2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Introduction
It still may be hard for some to believe, but the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, configured with a six-speed manual transmission, attains the highest EPA number of any gas-only compact on the road. It's true the Chevy's mark of 42 mpg highway just barely beats out the 41 mpg of the Honda Civic HF or the 40 mpg of the Ford Focus SFE or any Hyundai Elantra (all four of these vehicles get the exact same 33 mpg combined), but the Bowtie brand's ability to perform at segment-leading levels in terms of fuel efficiency marks a notable departure from its pre-bankruptcy past. Of course, the same could be said about many aspects of the Cruze.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Cruze-ing Up the Sales Charts
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze has also delivered more sales in June and July than any other car in the U.S., which would seem to be evidence that the brand's new approach to the marketplace is working just fine. In fact, as Chevrolet trumpeted a few weeks ago, the brand set a new first-half global sales record by selling some 2.35 million vehicles in the first six months of 2011. Some of this can be attributed to timing, since the disasters in Japan have been affecting the production of cars like the Civic and Toyota Corolla for months now, significantly reducing competition for the Cruze. Clearly, the Cruze's own merits deserve some of the credit, too, right? Well, that's what I set out to discover recently, when Chevrolet provided me with a 2012 Cruze Eco and a full tank of gas for this review.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Pricing and Competition
Right in line with Chevy's recent direction, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze delivers surprisingly high levels of comfort, style and features, along with the highest MSRP among the mainstream competition—just like the Chevrolet Equinox and Chevrolet Malibu. The Cruze Eco I recently drove had an MSRP of $19,245, and while that included so much content Chevy didn't have to drop any options into the mix, the bottom line with a $750 destination charge came to $19,995. That's mid-size sedan territory on the one hand, although it also happens to be essentially the same sticker price as for the Civic HF or Focus SFE on the other. An interesting note is that all three are undercut by the less-well-equipped Elantra by a couple of grand.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Euro Styling Chevy-style
At first glance, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco can appear a bit nondescript, especially as compared to those three rivals I mentioned above. The Elantra, Civic and Focus all showcase some relatively dramatic sheet metal, with the first two in particular perhaps going overboard in their efforts to avoid getting lost in the marketplace as a growing number of smaller cars are attempting to attract younger customers with noticeably funkier designs, and this is far from the case on the Cruze.
Chevy’s compact has a high arching roofline that's reminiscent of past-generation Audi/VW sedans, creating a sophisticated, upscale European appearance that is further accentuated by some nice detail work and Eco-specific aero pieces. For example, look at the blade-like edge created at the top of the front quarter panels, where the shape of the wheel arches is aggressively echoed as that line moves toward the front of the car and carries down into the front fascia. Also worth calling out is the way Chevy designers extended some of the other exterior creases to help unify the styling, including the crease at the bottom of the lower air-inlets up front as well as the two lines that extend the lower edges of the door openings. The Eco model also gets active air shutters in the lower fascia opening that are capable of opening and closing depending on the car's speed to optimize aerodynamics.
The front of the car has a strong aggressive look, thanks in large part to the aerodynamic styling employed to boost fuel efficiency, but I didn't like the way the front edge of the hood overlapped the rest of the grille. I suppose this helps minimize any hood-to-grille gaps, though, and it does add some nice flair to the headlights. Speaking of the grille, however, the lower air shutters there—capable of opening and closing depending on the car's speed to optimize aerodynamics—lend an untraditional touch from angles when you can see the shutters themselves.
At the rear of the car, the Cruze tries to have it both ways by presenting a very short rear deck that could almost lead you to believe the car is a liftback. Interestingly, a somewhat similar approach is used in the Volt, but there the cue is used the other way, to lead people to perceive the liftback Volt as a sedan. In both cases, it's good for the vehicles' proportions, with the Cruze seeming to sit back on its rear wheels in anticipation of an aggressive launch.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Interior
The cabin of the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze showed the kind of premium cues and attention to detail and craftsmanship that I'm starting to expect from the new-generation Chevrolets, albeit with two significant issues. The first was the disappointing "deluxe cloth" seating fabric, which looked nice but wasn't exactly skin friendly. Driving the car in shorts was (literally) an irritating experience, and even my kids complained about how the fabric felt. My road-test assistants also had some valid concerns about the lack of room in the rear of the Cruze's cabin.
The front seating area is open and spacious, enough so that I could have mistaken the the Cruze for a mid-size sedan from the driver's seat. The seats themselves (not the fabric) were comfortable, and the dash and center stack both offered soft-ish materials, ergonomic design and premium style, highlighted by Chevy's growing expertise in using molded plastic as a trim material. It's just more plastic, albeit with a nice metallic paint job, but it's smooth and sparkly without the cheap, brittle feel you get from other hard plastics. This is the stuff used to great affect around the center-stack controls and gear-shift niche.
Chevy's welcoming dual-cockpit cabin design, which relies on trim and accent pieces that transition smoothly from the dash into the doors to envelope the front-seat occupants, is on display in the Cruze, too. This is another one of those design cues that you don't notice much until you're in a car that doesn't have them, and then you suddenly realize what a huge difference they make in creating the perception of a high-quality cabin.
The same can be said about how the sleek design of the center stack, with a sort of "y"-shaped area for the climate controls/door locks/hazard lights/passenger air-bag light, is emphasized by that nice molded plastic that also frames the audio and connectivity controls. The result is a high-tech design that doesn't overwhelm drivers with a multitude of switchgear. Further enhancing the driving experience was the car's six-speaker AM/FM/XM/USB audio system, which delivered notably crisp sound. A three-month satellite radio subscription—and six months of OnStar's Directions & Connections service—were standard.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Rear Legroom and Storage
That's all good, but even though I'm not the tallest guy in the world, with my seat properly positioned for driving, there were barely 7.25 inches between my seat back and the front edge of the rear-seat bottom. Now, when you compare spec sheets, the Cruze actually has more leg room than the Focus or Elantra, and when I tried out the rear seats for myself, I wasn't brushing up against the front seat-back ahead of me, so part of the tight squeeze is an optical illusion—but it's an effective one that could scare off some buyers who are looking to use those back seats on a regular basis. Also lacking back there was a pull-down center console for armrests/cup-holders between the rear outboard positions, which can make a world of difference for back-seat comfort.
One other interior point to note: Like many vehicles that offer nav systems, there is a shallow, wide storage area on top of the dash for when that option isn't installed. It's usually a pretty rough piece of work that doesn't seem to fit flush on the dashboard, but the execution in the Cruze is about the best I've seen. That makes sense, since the brand also has become very adept at outfitting its new models with impressive storage spaces. Another benefit of the Cruze's traditional-ish exterior came to the fore during driving as well. Without the stylized pillars found on the funkier compacts, and particularly the hatches, the Chevy had superior sight lines in all directions, even toward the rear, where a large, easy-to-access trunk with a built-in storage tray, along with de rigueur 60/40 split rear seats, adds a dose of practicality into the mix.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Powertrain and Fuel Economy
Chevrolet also gets kudos for the Cruze's powertrain, where the company pulled off a rather nifty achievement. Not only does the 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-four in the Eco model deliver better fuel efficiency than the engine in the base Cruze LS, but it also has an extra 23 lb.-ft. of torque on tap. Both mills develop 138 horses, but the Eco model brings a fairly robust 148 lb.-ft. of twist, and when that's routed through a six-speed manual transmission, over-the-road performance is unexpectedly brisk. The Cruze Eco is no sports car, but it's fairly quick for its segment and you never get the feeling that you're trading acceleration for fuel efficiency. That's even though I managed an amazing 36.4 mpg without modifying my usual driving style in any way.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: Driving Impressions
Chevy’s attention to improving aerodynamics and decreasing vehicle weight on the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco has provided an unexpected bonus of boosting performance and fuel efficiency at the same time. It's also further proof that fun and fuel economy aren't mutually exclusive, especially when a manual transmission is involved. The downside to the DIY gearbox is that you have to give up the sophisticated Z-link rear suspension to get it in the ECO model, but past experience tells me that trading that setup for the stick is the way to go if you want to get the most fun out of the car. Also, the manual-transmissioned Cruze Eco happens to lose out on some of the noise-suppression technology hosted by the other models, although this didn't seem to be an issue for me. The car I had wasn't Buick-quiet, but its levels of road and wind noise were in no way bothersome. As a result of all this, despite having average pedal feel and slightly vague electric-power steering—but a very nice steering wheel—the Cruze was actually fun to drive.
2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco: An Eco-Logical Purchase
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco with a six-speed transmission, as mentioned above, has a total vehicle price of $19,995 (including its $750 destination charge), and my take is that the car is certainly worth that amount of money. It delivers excellent real-world fuel economy, a relatively enjoyable driving experience, obvious attention to detail and craftsmanship, and enough standard content that you don't feel like you're missing out on anything. (Some drivers might want a nav system, which is an available option, but it's not a deal-breaker for me, particularly because of the standard OnStar turn-by-turn directions service.)
While I've more than once questioned Chevrolet's strategy of pushing its products upscale, I suppose the marketplace has the answer: GM once again sold more than 24,000 Cruzes in July, when it was the best-selling car in its segment.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle for this review
Photos by Charles Krome
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