New Car Review: 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO

Front 3/4 view of blue 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO.

Comes now our third test of a Chevrolet Cruze in the past five months. Each one has been a different flavor. We started out with the loaded Chevrolet Cruze LTZ. Loved it, but for $24,000 and change as tested, we'd better have.

Then just about two months ago, it was almost the opposite end of the spectrum...the Chevrolet Cruze 1LT (one level up from the base Cruze).  Also a thumbs-up, and at a more reasonable $18,995.

Now it's the Chevrolet Cruze ECO. What makes an ECO an ECO? Well, mostly it's the 1.4 liter ECOTEC engine mated to a six-speed manual transmission with ECO overdrive. But to tell it apart from the other Cruzes in traffic, you'll probably have to look at the trunklid.

The discreet "ECO" badge on trunklid of blue 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO
The lone giveaway...the discreet "eco" badge on the trunklid of the 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO.

If the ECO otherwise looks like a well-equipped Cruze, that's because it is. The base price of $19,245 brings with it the expected practicalities (stability control, ABS, multiple airbags) and some uplevel niceties that the ECO name doesn't imply (security system, keyless entry, OnStar, tire pressure monitor, deluxe cloth seat trim, USB, Bluetooth, XM, a tilting, telescoping, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17 inch alloy wheels and an Aero Performance Package...lower front grille air shutter, mid-body aero panels and front fascia air dam).

Now, that Aero package, while making the Cruze ECO look sporty, is actually there in service of the ECO's primary mission...fuel economy. Through aids like that, the substitution of a tire sealant and inflator kit for a spare tire, a smaller gas tank (12.6 gallons instead of the 15.6 gallons in other Cruze models), economy-minded gearing and the marvels of computers working to squeeze every mile out of every drop of fuel, the ECO takes the same 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged four cylinder and gets an EPA estimated 28 city/42 highway miles per gallon. It's 24/36 in the 1LT and LTZ.

Two-tone interior of 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO
The 2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO interior.

Of course, as the EPA says "your mileage may vary", and as my Dad used to say "it's all about the nut holding the wheel". Our friend and colleague Nina Russin at Carspondent got 44.8 miles per gallon driving it like she stole it. A week later, it was in my hands and in 300 miles (about 20% urban freeway and the rest city streets), I only managed 29.2.

Still, that's in the ballpark for the EPA city estimate, and not a lot of cars get there. In fact, most don't. And overall, the ECO is our favorite Cruze. It looks good, is well equipped, has a nice interior and one of the best manual shifters we've found in a domestic car (not Honda-level, but close).  Ours had one option, the Driver Convenience Package, which gives the driver a six-way power-adjustable seat and rear parking assist for $495. So with a $750 destination charge, the bottom line was $20,490.  That's a sweet spot for a car in this class and with this level of equipment.

2012 Chevrolet Cruze ECO

Base price: $19,245

As tested: $20,490

Likes: Styling, comfort, economy, slick manual shifter.

Dislikes: USB not fully compatible with iPhone.

EPA estimate: 28 mpg city/42 mpg highway.