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2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco Road Test

Eco's the name, eco's the game.

What It Is/Who It's For
For customers who want to downsize their vehicle without sacrificing comfort, refinement, or fuel economy, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco is one tough act to follow.
Best Thing
It's nearly impossible to get bad fuel economy in this car.
Worst Thing
Interior ergonomics could use some work.
Snap Judgment
A solid contender as one of the compact segment's best.


A staycation, by its very definition, is an adventure you basically do in your own back yard. It's practical and not too expensive, but when you head back to work on a Monday morning, you still feel all the better for your three days out you spent exploring the great unknowns of your city. Keeping that in mind in light of having two Pennsylvania travelers with me to explore the Southern California coast for their spring break, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco seemed a perfect fit for the weekend.

Our 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco came equipped with a navigation system, automatic transmission, a near-40-mpg fuel economy rating, and a $22,530 price tag, including $750 for destination and handling. Considering our press car came to us with almost 11,000 miles a big number for any press fleet vehicle we knew that many before us had embarked on the same sort of great American roadtrip. In other words, game on with seeing if this car lived up to its high fuel economy designation.

Competing against the likes of the Hyundai Elantra, Ford Focus SFE, and Honda Civic HF, the Cruze Eco model incorporates several tricks to improve its economy: flaps that block off unnecessary wind to the engine for better aerodynamics; low rolling resistance tires; an upgraded 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine; and better gearing for fuel-efficient driving to the standard Cruze sedan. It all helps improve EPA fuel economy numbers by about 20 percent over the standard Cruze to an estimated 26 mpg city/39 mpg highway when equipped with the automatic transmission. Models equipped with the standard six-speed manual transmission are rated at a better-yet 42 mpg on the highway.

So far this year, gas is well on its way to $4 per gallon for much of the country, and in many parts it's there already. But unlike years past, compensating with a more-efficient compact car doesn't necessarily mean settling for masochistic boxes on wheels designed to make you feel bad for getting an economy car. The Cruze is a perfect example of such a fact, as it offers up a substantial list of amenities along with a substantial driving experience. The question though, is just how much compromise does this "Eco" model ask? Is it an expensive but stripped-down model? Or are its fuel economy claims only theoretical? We took to the streets to find out.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

Our 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco came equipped with a few extras that not long ago wouldn't have been available on much anything under $40,000. The vehicle starts at $19,995, including $750 for destination and handling. The base Cruze starts at a competitive $17,595, but the Eco adds a smaller -- yet more powerful -- turbocharged, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 138 horsepower, active aerodynamic aids, low rolling resistance tires, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, 17-inch chrome wheels, and floor mats, among other features.

Additionally, our 2012 Chevy Cruze Eco came equipped with an automatic transmission ($995), seven-inch touchscreen head unit/navigation system ($995), a premium audio system ($445), and, interestingly enough, a compact spare tire ($100), which has all but gone away in modern cars. Most have replaced the compact spare with a tire sealant inflator kit, which comes standard in the Cruze. But traditionalists may want the spare. The rest of us have a membership to a roadside assistance club like AAA.

As well as well-equipped, the Cruze is also very safe. In NHTSA safety tests, it scored five stars in front and side tests. It scored four stars in rollover testing, which is nothing to scoff at. It also comes standard (as all 2012 cars do) with stability control, traction control, child safety locks for the rear doors to accompany the LATCH child seat anchors, a theft-deterrent system, six months of the OnStar customer helper, and 10 airbags. The Cruze Eco weighs several hundred pounds more than most of its direct competitors, and with all of the included safety features, it's easy to see how.

The Commute

The first thing you notice upon sitting in the low-to-the-floor front seats are just how firm they are, as if they were designed by Germans. In our test car, they were covered in canvas-like fabric that felt as durable as it did comfortable. Upon getting going, the Cruze lives up to its name well: It cruises. It's a comfortable, quiet car, owed to in part by heaps of sound insulation and that tiny four-cylinder engine. It sounds more like a whirring sewing machine than a full-size engine, which is a little disconcerting at first. When you've driven your fair share of buzzy four-cylinders in the compact class, you just don't expect the next car you drive to be any different.

But when you're not listening to the engine, the premium sound system fortunately provides plenty of the noise you want to hear. Its controls are fussy, due largely to the car's touchscreen interface, forcing you to thumb through a number of buttons and menus to get from the stereo to the navigation system to the Bluetooth controls. But at least the stereo left little to be desired.

The Grocery Run

Simply moseying at low speeds, the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco did something most of its rivals haven't: It proved to be a fun, spunky little car. Like the Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic, the Cruze has electric-assist power steering, which takes strain off the engine due to eliminating a hydraulic power steering pump. But unlike those two, it still has road feel, engaging the driver to enjoy the drive rather than just point and click the car. It helps make the Cruze feel like less of an appliance and more of a companion. It also helps make the car feel exceptionally maneuverable in a parking lot.

While it's more fun to steer, it's hardly a sports car. Most economy cars can't carry that kind of split personality. But the Cruze makes few other compromises despite its small size. Its trunk is tall and measures a class-leading 15.4 cubic feet, making it great for hauling plenty of large items. Don't expect to put a broomstick in there, though, as the space is a little narrow.

The back seat is surprisingly comfortable for kids, and the LATCH points proved easy to reach as well. The Cruze, like many GM products, offers belt positioning clips for the shoulder belts as standard equipment. These small plastic clips help lower the shoulder belt, getting it off the neck of shorter passengers for both comfort and safety. It's one of those forehead-smacking obvious features that makes you wonder why every manufacturer doesn't offer them.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

When you load up your friends to head to a theme park for the weekend, chances are some road fuel will be in your cupholder. It helps then if you can find said cupholders. In the Cruze, it's not that easy. While they're technically located right by the driver's right hip, it takes some dexterity to reach them. And, if you don't want said drink cup spilling all over the interior, it's best to take plenty of time relocating them before you set your cup down. Or just have your friend riding shotgun put the cup down in its reservoir.

Besides the finicky ergonomics, the Cruze isn't a bad place to be. From the driver's perspective, all of the controls outside of the touchscreen interface are pretty intuitive. It even has armrests for both arms right where you'd expect them to be and a well laid-out dashboard with cloth inserts that looks modern and upscale for the class. Some of our editors noted, however, that in the short life of our Cruze, piloted at the hands of plenty of unapologetic car reviewers before us, some of its interior plastics were starting to squeak.

In back, the door line swings a little low, forcing backseat passengers to duck a little. But once inside, they'll find plenty of leg room, as long as the driver or front passenger isn't taller than 5 feet 11 inches. With tall seatbacks, rear passengers sit upright instead of low to the ground as in past GM cars.

On the road, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco is quiet. Its suspension isn't the firmest, but it lets you know there's an imperfect road beneath you. It's a good compromise between comfort and sportiness, keeping the driver involved in the process. But more than anything, with friends, with traveling more than 300 miles over the course of the weekend alone, and with a hot California sun beaming overhead, it just felt confident. Averaging 33.6 mpg over our entire week with the car didn't exactly hurt the value proposition, either.

Summary

As a staff consensus, we found the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze Eco's styling a little boring, a little too conservative. We found it a tad underpowered. And there was a sense that the interior plastics, while very good for the class, could afford a little more glue underneath them before leaving the factory.

But most of our complaints were subjective. By the time we got down to it, we were nitpicking details because we just couldn't find that much wrong with the car. The list of praises was much longer.

When shopping for a compact sedan, it used to be easy to pass up Chevrolet dealerships because the offerings were compromised in some way. But with the Cruze, Chevrolet pulled its platform engineering team from Europe, its designers from Korea, and its U.S. engines team together to create a truly world-class compact sedan. While it's not going to win a drag race or wow with visual excitement, the Cruze has everything going for it to win over customers in a showroom.

And that's pretty much the only race that matters in this game.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $22,530
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 26 mpg
EPA Highway: 39 mpg
EPA Combined: 31 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 390 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"When I took the Cruze Eco on the drive loop with Associate Editor, Blake Rong, for the photo shoot, we actually found ourselves arguing about who got to drive next. Yes, we were arguing about driving a Chevy fuel-miser on a particularly windy stretch of road north of Los Angeles. And for good reason -- it's a damned good car on the freeway, around town, and surprisingly nimble on a twisty road." -- Jason Davis, Associate Editor

"Drive a Civic or Elantra or almost any other compact car down the road, and it'll feel slightly frantic, thanks to road noise, tire noise, maybe engine drone, and so on. But the Cruze is quiet and sold feeling, with a surprising lack of exterior noise. It's a compact car for grownups." -- Keith Buglewicz, News Director

"The Cruze proved its worth during my time with it. A solid combination of fuel economy, features, and price make it very formidable. Now if Chevy can just make the rest of its lineup on par with the Cruze..." -- Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

"Sorry, Chevrolet Volt, but you're definitely going to be overshadowed by your less-technologically-advanced but also fuel-sipper, less expensive Chevy mate." -- Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor

"This steers, brakes, and turns better than the Honda Civic. What a world we live in where a Mustang can go 200 mph and Chevy builds a better small car than the Civic." -- Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor

"Surprisingly better than I expected. If you're shopping the segment, it should be on your short list of test drives." -- Matt Askari, Associate Editor

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