Three Ways To Improve the Chevy Cruze Eco

By Bill Moore

Posted: 30 Mar 2010

General Motors is extolling the 40 mpg efficiency of its 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco, saying it offers "hybrid-like fuel efficiency without the price tag," though we're not yet told what the price of the car will be, so it's a bit premature to claim it will be cheaper.

But that question aside, I am delighted that General Motors is introducing this attractive, fuel-efficient model, which uses the same basic platform as that used by the Volt, as well as the same 1.4L Ecotec engine. The Cruze design team obviously spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel in an effort to reduce the car's Cd. The company notes some of the strategies it employed to get it to slip through the air with less power-consuming resistance:

Chevrolet engineers didn't want an exciting design with great fuel economy to be a laggard in performance. They claim the car can hit 0-to-60 in 10 seconds with the six-speed manual transmission and 9 seconds with the 6-speed automatic transmission. There's even a bit of electric car technology in the car in the form of electric power steering.

So, depending on the MSRP of the car, the Cruze could be a nice selling machine for GM. But it also could be better for not a lot more money. Here's how I'd improve the Cruze so that it's not just "the right car at the right time for American consumers," but also the right non-hybrid car for the next decade, when, to quote Toyota's Jim Lentz, gasoline will be prohibitively expensive.

Fuel Economy Gauge: The 2011 Cruze may already have this feature incorporated into its driver display, but if it isn't (and nothing in the official press release suggests that it is), then it should be. Additionally, if it is part of the display, it needs to be prominent, not hidden in the corner or under some other display feature. Show drivers how they can drive more efficiently with both instantaneous fuel economy and trip averages. This costs very little to add to the vehicle and serves as a constant reminder of how to save fuel by driving smarter. And while, they're at it, have OnStar record this information and send weekly updates to the owner by email.

Flex-Fuel Capable: GM's press release boasts that it has built some 2.5 million "Chevrolets that run on E85 biofuel," but apparently not the Cruze. Presumably, the 1.4L Ecotec can run on E10, a blend of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol, which is fairly widely available across America. But making the car capable of using E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, appears to not be an option, just as it isn't on the first generation release of the Volt later this year. I've asked GM for an explanation as to why they backtracked on their promise to make the Volt E85-capable and never received a reply. It's been variously estimated that giving any modern car engine the ability to burn a wide range of fuel blends costs well under $200. While fuel economy may slide down into the lower 30 mpg-range, though it doesn't have to given the right compression ratios, it using E85 does significantly help cut dependence on imported oil. I drove my converted Chevy S10 on E85 through one of the roughest winters of record here on the Great Plains and can testify that even an engine not designed for this fuel blend can use it. So could the Cruze.

Auto Stop-Start: The first two "fixes" are relatively low cost items, probably adding less than $300 to the price of the car and making it dramatically better suited for the post-petroleum world its owners are going to driving in later in this decade. This last fix, giving the engine the ability to automatically stop and start when the car isn't moving, will cost more,; probably in the range of $500-$1000. But previous research has shown that if you're looking for the maximum "bang for the buck" in terms of electrifying the car, this feature is considered the most cost effective. It also can translate into an estimated 10 percent savings on fuel. I am not talking about anything more elaborate than a 42-volt belt-starter-generator or BSG that turns on the engine when the accelerator is depressed and turns it off when the car comes to a stop. This not only saves fuel but also cuts pollution from all those idling engines. Bosch has delivered more than 500,000 such units to BMW and Valeo is contracted to deliver more than a million BSG units to Peugeot, which has used the system on some of its models since 2004. Strategy Analytics Automotive Electronics Service predicts that there will be as many as 20 million vehicles on the road with BSG systems by 2015. I would suggest that the Cruze be included in that list.

I am going to guesstimate that the Cruze Eco with manual transmission will have an MSRP of $17,950, making it competitive with similar cars in its class from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, most of which get around 30-32 mpg on the highway, and more realistically, average around 28 overall. Now let's assume the Cruze Eco averages 34 mpg overall. If we add the above features at a cost of say $900, how long would it take to pay for them compared to the competition if gasoline prices hit $5 a gallon in North America sometime in the mid-2010s?

Driving 100,000 miles at 34 mpg consumes 2,941 gals of fuel, while driving the same distance at 28 mpg burns 3,471 gallons; a difference of 630 gals. Now multiple that by $5 a gallon and you'll quickly discover that the Cruze saved you $3,152, more than enough to pay for my three "fixes." And since the flex-fuel engine can burn higher percentages of ethanol, the difference might be even greater given government subsidies, though I assume such subsidies are likely to sunset eventually.

Of course, the Cruze, unlike the Volt, won't be able to utilize electric power, but it certainly could be a nice bridge technology for cost-conscious and technologically-cautious car buyers. And if they like the Cruze, they'll be thrilled with the Volt.

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