and Chevrolet's now signature crossbar grille. From the back, you would be forgiven for confusing it with a Toyota Corolla, if it weren't for the prominent bow tie.
But the Cruze is a product of the new GM, meaning a solid-looking exterior and well-designed cabin. Particularly interesting are the cloth insets in the dashboard and door panels, with colors matching the seats. Those seats have a soft, foamy feel, like a new futon.
Shaving weight, drag
In Eco, LT, and LTZ trims, Chevrolet gets daring by offering the 2011 Cruze with a turbocharged 1.4-liter, an exceedingly small engine by U.S. standards. But the 2011 Cruze Eco also claims EPA fuel ratings of 28 mpg city and 42 mpg highway with this engine, besting its siblings by as much as 6 mpg.
The Eco achieves its excellent fuel economy through a mix of weight reduction and aerodynamics. Instead of a spare tire, it gets a sealant kit. Body panels are 1 millimeter thinner than in other Cruze models, and the Eco-trim car uses lighter wheels and low-rolling-resistance tires. The car sits a little lower, and improves airflow with a smoother underbody.
The most intriguing feature of the Cruze Eco is an electronically operated metal shutter in the lower part of the grille. At highway speeds, the shutter automatically closes, contributing to the car's aerodynamics.
To get the maximum fuel economy from the Cruze, you need the six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is an option, but it reduces fuel economy by as much as 5 mpg. Chevrolet doesn't offer the Cruze with an automated manual, like that found in the Ford Focus, which would have kept fuel economy high and offered the convenience of automatic shifting.
The Cruze's manual transmission shifts smoothly, sliding into each gear as if settling into a comfy lounge chair. Chevrolet has erased any mechanical feeling from this shifter, so that shifting in even heavy traffic jams never becomes tiresome. That tuning does reduce the sense of connection with the road a little, but that works fine in a general-purpose car like the Cruze.
Chevrolet puts a little green circle around the 6 on the shift pattern, which seems silly for those familiar with manual transmissions. But that circle indicates the Cruze's revised gear ratios over the standard Cruze's manual transmission, with a sixth-gear ratio of .61 to 1, letting the engine maintain low revolutions per minute at freeway speeds.
A display on the instrument cluster also suggests when to upshift, which is early and often, getting the car into sixth gear by 45 mph. But this little utility is smart enough not to suggest upshifts when the car is undergoing moderate to hard acceleration, or coasting.
Chevrolet will tout the Cruze Eco's 42 mpg figure, but its city mileage drags the average down substantially. CNET's test car, driven in dense urban traffic, at high speed on the freeway, and cruising through the mountains, came in with a 32.5 mpg average.
Although the Cruze Eco's high mileage suggests a car with little oomph, the engine churns out a feisty 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, that latter figure thanks in part to the turbo. Add the manual transmission, and you won't find yourself wanting for power. Downshift to third, and the Cruze Eco handles passing maneuvers and hill climbs with ease.