Forty Two MPG from a Non-Hybrid

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco.

For mainstream auto companies, the new cool club to be in is the 40 miles per gallon club. And as of this model year, the membership in that club isn’t just exclusive to hybrids. The race is now on to produce cars with fuel economy of 40 mpg or better with conventional gasoline engines.

Claiming the top spot in said club is a special version of the Chevrolet Cruze called the Eco. Thanks to a bunch of engineering tricks, it’s managed to garner a highway fuel economy estimate of 42 miles per gallon, beating the conventional Cruze’s figure of 36. (The city estimate is 28, which is four better than the other Cruze models.)

How did Chevrolet manage to eek those extra miles out of each gallon? Well, in pretty much every place on the car, some change was made to maximize efficiency. Under the hood is the same 1.4 liter turbocharged four cylinder you can get in the regular Cruze, but mated to a unique 6-speed manual transmission with gear ratios that let the engine loaf along at a slower pace during freeway driving.

If you don’t want a manual transmission, you can still get a Cruze Eco with the automatic, but the highway mileage estimate drops to 37 mpg. Still not bad, but not the same bragging rights that the manual has.

So you’ve got an efficient engine that is helped by a special transmission, but there are lots of other things in play too. Aerodynamic efficiency is helped by reworked grill that only lets in so much air to reduce drag. On the portion below the bumper line, automatic shutters stay closed at higher speeds, good for a further reduction in drag. Finally, there’s a special tray under the car so air can slip by there too as well.

Forged wheels help reduce weight, and they’re mounted with low rolling resistance tires shared with the Chevy Volt. Further weight savings are realized by a slightly smaller fuel tank, and the elimination of the spare tire. (The tires on the car are run-flats, so technically a spare isn’t necessary.)

It’s all packaged together to create the Eco, which, if you can duplicate the estimated mileage (more on that in a moment) essentially performs like a hybrid when it comes to fuel economy. The starting price is also pretty appealing at $18,425. And no, it’s not stripped down when it comes to amenities, as it has all the things you’d come to expect in a modern car like air conditioning, power windows, and so on.

I really liked driving the conventional Cruze, and the Eco model measures up well too, literally. There is more legroom than I can even use (I’m 6’-6”), and headroom is plentiful too. While most car shoppers would call it compact, its interior volume puts it into the EPA’s mid-size category.

I never had a chance to see if that 42 miles per gallon figure was actually possible, as I didn’t do any long freeway trips. But it is fun trying to “hyper-mile” the car, aided by a small green light in the speedometer face that glows when it’s a good time to shift up to the next gear. In mostly city driving with some short freeway runs, I was able to get well above 30 mpg according to the Cruze Eco’s on-board fuel computer.

But a word about those fuel economy estimates you hear. They’re estimates to be sure. The testing is done under optimal conditions, with no adverse things like traffic to drag down the numbers. The way our freeways move (or don’t in some cases), you’re probably not likely to achieve the figures quoted for this or any other new car.

Nevertheless, the idea of getting over 40 miles per gallon is pretty appealing these days, and more cars will be coming along very soon that also wear that number and can join that exclusive new club. 

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @davekunzcars

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