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2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco First Drive: Maximum Minimalist

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author photo by Autotrader February 2011

With unrest in the Middle East driving up the cost of oil, gas prices seem to be on everybody's minds these days. But luckily for those feeling the crunch, 2011 is the year of the fuel-efficient small car comeback. From the 2012 Ford Focus to the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, there has never been this much choice in small cars for the U.S. market.

Some manufacturers, such as Hyundai, have tried to spread the high mileage love throughout their model line–with every 2011 Elantra sold able to claim the 40 mpg crown. Other manufacturers, such as Ford and Chevy, have created special editions of their small cars to get them over the hump.

It's in this gas-sipping, special edition crowd that the Chevy Cruze Eco wins the day. While the 2012 Elantra returns 40 mpg on the highway and the 2012 Focus SFE the same, the Cruze Eco with manual transmission trumps them all with a 42 mpg highway rating.

Getting to this lofty number required Chevy to scrape it out bit by bit – literally. In a quest to reduce weight, the engineers removed items such as the center rear armrest and used thinner sheetmetal in some locations. Throw in the same tires as the Chevy Volt, a fancy shuttered grill that closes at high speeds to improve aerodynamics, lower it by half an inch with new springs and, voila, it's a sporty-looking Cruze on a diet.

For the Cruze Eco, the 42 highway/28 city mpg fuel economy equates to a gain of about 16 percent on the highway and 9 percent in the city compared to the base manual transmission Cruze (36 highway/26 city). But beware: if you add an automatic transmission, the Cruze Eco's fuel economy gains are slashed, returning 37 mpg on the highway and 26 mpg in the city – only about a one mpg improvement over the base automatic transmission Cruze.

A week of driving the automatic Cruze Eco over a span of more than 150 miles returned about 25 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway–relatively close to the EPA estimate. At an extra $925, it clearly doesn't pay to get the automatic transmission if you're buying a Cruze Eco for the fuel economy gains – especially since you lose out on getting the automatic transmission as standard equipment on the similarly-priced Cruze 1LT.

Handling was a bit more responsive than average for this category of vehicle, providing confidence around corners–largely due to the vehicle being lighter than any other model of Cruze. Braking is also reasonably good for the Cruze Eco, with front disc and rear drum brakes, but there's no option to upgrade to four-wheel disc brakes as there is with other Cruze trims.

Starting at $18,175, the Cruze Eco is priced about the middle of the pack for Cruze trim packages. At that price it's loaded with some nice features, such as stability control, 17-inch wheels and satellite radio. Even fully loaded with automatic transmission and every option, the Cruze Eco tops out around $20,500 – but that's because Chevy doesn't offer an upgraded stereo, sunroof or navigation system as options on the Cruze Eco. Other Cruze trims offer those options.

While some cars have gained their fuel economy chops with fancy high technology like hybrid drivetrains, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco did it the old fashioned way – it went on a diet. And it offers plenty of driving fun and fuel economy in an affordable package. For thrifty shoppers that still care about a bit of soul, the Cruze Eco is a winner.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco First Drive: Maximum Minimalist - Autotrader