With fuel prices at uncomfortable highs in many countries, with governments becoming ever more stringent regarding vehicle emissions and with car makers increasing the availability of hybrid powertrains while also racing to develop viable electrics, it is obvious - to quote the old Chinese curse - that we are living in "interesting times".
Fortunately, for those who remain uncertain of the newer automotive technologies, there is no shortage of compact saloons and hatchbacks that are parsimonious at the petrol pumps and emissions-friendly thanks to electronic tweaks to their internal-combustion engines. Among these is the award-winning, European-designed Chevy Cruze; a particular favourite for numerous reasons, most notably that it is a testament to General Motors' ability to build a decent small car when it puts its collective mind and resources to it.
However, GM has gone a step further in the fuel-efficiency department with its newest version of the Cruze - the Eco. What makes this version intriguing is the manner in which GM engineers approached its mission to make the car a superior fuel-sipper - not by going the hybrid route, but by improving the compact saloon's aerodynamic performance, reducing its weight and enhancing the existing petrol-powered turbo four-cylinder.
Individually, these refinements aren't extreme; overall, however, they pay off at the pumps. I averaged a very acceptable 7.2L/100km with the tester in a fairly even mix of city and motorway driving. Just for comparison, my time with Hyundai's new Sonata hybrid yielded an average of 6.9L/100km. Considering the Hyundai has a price point $10,504 (Dh38,581) more than the $19,495 Cruze Eco, that's economy one can take to the bank. As a bonus, and a rarity for turbocharged engines, the Eco sips regular-grade fuel, not premium.
The aerodynamic improvements include the upper grille, which has more "closeouts" to improve airflow, a lower front air dam extension, a rear spoiler, a lowered ride height and underbody panels that smooth airflow beneath the car. There's also a lower front grille air shutter that closes at higher speeds to reduce drag and opens at lower speeds to assist engine-cooling airflow, as well as ultra-low-rolling-resistance 17-inch Goodyear tyres with lightweight wheels (which are also used on the Chevy Volt).
As a result, says GM, aerodynamic drag is reduced by 10 per cent over non-Eco models, with a drag coefficient of 0.298. While that might make for interesting small talk, the happy consequence of such details is a car that slips very quietly through the air. What's noticeable, though, is that bumps, potholes and other tarmac irregularities are more keenly felt in the Eco, most likely due to the stiffer construction of the aforementioned ultra-low-rolling-resistance rubber.
Also noteworthy are the more than 40 changes made to the Eco to remove 97kg of weight in comparison to a regular Cruze LT.
Not that the LT Turbo is heavy, but the Eco (tipping the scales at a svelte 1,365kg) has a decidedly light and lively nature to it that borders on sporty. Keeping in mind that the tyres are not designed for ultimate grip, the saloon holds its corners, with body roll well contained. However, the tester's brakes weren't up to speed, with a somewhat spongy pedal. Once the calipers gripped, though, the Cruze stopped smartly.
Given its frugality, it was a pleasant surprise to discover the turbocharged Ecotec 1.4L also has some grunt. True, its power ratings of 138hp and 200Nm of torque are not the stuff of legend, but that same torque is all there between 1,850rpm and 4,900rpm, which means that it answers the call when passing power is required. The engine does get a little gruff in the upper rev range, but it's not much worse than most small-displacement motors. The optional six-speed "manumatic" transmission smoothes out the power delivery, although it was a little jerky in certain stop-and-go traffic situations as it tried to figure out what gear to be in.
The Cruze's pleasing exterior design cues carry over to the interior, where the twin-cockpit layout is matched with good-quality materials. The grained, soft-touch components and low-gloss trim panels are a cut above that usually found in the compact segment. I particularly liked the instrument panel, with the gauges backlit with LED lights that provided a soothing, icy-blue illumination. Headroom and legroom is plentiful for taller folks in the driver and shotgun seats; rear-seat legroom will suffer for those of similar size in the back.
While hybrid technology is becoming more and more mainstream, it is still only being embraced by a small percentage of the buying public. It's still pricey as well. The Cruze Eco is proof you don't have to turn to hybrids for superior fuel economy. Just a pity there are no plans to sell it in the UAE.
Engine Turbocharged 1.4L DOHC four-cylinder
Gearbox Six-speed manumatic (optional)
Power 138hp @ 4,900rpm
Torque 200Nm @ 1,850rpm
Fuel economy, combined 7.2L/100km