When I graduated from college, it was also a time where tech jobs were not easy to find.  We were sending tons of them overseas, prompting something of a “Buy American” phase.  I bought American, in the form of a 1991 Saturn SL2 sedan.  It was the first competitive small car from the big three in a long time, in my opinion, and arguably even the last one, until recently.  Since then, imports like Civic, Corolla, 323 and Jetta have set the trend in compact sedans.  Sub-compacts were similarly dominated by European and Japanese auto makers.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much besides fuel economy and safety when Chevrolet provided a 2011 Cruze Eco sedan.  Suffice to say, my expectations were exceeded.  The Cruze is a very competent compact car overall; one very worthy of consideration for a small family looking for a smaller and more affordable new car.

I can’t say it was particularly fun to drive, had stellar performance or turned heads as I was driving around suburbia.  As a compact sedan it is stylish, but is not pretentious in any way.  I recently rented a Chrysler minivan for a road trip and thought to myself that it looked and felt like something from 1990, rather than 2010.  Even my wife had the same impression.  I can say, however, that the Cruze did not give me that dated impression at all. I can also say that unlike some previous generation small sedans, it looks classy, drives well and has the appearance and feel of greatly improved quality, both inside and out.   In fact, it seems quite on par in almost every regard with current offerings from the competition, rather than seeming like it was a generation or two behind the times (like the Chevy Cobalt and Cavalier that preceded it).  Even the fabric covered dash was a unique touch that was well done, as was the handy lift-up storage area that I used for my wallet and phone.

The efficient Cruze Eco starts around $18,000 base price.  Mine had a sticker price of $20,445, including destination charge.  Options were the $925 automatic transmission, $100 compact spare tire(!) and the $525 connectivity package.  I understand offering an automatic as an option, as the manual gets even better fuel economy and that is, after all, the purpose of the Eco trim.  I do think a compact spare should be standard, however.  A tire inflator and sealant kit seems a bit, well, inadequate, given that you can buy an inflator/sealant can for $5 at an auto parts store.  On the plus side, for 500 bucks you get cruise control, USB audio input, leather steering wheel and shifter, bluetooth hands-free phone interface (but not music streaming) and steering wheel controls.  That is a pretty nice splurge for some connectivity.  The standard Chevrolet Cruze starts with an even lower sticker price in various trim levels, from the entry-level 1.8L four cylinder LS all the way up to the slick LTZ model.

My Eco was made in Lordstown, Ohio, with 45% domestic content.  Key sources of foreign parts include Mexico (15%) and Austria (19%), where the engine is sourced.  It’s equipped with a 6-speed Hydra-Matic auto transmission and the turbocharged 1.4L Ecotec engine boasts 138 hp and 148 ft-lbs of torque.  Some noteworthy standard features on the Eco trim include stability control, remote keyless entry, OnStar (6 months included), power mirrors, 17″ alloy wheels, auxiliary audio input jack, XM radio and 10, count ‘em, 10 airbags!

My marketing brochure gave me the 4 key messages.  “Midsize car presence,” “Segment leading fuel economy,” “Segment leading safety,” and, “Engineered to the highest quality and durability standards.”  I’m not sure what “presence” means, but this is definitely not a midsize sedan in terms of interior room.  I think the other three key messages are debatable, but pretty close to the mark.  While the fit and finish quality seemed very good, I can’t really judge durability, except that it is covered by a standard 5 year, 100,000 mile comprehensive warranty and a limited lifetime warranty on the powertrain.  I can judge safety and fuel economy, though.

Yup.  28 city, 42 highway in manual trim, 26/37 in automatic.   No, that’s not going to compete with hybrids, diesels or high fuel economy versions of smaller sub-compacts.  On the other hand, if you look through the small cars at fueleconomy.gov, it does top all its competition like Corolla, Sentra, Elantra and Civic.  It even bests a some smaller and lighter sub-compacts!  Chevy did this with “old school” technology: reduce weight (by 200 pounds vs. the normal Cruze), better aerodynamics, low rolling resistance tires and a few other minor tweaks.  As for crash tests, as you can see in the video, it is unsurpassed by anything.  Top crash test ratings across the board from both NHTSA and IIHS.  To put it simply, if you’re looking for a safe smaller car that gets great fuel economy, runs on regular gas and won’t break the budget, this is it.  My wife drives a Toyota Prius.  It’s a little larger, has nearly as good crash test ratings and, of course, gets much better fuel economy, but it is also significantly more expensive when similarly equipped!

The Cruze doesn’t give up much in terms of refinement compared to our Toyota, either.  If you’ve got the inside of a Cavalier, Neon or Escort in mind, the Cruze blows them all away.  While it may not be best-in-class in terms of the interior, it’s pretty close.  There’s plenty of room for the driver and passenger, with all the necessary adjustments.  The controls were all smartly placed and looked modern, with decent feel.  That’s a big departure from even 10 years ago!  Adjustments include a tilt and telescoping steering wheel and I had no issues with the pedals.  Comfort was typical for a small sedan.  The seats were just right, neither too firm nor too soft.  The only peculiar thing I found was the door lock/unlock switch that was on the dash, rather than the armrest of the door itself.

The ride was solid and smooth, with no particular issues around town, on the highway or over uneven roads.  Road, engine and wind noise was a big improvement from my old Saturn and even from our 6-year old Honda minivan.  I daresay it is probably among the better models in its class in terms of noise, vibration and harshness.   Handling was better than I expected, too.  Again, not a sports car or luxury car, but quite competent for an entry level small sedan.  It’s also great for ease of parking in small spaces and turning around in narrow streets and lots.  Its acceleration won’t knock you back into your seat, but was decent for a small car.  My only complaint for performance was that it sometimes hesitated for less than a second as it hunted for the right gear.  The 6-speed automatic transmission just wasn’t quite as smooth around town as some other cars in its class, but was just fine on the highway for merging and passing power.  Many buyers will probably opt for the manual gearbox in Eco trim for fuel economy, anyway.   Braking was good, though I only had a chance to test it in dry conditions.

What about kids? 

 So, the back seat is small.  If you have a tall driver or passenger, it’s even smaller.  As a compact sedan, the rear seat is not very wide.  While it may be possible to cram three child safety seats back there, it’s going to require very careful selection, some effort for installation and the arrangement may not be easy to manage.  Granted, that is true of most small sedans.  Installing with seatbelts, rather than LATCH, can sometimes give just a little extra room for the center seat in a 3-across setup.  Aside from lower LATCH anchors that were somewhat hard to access, it was relatively good for child seat installation overall.

I tried various child safety seats and had no particular installation issues.  The main issues had to do with room for rear-facing seats.  A taller rear-facing convertible and some infant seats will probably not fit behind a tall driver or passenger.  The middle seat is the best choice for a rear-facing seat and I would think most infant seats and all but the largest convertibles will work rear-facing there, unless you are well over 6 feet tall in front!  You will have to use the seatbelt for installation in the middle, as LATCH anchors are not provided for this seating position.

While child seats generally install well due to the seat belt configuration, the short buckle stalks will make it difficult for older kids in boosters to buckle themselves.  That could be very difficult if they are adjacent to another carseat!  Our Toyota Prius also has this issue.  It’s simply a case where you may have to help a 4 to 6 year old to buckle if they use a booster, until they are a little older and more nimble.

I can’t forget storage.  The Cruze offers split folding rear seats and a relatively roomy trunk, at least for a small car!  Another feature I cannot overlook is OnStar.  Emergency assistance and crash notification is an important safety feature not found on many entry level vehicles.  This is one feature I really wish I had in our vehicles!  Plus, it’s not only a useful safety feature, but it provides directions and can even guide you to a frosty beverage when you need one!

Overall, as I mentioned to start, the Eco greatly exceeded my expectations, even beyond its class-leading fuel economy and crash test performance.  If you’re shopping for a small car and traditionally dismiss offerings from General Motors, you would be missing out on a very competitive vehicle in the Chevrolet Cruze Eco!  It is definitely worth mentioning in the same sentence as Civic, Corolla or Sentra and should even be mentioned first in some comparisons. 

For pricing information, we recommend Edmunds.com, Carwoo! and CarsDirect.com.

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Thank you to Chevrolet and G. Schmitz & Associates for providing the Cruze Eco for our review!