In an exclusive interview with the National Highway Traffic Safety…
BY Owen Bergwall, Green Car & Technology Contributor
Owning a Chevy Cruze Eco…with a manual!
I’m a resident of Washington, D.C. I ride my bike to work and take the metro most days. I drive a few times a week at most, and need a car for the freedom to see family in Philadelphia and New York, go skiing, to the beach and for generally being able to get away from the city. No, I don’t really need it, but I love cars, so I have one.
I wanted a car that was safe, roomy, reliable and decently attractive. It also had to be affordable because what’s the point of a gorgeous new Mercedes if its just going to sit alone and outside, in a parking lot all week?
The car had to be city parking approved, but big on the inside. It had to be easy to drive in traffic, but also comfortable for a long trip. Lastly, it had to bring a ton of value for the money. My 2009 black-and-tan VW Jetta 2.5 manual was excellent for all of the above, but the gas mileage and dealership experience were lacking. After looking at all the options, and coming from a Ford family, my question was, could Chevrolet do any better?
Taking a chance on a new brand, new dealership
In October 2012, after driving a Volt (which I loved), I leased a silver Chevrolet Cruze Eco complete with an Austrian-built six-speed manual transmission, optional fog lights, back-up sensors and a simple black cloth interior. My Cruze Eco’s cost rounded out to little under $20,000.
As a 2012 leftover, coupled with some rebates and other offers, I was able to negotiate a good deal (leaving aside my trade-in numbers). Special thanks to David Sawyer of Koons Tysons Corner for exchanging countless emails with me and answering my questions quickly – and for being kind and hilarious throughout the process. My dealership experience was very good. Altogether, I managed to get the car I wanted at the right price. Mission accomplished.
The car had to be city parking approved, but big on the inside. It had to be easy to drive in traffic, but also comfortable for a long trip.
The entry price for the 2012 Cruze Eco was $19,175 with the basic options, but the 2013 Eco can be optioned up to just under $24,000. That extra cash will get you what my car has, plus Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system (new for 2013), navigation, Pioneer audio, rear cross-traffic alert, blind-zone alert, a rear-vision camera, and power seating. Sadly, heated seats are not an option on the Eco. A similarly swanky Cruze LTZ will run you right around $27,000, but comes only with an automatic trans.
Altogether, I managed to get the car I wanted at the right price. Mission accomplished.
Cruzin’ for a design upgrade, but it’s a fuel sipper
As for the exterior design, the Cruze is a bit underwhelming, but in my opinion, not as boring as a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic. Other than the sharp front end and European styling, there is not much that’s memorable about the Cruze’s exterior. There is nothing wrong, but it’s no looker. The rear end is a little snoozy as well, but again, it’s okay.
In silver, I’m pretty sure the Cruze has a Star Trek-style cloaking device. Nobody really notices it, which is awesome for driving quickly, or “directly” as I call it.
As of this writing, I have averaged 34.6 mpg combined for more than 4,000 miles. I routinely get 40+ mpg during highway driving. Not bad when you think about how fast people drive around D.C., and how much traffic I sit in, and how financially accessible the Cruze Eco is.
Serious tech for a not-too-serious price
Beneath the Cruze Eco’s sharply creased hood lives some cool technology – more than many cars costing much more. Here’s the short list:
- smart grill shutters that close around 40 MPH
- lowered ride height
- thinner sheet metal and smaller welds in strategic areas
- a lip spoiler to cheat the wind
- mostly-flat undercarriage
- fuel tank reduced by three gallons to 12.6 gallons
- tire inflation kit (with no spare) to reduce weight
The Eco is also rumored to have less insulation to save weight, but I cannot tell.
Chevrolet added an “Eco gear set”, which is essentially a triple overdrive. It’s not as complicated as it sounds. The car’s normal gears one through three are great, but gear 4 is pretty low and gear 5 is way too low to get any pull (although, with the diesel motor it might be terrific). I don’t typically use 5th gear (remember, I get to decide because it’s a manual). It’s too low for acceleration, and too close to 6th in ratio. Besides this foible, the ultra-low gearing has worked.
A nifty little motor
The American-built small displacement 1.4 Liter turbo four is not direct-injected but it is a great little engine, cranking out a mild 138 horsepower and a decent 148 lb.-ft of torque. Wring it out, and it’ll get you to 60 mph in about 8 seconds. It’s no rocket, but it’s more satisfying than a hybrid and remains smooth throughout the power band.
I have averaged 34.6 mpg combined for more than 4,000 miles. I routinely get 40+ mpg during highway driving. Not bad when you think about how fast people drive around D.C., and how much traffic I sit in, and how financially accessible the Cruze Eco is.
The motor is quiet, with minimal sounds coming through to the cabin. I enjoy rolling the windows down and listening for a little turbo whistle at around 1,900 rpm. I will never outgrow that sound. Like so many of today’s small turbo motors, you don’t get Abarth or Buick Grand National noises. You get quick-spinning, highly insulated turbines, like the Honeywell one in this engine that spins up to an impressive 240,000 rpm. Like the turbo on the Volkswagen 2.0T, you barely know it’s there.
Quietness is a double-edged sword in a car with a manual transmission. It’s lovely for hearing conversation, but it makes the car easy to stall. You can’t easily listen and rev-match your downshifts without peering at the tachometer. Also, in the Cruze you may forget to upshift on the highway, and the suddenly realize that you’re doing 70 in 4th gear.
If you really wind out the revs, then the engine takes around 5-6 seconds to settle back down. The rev-hanging thing is probably something Chevy does to make shifting smoother, but it’s annoying when driving “passionately”.
All in all, the greatest strength of the Chevy Cruze Eco is where most of us really spend our time in the car – highway cruising. There’s no better way to say it, this little bugger devours the miles. You can comfortably cruise at 80 mph around a sleepy 2,000 rpm, getting 40 miles per gallon the whole way home for the holidays, sipping your Starbucks and pumping tunes from your iPod.
Being someone who does not drive to work, I use the car for primarily for highway driving. That’s why the Chevy Cruze Eco works so well for me. If you’re doing mostly city commuting, keep in mind that a hybrid’s city mileage will be much better for you.
What about cornering?
Answer: the Cruze Eco can go around corners.
The 2012 Cruze doesn’t exactly encourage Focus ST or VW GTI style playtime, but it doesn’t give offense. The car’s competence is often underrated, but it corners well. The Cruze takes turns nice and flat, sans drama and with decent steering feel. It even seems to enjoy being pushed on back roads. This is pretty impressive for an affordable car with an emphasis on economy above all else.
On a recent ski trip to Snowshoe, WV, I did some aggressive driving on mountain roads. The Cruze responded well on snow- and salt-covered, wet and dry roads. The Cruze Eco’s handling actually reminds me of my 2003 Jetta. Sprightly, tight and solid, but not technically sporty. The car’s handling is competent and enjoyable, not over the top – exactly what most of us really need.
Let’s just say the interior meets my six-foot-five needs
In a wonderful surprise, there are shocking volumes of legroom up front in the Cruze (and Volt). However, when I’m driving, there is nearly none in the back.
The Cruze Eco comes with a standard leather steering wheel and shifter. It’s a perfect car for two to three person road trips, with the driver’s side rear seat folded down for skis/snowboards/Ikea stuff. The seats are supportive, and good for a five-hour drive. My passengers have all agreed with me on this point. The standard stereo is excellent (though the sound quality is worse with satellite radio). I really like the ice-blue interior lights and gauges (makes me miss that 2003 Jetta a little bit less).
The general feeling of solidity and insulation is both reassuring and surprising for a smaller car. There’s no real soft touch areas on the doors, but I’m slowly getting over this omission. I’m also happy to save money on it, being as I rarely aggressively poke my dashboard.
Grins and gripes
It’s been just about four months, and even as an overly critical car geek, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco has impressed me. Nearly 4,000 miles and two seasons later, I haven’t had so much as a hiccup with anything mechanical or electronic. The fuel mileage is excellent. The car runs great and is comfortable. Good stuff, Chevy, good stuff.
Was there anything negative thus far? My only real gripe, besides that 5th gear thing, was an annoying rattle in the driver gauge cluster’s cover. I’ve had rattles in VW’s, but the rattle was normally impossible to locate. This one, I located myself. The dealership fixed it in about an hour. As I told the service writer, it was just a screw loose. They took apart the gauge hood, tightened everything up, and the rattle is gone.
As someone who grew up driving Fords and Volkswagens, with the occasional Camaro, I will say that the Cruze Eco should be on your list if you want a safe, efficient four-door sedan that has a basic fun side – a quietly competent, flying-down-the-highway-under-the-radar kind of fun side.
That’s all for now – stay tuned for more fuel efficient adventures with our 2012 Chevy Cruze Eco!