For some time now, I’ve wondered if GM is capable of making a good boring car. Between the Vette, GTO, CTS-V and various SSs, GM’s demonstrated they’re were capable of making kickass cars that represent impressive performance bargains. Unfortunately, the market for kickass isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Toyota spent two decades building an automotive empire by selling the best vanilla available. They’d mastered the art of making cars for people who don’t like cars: inoffensive commuter appliances that manage to be “nice,” without being awesome in any way.
Fast forward to 2011 and Toyota’s suffering the consequences of building a customer base incapable of shifting into neutral or putting both feet on the brake pedal. Meanwhile, GM just posted a ten figure profit. And what of the Cruze? Well, it seems GM might’ve finally delivered some kickass vanilla.
Our Cruze Eco arrived wearing Press Car Red and a sticker price just under 21 grand, including destination. That’ll get you a 1.4L turbocharged Ecotec four cylinder pushing 138hp through a six speed automatic. Inside, you get essentially everything but leather, navigation and remote start. The Eco in the Cruze Eco means minor aero tweaks and ultra low rolling resistance tires. The Eco is arguably a sweet spot between the 1LT and 2LT trim levels and despite our car’s slusher, can actually be had with a six speed manual. We’ll get to just how Eco the Eco is a bit later.
“Driver’s car” or not, taking good care of this driver while he’s driving earns a car points ’round here. The wheel and seat are easily adjusted for position and angle. The seats and dash in our tester were trimmed with a black mesh over red fabric that comes off as a bit, well…naughty. Maybe they’ll go for fishnets in a special edition. Not like it’s connected to anything mechanical, but the shifter has good haptics and trades the horrible rubber/vinyl cover of previous GM compacts for plastics you’re not disgusted to touch. The center stack is easy enough to use and look at, but the display’s size and framing appear to have been designed to shame you for not springing for navigation. GM’s radios have a cool feature where presets can be from any band: AM, FM or XM. Once you get over the initial confusion, it saves tons of button presses.
The materials are as good as one could hope for at this price point. Chevy did a great job go designing some nice curves into the Cruze’s interior, but unfortunately they tend to visually amplify any imprecision when it comes to fit and finish. Most notably the door-to-dash and glovebox lines didn’t quite line up the way the curves wanted them to.
The Cruze is both a great size and shape. It’s being billed as a compact, but feels like a Goldilocks size between a typical compact and the increasingly portly mid-sizers. Think 1990 Accord. While the interior curves have a hard time lining up, the exterior manages to look fit without too much overt aggression or sportiness. The Eco-specific 17″ wheels look good, but trading “ohgodmyeyes!” chrome for a more subdued machined, silver or gray powder-coat would class things up a bit. There’s one unfortunate dead spot in the design at the C pillar: rather than finish off the roof arch line with glass or a Hoffmeister kink, they filled it in with an unpainted plastic panel. This unnecessarily cheap (and Sebring-y) looking detail gets old when you stare at it for hours laying out pictures for a review.
To describe driving the Cruze, I’m going to use unremarkable as a compliment (and also ignore the fact that it’s basically my job to remark). The breathed-on 1.4L has no problem getting up to any speed you want to go, and the six speed only needs manual micromanagement to be kept in fifth on extended mild hill climbs. The highway ride feels neither choppy, wallow-y, or cheap. While I didn’t treat the Cruze to our typical
empty mountain road closed course flogging, the modest amount of mid-commute hooliganism I engaged in (mainly overcooked on- and off-ramps) proved that while the Cruze isn’t necessarily looking to get rowdy, can hold its own when pushed. The combination of a bit of turbo boost, a short first gear and low rolling resistance tires meant the traction control was earning its pay off the line.
Lastly, we come to the Eco in the Cruze Eco. After a few days of making no specific fuel saving efforts on my 80mph hilly freeway commute, coupled with a few miles on some 50mph sprawlburbia mega-streets, I’d pulled 27mpg average. Horrified at the gap between that and the EPA’s 37mpg highway rating, I had to see what my road demon ways were costing in fuel. I hit the road again, this time roughly obeying the 65mph limit and not treating every on-ramp like a curved dragstrip. Despite the relative hilliness of my 15 mile loop, I pulled 38mpg, one-upping the EPA. (For the record, the manual-equipped Cruze is rated at 42mpg highway). The moral of the story? Your mileage may vary.
Aside from its name, I appreciate that the Cruze Eco is a green car without too much pretension; it’s a compact car with a few efficiency tweaks, but no leafy logos, no Eco gauges, no overbearing marketing blitz. Though to be honest, the sporty styling, competent chassis and better-than-expected turbo motor suggest a Volkswagen GTI-challenging Cruze SS is entirely feasible, and in fact quite tempting. Unfortunately, GM doesn’t need another unexpectedly kickass sports car, they need 2011’s 1990 Accord. Luckily or unluckily, they’ve delivered.