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2011 Chevy Cruze Eco: The best General Motors economy car ever

Well made small car tops the competition with 42 highway miles per gallon
by: General Motors Corp. The new Chevy Cruze is winning over the critics and buyers.

Chevy has always had trouble making a good small economy car. From the Vega in the 1970s to last year's Colbalt, they have always compared unfavorably to similar offerings from Japan and German.

But now, just when Chevy needs a small car hit, the all-new Cruze does everything right. Perhaps the biggest news is the mileage. An Eco version equipped with a six-speed manual transmission is EPA rated at 42 mpg on the highway, the best gasoline-powered car in the country.

But the attractions don't stop there. Our test Cruze Eco was well built, surprisingly large on the inside for a compact car, comfortable on long trips, and remarkably stable over bad pavement. Equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, it was EPA rated at 37 mpg on the highway, still among the best for sale today.

And with prices starting at under $17,000, the Cruze is one of the most affordable cars in the country, too. The Eco version, which features host of technological features to boost mileage, starts at around $20,000, which is still a good deal.

Automotive writers and consumers have noticed. All versions of the Cruze are winning rave reviews, with the construction and economy scoring high marks. Not coincidentally, the Cruze outsold every other compact in the country in April except for the traditional segment-leading Honda Civic. And 22 percent of all Cruze sales were Eco versions, a sign of how serious buyers are taking fuel prices these days.

In our eyes, the only disappointment is the exterior styling. Although the Cruze is not a bad looking car, it is positively bland compared to the jazzy Hyundai Elantra, which is characterized by sharp lines and creases. In contrast, the Cruze is not all that different looking from the Colbalt it replaced or the slightly larger Chevy Malibu.

Surprisingly, the fuel-saving ECO version is sportier looking than the base Cruze. To help reduce drag, the ECO version features a lower front air dam and a small spoiler on the trunk. It also comes with lighter but more stylish alloy wheels and lower profile tires. This is a refreshing departure from the past, when economy versions of cars were basically just stripped down models with the smallest, least powerful available engine.

The ECO version also has the smallest available Cruze engine, but, in another pleasant surprise, it is not the least powerful. The base engine is a 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder power plant that produces 136 horsepower. The EPA says it gets up to 36 miles per gallon on the highway. The ECO comes with a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline four that generates two more horsepower and gets up to six more miles per gallon on the highway.

The interior is the same with both versions, and it is another pleasant surprise. For a compact, the Cruze has a lot of head, shoulder and legroom, even in the back. Large windows add to the airy feeling and offer good views of surrounding traffic. The dash and central console design are also attractive, much like those in the Malibu and new extended-range electric Chevy Volt. They all use flowing lines and high quality materials to create a more upscale driving environment than the affordable prices would suggest.

And the upscale feel extends to the drive itself. The ride is smooth and solid feeling, even over rough roads. Although some compact cars offer more power, acceleration is good around town and on the highway. In fact, during the week we had our test Cruze, local police ticketed another Cruze driver for doing 103 miles per hour with two other people on board, which is fast for any car, let alone one geared towards economy.

Head-to-head tests show the Cruze comparing well to other new compacts. It came in second during a recent USA Today showdown between cars that cost less than $20,000 and get at least 35 miles per gallon, just behind the Elantra and ahead of the traditional class leading Honda Civic - a welcome first for General Motors at a critical time in its revivial.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Cruze Eco.

• Manufacturer: Chevrolet.

• Class: Compact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four-passenger, four-door car.

• Engines: 1.8-liter inline 4 cylinder engine (136 horsepower - base engine, not tested; Turbocharged 1.4-liter inline 4 cylinder engine (138 hp - as tested).

• Transmission: Six-speed manual; Six-speed automatic (as tested).

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 26/37 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $17,000 ($20,445 as tested).