A week with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco

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Colour me impressed, Chevrolet.  Whenever I review a vehicle, I try to be objective and review it with its own mission in mind.

I recently spent a week driving a 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco.  Many have said that the Cruze can be counted among the verifiable evidence that GM is turning things around, and that they are headed down the right path.  Having spent a week with it, I would agree.

The Cruze starts at an astonishing CDN $14,995.  I’m not sure how many competitors there are at that price level, but I’m sure there aren’t many.  There are four trim levels – the Cruze, Cruze Eco, Cruze LT and finally the Cruze LTZ.  The base model comes with a naturally aspirated engine.  I haven’t driven it, but for the price difference, I’d definitely step up.  The other three trim levels share a 1.4 L inline-4, with uses variable valve timing and is turbocharged.  It’s rated at 138 HP @ 4900 RPM and makes its maximum torque down low – 148 lb.ft @ 1850 RPM.  These numbers aren’t mind-blowing, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind.  It wasn’t long ago that achieving 100 HP/litre was quite an accomplishment.  Secondly, the numbers are competitive in this class.  And finally, performance is fine, because the engine is only motivating 3000 lbs of vehicle, which is relatively light.

Let’s talk about what this model’s Eco designation gets you.  The only hint that this is an Eco is the little green badge next to the model name on the back of the car.  First, you’re looking at about CDN $19,495 to get into one, and they’re decently equipped for this price level.  The one I drove had the connectivity package, and I priced it out at $19,949 after a currently-offered price adjustment.  You get the standard GM 3 year/60,000 km warranty.

I like that GM made a very fuel-efficient car (allowing it join the exclusive 40 mpg club), without needing to use costly hybrid technology.  They did things that are simply common sense.  If you know your stuff, you’ll recognize the Eco-specific 17” polished chrome wheels.  They are lightweight forged wheels just for this car.  They are also shod with low rolling resistance tires, a feature which is also Eco-specific – that said, they’re nice meaty 215-55s which look great on a small car.  As a further weight-saving measure, the car doesn’t come with a spare tire but rather a repair kit and a compressor built into the trunk.  As an added bonus, you have significantly more room in the trunk.

Additionally, GM has put an Eco-specific aero package on the car, using a lower air dam and front grille with active air shutters that open and close to control air flow and assist with aerodynamics similar to the Ford Focus, underbody aero panels and a rear spoiler.  The Eco also comes with the sport-tuned suspension, which slightly lowers the car – it’s an option on the two higher trim levels.  And finally, the 6-speed manual transmission uses a triple overdrive Eco gearset.  In the end, GM has taken a good car, and made small but effective changes to its unsprung weight with lighter wheels, its friction component with low resistance tires, its aerodynamic footprint with some aero changes and its fuel consumption with a more efficient gearset.  These things all add up – the car weighs in at 3010 pounds, which is 46 pounds less than the base model and 167 pounds less than an LTZ.

In terms of “Eco”, this results in a vehicle rated at 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg) in the city and a crazy 4.6 L/100 km (61 mpg) on the highway – for a combined 6.0 L/100 km (47 mpg) rating.  I drove the Eco for 483 kms, with almost all city driving and averaged 7.1 L/100 km (39 mpg) – how do you argue with that?  The one caveat is that the Eco has a smaller gas tank than the other trim levels – a tiny 47.7 Litres versus their 59 Litres.  It doesn’t hobble the vehicle by any means, but it will impact the car’s ability to go super-long stretches on the highway without filling up, regardless of the fuel economy.  Mind you, theoretically, if you’re achieving its rated highway mileage, you would be looking at over 1000 kms on that tiny tank.

Exterior

I thought this car looks good.  Considering that this is a relatively entry-level vehicle behind the tiny Aveo, this car, in many folks’ opinions, had small shoes to fill.  Although it seems like a different class altogether, this car could be considered the successor to the Cavalier and the Cobalt.  I’ve talked to enough owners of those vehicles to know they weren’t designed or built well, but they were cheap and that’s what mattered to a lot of those buyers.  This car doesn’t look cheap from the outside.  The design is grown-up.  I’ve seen essentially every age group driving a Cruze, and it suits anyone in it.  It’s been given strong but conservative lines that won’t offend, and it wears Chevy’s new corporate face, which has a little aggressive growl and sport to it.  I liked how it looked from every angle, and honestly, this car got looks on the road.  It’s bigger than you’d expect from this class and bigger than pictures suggest.  There’s nothing remarkable about the exterior – it’s got subtle badging, subtle touches of chrome, and good proportions.  Yet everything works and it doesn’t come across as entry-level or cheap.

Interior/Tech/Convenience

Get into the car, and you’ll have a similar feeling.  Nothing spectacular, but considering the price, it is well done.  It’s got a grown-up (in a good way) feel.  Hard plastics abound, but Chev endowed the plastics with a nice pattern so they look decent.   I liked the two-tone dash, with lighter tones sweeping across the middle of the dash.  The buttons and switchgear had a good feel to them – nothing felt cheap, and actions were positive and solid.  You’ll find comfortable seats, which were 6-way manually adjustable in this model – I easily made them fit me well.  Sure, I could pine after more bolstering, but they were fine, and the cushions are firm enough.  It’s got a small but great steering wheel – it adjusts up and down and telescopes manually, and it has controls for phone, media and cruise control.

In the centre stack, you’ll find a wide LED screen on top – it uses a fat, chunky, and frankly, ugly font as well as graphics to get its point across.  And it has a lot of points to get across.  Anything you do in terms of media (volume, station, source, etc.), climate control, phone, you name it – it will all show up there.  It always shows the time and the outside temperature as well.  One thing I found irritating was that buttons, especially related to the stereo system, took about a second to react.  It often caused me to hit the button twice until I got used to that.  It does register on that screen, so if you’re patient enough, you’ll get confirmation of a changed radio station or whatever, but it’s not as quick as you might be used to.

Speaking of the media system, you get a non-branded 6-speaker system, drawing from AM/FM/XM/MP3 sources, as well as a single-disc CD slot.  You have a USB and an auxiliary plug in the lidded center console bin.  The system is weak, but once you turn it up, it sounds alright.  This can obviously be upgraded.

Between the two main gauges which I thought were a little tough to read quickly, you’ll find a Driver Information Centre – a small, rectangular screen that is controlled with a weird ring on the left stalk on the steering column – it also uses a menu and a set/reset button there.  Controlling things with this ring and those buttons doesn’t feel natural, but it works just fine.  It displays your odometer, trip meters, average and instant fuel economy, range, speed and compass.

In terms of other tech, you’ll find the ubiquitous OnStar system, activated through the rear-view mirror.  I understand that the car can receive turn-by-turn navigation directions through this system, and they would be displayed in the Driver Information Centre – I didn’t use this system, but it is provided free for six months.  Obviously this includes Emergency Services/Crisis Assist too.  Handsfree Bluetooth integration was also here, and it was simple to integrate my phone.

This model had automatic headlights and a decent, albeit not automatic, climate control system.  Convenience-wise, it has power door locks, power windows and power/heated mirrors.  You have a keyless entry FOB with a remote trunk release.  There’s a 12V outlet in the centre console, as well as one on the back of the console for rear passengers.  That’s more than the new BMW I reviewed recently provides.  Map lights are at the front and the center dome.  Vanity mirrors are not lit, which wasn’t a hit with my wife.  That said, the visors have little clips on them, to hold parking passes or papers – I’ve seen this in other vehicles and love it – it makes you wonder why someone didn’t think of this 50 years ago.

Rear Seat

The rear passenger compartment is a nice size for this class.  I would consider it passable but uncomfortable for a fifth/middle passenger.  As always, I tested it with all three of my kids, using a variety of child/infant seats to accommodate them.  There are two sets of LATCH anchors, and three top-mount anchors.  It fit all three and their seats, and there were no space complaints.  The rear seats fold down, splitting 60/40.

Storage is limited in this car, but acceptable.  There is a lidded bin on top of the dash, and a small lidded bin in the center console, along with 2 inline cupholders – the only two you’ll find in this car.  You get small, but tall, door bins in all four door, and seat-back map pockets in the rear.  The glove compartment is big, and the trunk, as mentioned earlier, is exceptional for this size of sedan – the Eco benefits from extra space due to the deletion of the spare tire.

The Drive

OK, let’s talk about driving this thing.  I’ve read some reviews that indicate this car is less than inspiring and I agree in some ways, but not in others.  Here’s what I got out it.  If you’re spending in the neighborhood of CDN $20,000 on a vehicle that comfortably seats four people, five if necessary, handles well and gets excellent fuel economy, you know you’re also going to be giving something up in some departments.  Luxury will likely take a hit, sportiness will most likely not be a priority, etc.

I thought the clutch travel was quite long, and the shifter was notchy and rubbery, with acceptable throws.  This manual transmission does not inspire sporty driving, but you’re buying an Eco model for a reason, right?  The car has a “SHIFT” light in the gauge cluster to encourage you to seek a higher gear whenever appropriate to save Mother Earth.  I wouldn’t call this car fun to drive, but I think that came from the transmission choice here.  That said, it’s a great car to be in for point A to point B transportation, and for this price point, it does a lot of things well.  I thought the suspension was set up very well – it’s well planted, the ride is decent but firm, and the handling very competent, especially in city maneuvering.  I’m guessing this is related to the upgraded sport suspension – I’d recommend it.  You’ll be surprised at this car’s composure in corners.  The car is a breeze to park, with a great turning circle.  I’ve read a review on this car that indicates its interior sound levels are rated the same as a Lexus.  I won’t argue because I don’t have the facts, but that seems a bit rich.  It’s definitely a quiet ride, although you’ll hear the thumps and bumps on rougher roads.  They’re well damped and you don’t feel much, but you’ll hear them.

Considering the power rating, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that this car has little low-end power, but for city driving, it is absolutely fine, and above 2500 RPM at city speeds, you can do most anything you need to.  It’s perfect for commuting.  On the highway or freeway, the engine needs to be dropped to the appropriate lower gear and needs to be revved up to pass, but this set-up wasn’t designed for aggressive driving.  Also, I’m guessing the automatic transmission has shorter gear ratios that would allow for sportier driving, if that’s a consideration.

I felt the outward visibility was hampered slightly by the front and rear pillars – it’s not bad, but you’ll notice them there.  The rear view is a bit cramped and the headrests intrude, but it’s fine too.

Safety

In the safety department, you’ll find traction control (which is defeatable when you want to lay 1-2 feet of rubber down 🙂  ), 10 airbags, and ABS brakes – drums in the back.  I felt the brakes were really good on this car.

Nitpicks

I always like to nitpick with cars, as if I could do a better job building and designing them.  I do feel that, to be fair, nitpicking should be done while considering a car’s mission, price point and class.  I could say, man this car would be so much better with 250 horsepower, and coupe-like looks.  Yes, it could be sportier to drive, and honestly, who doesn’t include lit vanity mirrors?  But considering this is a relatively entry-level car, I had little to criticize, and more to appreciate.  Little things, and I’ve pointed this out before – I absolutely HATE the power door lock switch in the centre console.  A lot of manufacturers are headed there, and I just prefer it on the driver’s door panel.  That’s it.  Nitpicking on this car’s lack of tech or luxury, or ability to inspire on the road, makes little sense when you consider what it was designed to do, and how much it offers to those that will choose to spend around CDN $20,000 for it.

Chevrolet has done a great job marketing this vehicle.  I was stopped quite a number of times and asked by people “Is that Cruze as good as they say it is?”  That means a) people know about the car, and b) it has a good reputation out there.  And to those people I answered yes – yes, it’s as good as they say it is.  It looks like the Bowtie knows what it wants, and is rewarding those who are giving it another chance.

Verdict

I’d rate this car as a 7.5 out of 10.  I’m certain further refinements and improvements are on the way as this model matures, and for myself, I’d likely step up to a higher trim level to get some more tech and leather – the LT and LTZs still get excellent mileage, although not Eco mileage.  WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) was actually very good – the car fit our family of five, and my wife liked the looks.  The manual transmission didn’t go over so well, and we had a few “quick, open your window and get some fresh air” moments.  Maybe that’s better categorized as “Wildsau sucks with a manual”.  Either way, I’d likely end up buying it with the automatic.

Disclosure:  Vehicle was provided by GM.

If you enjoyed this review, feel free to check out my other vehicle reviews under the car reviews tab at the top of my blog.

 

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