2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco(Photo: Justin Couture)

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Clever tweaks help Cruze battle diesels and hybrids

What is it?
Unless you've got the big bucks to pony up for the whiz-bang Volt, the Cruze Eco is the most fuel-efficient car that Chevrolet makes. Despite not being the smallest vehicle in its product portfolio, it manages to hit the magical 42 mpg mark (5.6 L/100 km), which bests most hybrids in terms of highway mileage.

What's new?
Unlike Chevy's last compact fuel-sipper, the Cobalt XFE, the Cruze Eco is not a base-level stripper. For starters, it features the up-level 1.4-litre turbocharged engine, and not the less expensive 1.8-litre naturally aspirated unit. You also get all the standard goodies — power windows, ABS with stability control, air conditioning, and spangled, chrome-plated 17-inch forged aluminum wheels. Yes, forged. Beyond that, there are loads of cleverly engineered tidbits like flaps in the lower valance that shut to improve fuel economy, a different grille and a smooth underbody to boost its wind slipperiness.

It is worth noting that not all Cruze Ecos are created equal. Cars with manual transmissions have additional changes, many of which were done to reduce weight. GM removed a pair of suspension links, and even went to such extremes as the removal of the rear armrest. Strange, but true.

What's it like to drive?
The Cruze is a great small car — we've constantly been impressed by its refinement and solidity, even if it isn't the most exciting compact on the market. The Eco model doesn't stray far from the mark dynamically despite its diet and suspension alterations.

Chevy's decision to use a small turbo engine in the Cruze is smart, allowing the car to deliver the punch of a bigger engine without the associated fuel bill. And while tuning this engine for maximal efficiency worked well on paper (and in government fuel-economy testing), in practice, it felt off its game.

If you heed the upshift light, now programmed to prod you to up shift just after the turbo spools up, you'll find yourself off the power band. Combine that with an aggressive fuel cut-off to minimize consumption as soon as you let off the gas pedal, and you end up with a rather choppy urban driving experience. On the plus side, the Eco model's tweaks benefit highway driving; the overdrive sixth gear reduces engine revs, making it a serene cruising experience.

Should you buy one?
Yes, especially if you do a lot of highway driving. The Cruze Eco proves you can get great fuel economy without feeling like you've been subjected to the penalty box, all while being thousands less than rivals' diesels or hybrids. Speaking of price, it starts at a thoroughly reasonable $19,495.

If there's anything to suggest to GM, it'd be to fine-tune the power delivery to smoothen out city driving, and to add heated seats to the options list.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco
Base price / As-tested: $19,495 / $20,320
Type of vehicle: FWD, compact sedan
Engine: 1.4 L, 16-valve, DOHC I-4 turbocharged
Power/Torque: 138 hp / 147 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual (six-speed automatic optional)
Fuel consumption (city/hwy/as-tested): 7.2 / 4.6 / 5.9 L/100 km
Competition: Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta TDI

QUICK SPIN SUMMARY

PROS
Excellent highway fuel economy
Solid interior and driving dynamics
Affordable

CONS
Surging powertrain
Notchy six-speed manual
Heated seats not available